Historic Preservation Board approves Gasparilla Inn Beach Club Phase II plan, Gilchrist Avenue garage

December 13, 2019
By Marcy Shortuse

The Beach Club rehabilitation, a taller garage vs. a small house, and giving contributing status to a home on Whiskey Row were three interesting items the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board had on their agenda for their monthly meeting held on Wednesday, Dec. 11. 
First, though, they introduced new board member Dennis Maloomiam. He takes the place of Susan Hanafee, who left the board months ago.
After that they delved into the approval process for The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club. It is technically for the second half of the project that is planned. The first part was already heard and approved.
The Inn was represented by Mary O’Bannon, the project manager for the rehab and renovation. She brought with her more than a handful of others, all capable of answering any questions the board might have.
Peter Blackwell from Lee County zoning introduced the proposal for what is called the “South Gulf” part of the project, which lies between 4th and 5th Streets. He prefaced his presentation by telling the board that County staff had no objections to the proposal from The Inn, then gave a bare bones description of the current phase of the project. It includes the removal of the Inn Adventures building as it stands on the southern side of the Beach Club parking lot, the demolition of a sidewalk, and redoing the parking lot to make it larger. Renovations are to include reroofing all of the existing buildings that will remain in a similar style to what it is now, and replacing the main pool on the western side of the property.
“The renovations are generally to restore the property; they will be repurposing some buildings,” Blackwell said. “The yoga studio and health and fitness center on the west side of the property will be used for meeting halls in the future. The construction portion of the property will be spread about. They will be expanding the parking lot to where The Inn Adventures building is now, and they will add new fencing around the property to match existing fences. As long as they go with style that exists now, staff is happy with that.”
O’Bannon then spoke to the board. She explained that Phase II focuses on several key features, including more accessible open areas, repurposing fitness and yoga rooms for meeting rooms, improving parking and landscaping, building enhancement and more.
“I think the most important part of this project is that these phase changes all exist within the current footprint of the building. All air-conditioned spaces will remain the same,” she said.
After presenting the board with a video that showed the proposed changes to the property, O’Bannon was joined by Tina Ekblad, a partner and planning director of Morris-Depew Associates, Inc. Ekblad outlined in more detail the components of Phase II of the project, including:
Demolishing the Inn Adventures building, the covered pavilion, the current swimming pool and the bar;
Demolishing the current walkways to replace them with paver walkways;
Reconfiguring and expanding the parking lot;
Rehabilitating some existing fitness facilities into meeting halls;
The addition of three new swimming pools, private beach access locations, an internal sidewalk and lawn;
The addition of fencing, and bringing existing fencing into compliance with the proposed plan;
Associated site improvements and internal building rehabilitation.
Another interesting addition is a proposed portico for the southern entry to the compound, a proposed gazebo for the north entry, new entry stairs and an ADA ramp and three direct beach access points. Two of the access points already exist, and a third would be constructed.
Ekblad explained their thoughts on the matter.
“There is a retaining wall that keeps the existing deck, pool and existing Beach Club structure from the beach, and that’s about a three-foot drop to the beach,” she said. “There is one existing stairwell from the Beach Club to the beach. Another stairwell was there, but it became structurally unsound and was taken down. They will put a stairwell back at that spot, and they are looking for a third stairwell farther north.”
The new plan also includes a chickee hut near the new “circle pool” on the property. 
Board member Becky Paterson questioned the authenticity of the chickee hut when she saw that it was circular.
“Is this an actual, authentic chickee hut, or is it a tiki bar?” she asked. When told it was an actual chickee hut, she was dubious because in her experience authentic chickee huts were rectangular. 
There was virtually no discussion by the board after that point, and a motion was made to approve the Certificate of Appropriateness for The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club Phase II. It was passed unanimously.
The next item presented was a Certificate of Appropriateness for the construction of a new detached garage with a trellis, new backyard fencing and the addition of a trellis to the main house. Blackwell presented the project, and said that while the County had no issue with the trellis at the back of the property or the fencing, they were concerned with the height of the proposed garage. The height would be 17’9”, in comparison to the house, which stands about 10 feet tall. It is an older house, built in 1968, but it is not contributing.
“While the detached garage design fits in with the neighborhood, with a barrel tile roof and complementary window designs, a fountain on the wall, a smaller trellis that mirrors like the proposed one on the main residence and standard garage doors, staff thinks that the height is excessive for the location and for the site,” he said. “The main house is more than seven feet below the proposed height of the garage. Staff finds there is no real need for it to be so tall.”
Blackwell did say that while the building is separate from the residence, they thought it would increase the “tower effect” of that structure. They have no issues with the design, just the height. 
