CLEARWATER — Two months after a ceiling collapsed into an occupied motel room at the BeachWalk Inn, the motel’s owners and city code enforcement officials await the other’s next move.
After discovering code violations surrounding posts holding up the ceiling of a third-floor exterior walkway in January and the room ceiling collapse in another part of the inn on March 7, the Municipal Code Enforcement Board gave the owners of the crumbling BeachWalk Inn a choice: Make its building safe for guests or begin the process of demolishing it.
Hotel manager Eddy May, however, said the owners already have permission from the city since July 2017 — long before the failed building inspections and ceiling collapse — to erect a new motel in its place.
“We made the decision a couple of years ago to build a new motel,” May said. “We decided to go through one more season before starting construction.”
The city code board and the motel’s owners say they are awaiting the other’s next move. While May awaits direction from the city for demolition of the now-closed motel, city officials said threats of fines and liens against the aging property stand.
“The (present) building would still be considered unsafe and the order would still stand until rectified, because vacant does not mean it is not a hazard,” city building inspector Jason Cantrell said. “For example, if the balcony was to collapse, debris could hit someone walking below — not to say it is going to collapse.”
Spotting trouble ahead
Cantrell told code enforcement board members he first learned of the motel’s condition in January when Eric Saccasyn, a Clearwater Fire Rescue Inspector examining a hotel near the BeachWalk Inn, told him he’d spotted posts holding up an upper walkway on the south side of the inn. Motel guests use the walkway, high above the parking lot, to access the doors to their rooms.
Cantrell, a licensed building inspector with years of experience, went to the BeachWalk Inn on Jan. 2 for a closer look. He also saw the posts, which ran upward from the third and fourth floor exterior walkways.
Cantrell deemed that portion of the Beachwalk Inn “a serious hazard to the health, safety and welfare of the public” in his report. He then ordered the two floors closed to guests until motel owners obtained the proper permits and replaced the illegal posts.
May, the motel manager, told the Beacon that the posts were not there to prevent the walkway’s collapse. The posts, which are still there, are holding up plywood sheets to prevent cracked concrete on the ceiling from falling onto guests or onto the parking lot below. The difference is a matter of degree. Over time, salt air and moisture causes iron rods inside concrete slabs to rust and swell, which in turn cracks concrete. Called spalling, pieces of the concrete can flake off and fall to the ground.
May said he wasn’t trying to skirt city construction code.
“We didn’t know that it had to be permitted and all that,” May said. “We knew the guy who did that, he was licensed, but he didn’t pull a permit.”
Instead of spending the money to fix the problem, May said, they decided to just close the two floors permanently.
“It made no sense fixing it if we were going to be knocking it down anyway in a few months,” the manager said.
Portions of inn closed
The owners closed the third and fourth floors in Cantrell’s report, leaving about a dozen rooms in an unaffected area of the motel open and available to guests. Then, on March 7, two months after Cantrell’s inspection, a ceiling — including drywall, fiberglass insulation, and other detritus, collapsed squarely onto the bed and floor of an occupied motel room. A Clearwater Fire Department photograph of the damage shows the bed and night table and other furniture buried in piles of drywall, insulation, and dust.
Clearwater Fire Chief Scott Ehlers said one of his units investigated the collapsed ceiling at the BeachWalk Inn on March 7.
“Our crews looked for obvious reasons, like a water leak from above, but nothing obvious was found (for the collapse),” Ehlers emailed the Beacon. “There was one individual checked out by our crews but refused any treatment. We did not fine or ticket (the motel).”
Cantrell investigated the collapse on March 8 and spoke with May as the two surveyed the damage of the room. At that time, May said, he told Cantrell he would close down the entire motel to guests and not reopen until the new motel was built and ready to open, sometime in the fall.
“Money is not first and foremost on my mind, it’s the safety of my guests,” May said. “We decided, let’s shut down the whole damn building. We comped the couple for their entire four-day stay and paid for them and about a dozen other guests to stay elsewhere.”
City Planning Department records show that Gulfview Lodging Inc., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, had won site work approval for the new hotel from the City Council in July 2017. The plans are for a seven-story, 88-room hotel on the property, which is at 355 South Gulfview Blvd.
Didn’t stop the city’s countdown
May’s decision to close the motel permanently until his company builds a new one didn’t stop the city from giving BeachWalk Inn owners the choice of repairing everything or demolishing the motel.
At its March 27 meeting, Cantrell showed code enforcement board members photographs of the collapsed motel room ceiling and summarized their code violations. The board then ordered the motel to comply with Florida building codes or tear the building down or face $150-a-day fines. The board also threatened liens and foreclosure if the fines didn’t work.
May showed a reporter an architectural rendering of the seven-story, 88-room motel that also will be called the BeachWalk lnn. May hopes demolition and construction will begin in the next couple of months and predicted the new motel will be ready for guests by the end of the year.
The courts — in entirely unrelated matters — have twice upheld the BeachWalk Inn’s permission to build.
In 2018, the owners of Frenchy’s South Beach Cafe next door unsuccessfully sued the city to prevent the motel from extending its footprint to the BeachWalk pavement, May said.
“As soon as the city gives us a demolition permit we will go ahead,” May said. “Because it makes no sense for an empty building just sitting here.”
Meanwhile, BeachWalk Inn owners are under the gun to fix the motel or knock her down, or pay a daily fine. Now that owners have closed the old inn and have permission to build the new motel, the threat of fines and foreclosures remain in place.
May said he’s waiting on city officials to give him guidance on asbestos removal and other details before he applies for a demolition permit. He said a Clearwater land resource specialist — they handle erosion control, tree preservation, and other land protections — inspected the motel property the week of April 15.
Cantrell said BeachWalk Inn owners have not yet applied for the demolition permit.
“The city will not tell them how to proceed with their demo,” Cantrell said. “At least not until they apply for the permit, that is entirely up to them.”