NY developer files revived plan for Le Meridien hotel near OCCC

New York-based developer and property manager Empire Equities has revived a dormant deal to bring Starwood's Le Meridien flag to Orlando's tourism corridor, filing plans Thursday for a 300-room hotel on a site it bought five months ago.

The company filed its new Development Plan with Orange County for a 13-story hotel with the full-service lifestyle brand Le Meridien. The DP includes 214 surface parking spaces, and amenities limited to an outdoor pool and fire pit. 

Empire had paid $6.4 million in mid-August for the 5-acre site directly south of the Orange County Convention Center. Based on the northwest corner of Westwood Boulevard and West Entrance Drive, it is within walking distance of OCCC's West Concourse and features exposure on the Beachline Expressway. 

The site is also adjacent to property bought in early August by Epelboim Development Group for a new 259-key Tru by Hilton, where construction is expected to start by July, an Epelboim spokeswoman said Thursday.

Another 6.54 acres retained by Skorman Development for future development are directly west of that, as well as a 20-acre site bought in late November 2016 by developer DCS Real Estate Holdings with plans for a convention-level hotel tower.

Officials with Empire Equities did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Empire previously earned DP approval in November 2015 for a 23-story hotel project, planned at the time for a 5.34-acre site on Universal Boulevard that it had under contract from Orlando Equity Partners (OEP), an affiliate of Southwood Development Company in Atlanta. 

GrowthSpotter first reported in March 2016 the developer would bring the Le Meridien flag to Orlando's hotel market with that project, an agreement Starwood confirmed at the time.  

But Empire wasn't able to close on its purchase of the Universal Boulevard site. It later sold to Ripley Entertainment in late December 2016, part of 20.4 acres the "Believe it or Not!" operator purchased and has yet to announce plans for. 

Empire wasn't able to procure financing for the land buy and hotel construction on Universal Boulevard. For its Westwood Boulevard acquisition, the company's affiliate sourced a $5.45 million mortgage directly from the seller to close the deal. 

The developer may have trouble again finding support from debt markets to build its hotel on Westwood Boulevard.

What lenders are seeking more than ever are strong balance sheets and experienced borrowers with a track record of building hotels and being able to survive cycles, said Michael Weinberg, senior managing director with HFF in Orlando.

Empire Equities has not developed a hotel before, the Orlando project would be its first. 

The bar has been raised in recent months by debt markets for hospitality construction, with growing sentiment that the industry is late in a cycle, and hotel construction loans are a bit more risky than other areas of commercial real estate. 

And despite the steady annual growth of tourists for Orlando, new full-service hotels are a rare pursuit today by developers. Outside of the new JW Marriott Bonnet Creek Resort announced in May 2017, the majority of new hotel development outside the theme parks has been limited service properties. 

Harris Civil EngineersCelebration Landscape Design and architect Behar Peteranecz of St. Petersburg have contributed to Empire's Westwood Boulevard plans thus far. 

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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