“We would like to see a four-foot reduction,” he said. “Above the second floor is a blank stucco wall area that could be reduced.”
Paterson said she understood the homeowner’s dilemma and why the extra space was needed above the garage, as there is virtually no storage in the old single-story homes with low ceilings that used to be built on the island. Board member Dana Robinette countered Paterson, and said the owners could get a storage unit somewhere instead of using the top part of the building for storage. 
Caldwell argued that the taller structure wouldn’t be seen well from the street, and said the angle of vision would put the structure just out of sight.
“If Lee County thinks it’s a problem, it’s a problem,” Robinette retorted.
Paterson asked Blackwell if the problem the County had was because of the visual effect, and he said it was.
“In another context it would be all right,” he admitted.
When it was pointed out that there was a tall church on each side of the street and block where the home is located, Blackwell argued there was still a size compatibility problem.
Board President Guerrino Savio said because the proposed garage wouldn’t be attached to the house, the relationship between the little building (small in term of surface area) wouldn’t be so obvious.
“Relating to the house, if this was on the front of the property, on Gilchrist, I would concur with them (the County),” he said, “but being in the alley, I really don’t have any problem with the building. It looks nice and uses traditional materials. It would improve the look of the back alley.”
The homeowner, Elizabeth Khazzam, then spoke to the board and said 30 years ago her parents bought a home on the island. After she was married and had children she came here, and in 2016 she purchased the little home on Gilchrist Avenue.
“We worked hard to restore and rehab this property, and we are very cognizant of its historic charm,” she said. “I didn’t want to do much to it to alter the original look, even though it is a noncontributing property.” She then referred questions to her architect, Clifford Scholz, and her advisor, Gloria Sajgo.
Scholz said the current carport – which is more of a lean-to than a garage – currently drains water onto the church property to the north of the home. He also addressed the storage situation in the home, which is nonexistent, and brought out a drawing from a Palm Avenue home that was approved by the board months ago.
Sajgo then spoke on behalf of the homeowner and made it stringently clear that there was no attempt being made by the homeowner to turn the space above the garage into an apartment, if that was what the County was worried about. She also brought up the fact that in June of this year the aforementioned Palm Avenue property had been passed by the board without argument, and there had been no mention at that time of precluding the possibility of the space being converted into an apartment.
“The applicant needs parking; they are not asking for a two-car garage,” Sajgo said. “They just need a single-car garage with a grassy pad next to it for a second car. We were very surprised that staff recommended that the height be reduced. Six months ago you heard the Palm Avenue project, for which staff recommended approval. Both of these houses are similar in height, both lots are similar. The homeowner has gone to great lengths to maintain the original structure of this funky little house, when she could have just had it torn down.”
Board member Bill Caldwell said he thought the project was fine as proposed, particularly since the architect explained that they had put a drone up to the height that the pinnacle of the roof would be located, and they couldn’t see it from the road. Board member Jerry Edgerton agreed with him, and complimented the homeowner for having “the nicest fence on the alley.”
Edgerton made a motion to approve the project as it was presented by the applicant. Caldwell seconded the motion, and it was passed unanimously.
The last item on the agenda was the proposed request to file a historic designation of the Mazza house, located at 235 Whiskey Row. At meetings in the past this home has been on the agenda, but there have been setbacks with construction.
Blackwell explained that back in March of this year the property owner came to the board for outdoor additions and the addition of a second floor to the home, and they were approved. At that time they also mentioned how puzzling it was that the home wasn’t a contributing structure in the Historic District, and that one day they would begin the process to make it so. However, part of the process of historic designation is that the home not be altered while the ruling was being determined, and that construction must halt if, in fact, it was going on. When the homeowner and contractor realized that, they decided to wait on the contributing designation.
Blackwell said in the interim, permits for previous work were in place, but the builder tried to get other work done under the original permit. Because of that, everything was on hold until it was all cleared up. 
“They are having a problem with the new square footage exceeding 50 percent of the current size of the house, so now they are trying to get historic designation because unless it is under contributing status they will have to greatly change their plans,” Blackwell said. “Their request to file a historic designation has to be an advertised item on the agenda, which is why it is there.” Blackwell said all the board had to do was officially ask staff to begin the procedure to make the home a contributing structure. That was unanimously approved.
As a side note, Paterson said the “downtown code enforcement crisis” was still being worked on. She was referring to the spate of complaints made to Lee County Code Enforcement over the summer regarding benches in front of stores, as well as planters, and other items. She said they have been communicating with the County, that County commissioners were on board with their ideas, and that there might be some sort of resolution sooner rather than later.
The next meeting of the board will be on January 8, 2020.