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Business Brief: Developer Wants To Transform Former Thunderbird Complex In Arlington

That run-down Bethelite property along the Arlington Expressway hasn’t been much to look at.

But where passers-by have been seeing weeds, graffiti, broken glass, empty buildings, fallen fences and junk, its owner envisions potential.

The South Florida ownership group of the 55-year-old vacant and deteriorating motel and conference center along the Arlington Expressway wants to redevelop the property into apartments, hotels, a restaurant and retail uses.

The 18.7-acre site at 5865 Arlington Expressway was developed in 1964. It long served as the Thunderbird Motor Hotel and Thunderbird Dinner Theatre, catering to the new neighborhoods popular with young executives working Downtown.

Its heyday passed. The property was sold several times and has been unused for more than a decade. 

“As you know, it’s a mess. It’s really, really bad out there,” said District 1 City Council member Joyce Morgan.

Yet Morgan sees potential, too, calling the location the gateway from Downtown to the Beaches as well as the southern ground zero for the Renew Arlington community redevelopment area.

“We want a solid commitment. We want someone who feels the way we do about it and wants to put down something that is substantial,” she said.

At-large Group 2 City Council member John Crescimbeni, who has represented the area for a total of almost 20 years, calls the expressway property “an important piece of Arlington’s past and future.”

“It will take a bold, courageous developer with the financial resources to do something that has happened in other parts of the community,” he said, such as the resurgence of the Brooklyn area near Downtown.

The geography is what attracts the developer.

“It is up-and-coming. We really believe in this location,” developer Shmuel Bonnardel said of the area, which is east of University Boulevard and the Town & Country Shopping Center. 

The site is 3 miles across the Mathews Bridge and St. Johns River from the Downtown Northbank and urban core. And it’s a straight 13-mile shot to the Beaches.

“It will take a bold, courageous developer with the financial resources to do something that has happened in other parts of the community,” says John Crescimbeni.

The property: ‘Lot of code enforcement’

Since it was the Thunderbird, the 11-building, 277-room property also served as a Ramada Inn Conference Center. 

It has been sold several times, including to Bethelite Inc., affiliated with Bethel Baptist Institutional Church. 

The site is referred to as the Bethelite property because the monument sign is still on it. Records show the property is assessed at $1.1 million with the 2019 year in progress. 

The property is in rough shape.

From Aug. 29 through Sept. 12, the city Municipal Code Compliance Division issued 14 notices of violations, including notices of condemnation whose remedy was to demolish unsafe structures.

The unsafe structures violations included fire and windstorm hazards; an accumulation of junk and debris; electrical and plumbing violations; and others.

In general, the condemned structures are “unfit for human habitation,” have “parts in danger of falling” and are “standing vacant, open, and unguarded,” the notices say.

The city says most of the cases are pending, awaiting research or action. Some citations have been issued.

The city abated some of the violations. City records show nuisance liens were filed Dec. 3 and Jan. 15 totaling almost $45,000.

There’s “a lot of code enforcement going on out there,” Morgan said.

South Florida developer Shmuel Bonnardel said his initial redevelopment of the Arlington property would start with a hotel, for example a Best Western or Holiday Inn.

The plans: ‘We’re not rushing’

Since mid-2018, redevelopment plans have been surfacing.

Homestead-based accountant Debora Gilbert-Lytle traded emails in June and July with city Office of Economic Development Redevelopment Manager Karen Nasrallah.

Those emails, copied to Bonnardel, concerned potential redevelopment of the site and included a design and presentation package of “the preliminary future of the property” and a rough draft of the property site plan.

The building layout referred to a Best Western and a Marriott hotel along with a restaurant, bar-lounge and meeting and banquet room; a spa, beauty and fitness building; arcade; car rental agency; tennis courts and miniature golf; swimming pool; and more.

Bonnardel said in an interview that his group envisions starting the redevelopment with the hotel, which is the first phase, and then apartments, another hotel with a conference center and some retail space that would include restaurants. 

“We’re finalizing the details on exactly what that would look like,” he said by email. 

But it will start small.

The group submitted plans to the city in Dec. 31 for the Phase 1 renovation to convert two buildings on the east end of the site into a 68-unit motel and a lobby building. 

His group applied for a permit to renovate the one-story lobby building and a two-story building with 68 rooms comprising what appear to be 16 king rooms and 52 double rooms. It is shown at a $425,000 renovation cost.

Bonnardel described it as a basic hotel “on the simple side.”

Plans show that renovations include new bathrooms, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and renovations to the surrounding areas to include parking, landscaping and lighting.

Bonnardel said his group was meeting with a few companies to determine the hotel brand, including “Holiday Inn and a few other ones.”

When that first phase is completed, his group is considering installing activities such as batting cages, miniature golf, arcades and go-karts.

He expects plans for the entire site to be finalized in the next several months for submission to the city and to determine rezoning requirements.

Bonnardel said the project investment could range from $40 million to more than $100 million, depending on the final plans.

He said when his group learns from the city what it can develop, it will negotiate with lenders.

“We are not rushing. We want to make it work.”

He said he would prefer to renovate the existing buildings rather than demolish and rebuild, but variables like permitting and the “sports resort” will affect that.

Bonnardel said the city’s reaction to the first permit will determine how best to proceed. 

“We are going to do whatever we can to open the existing building and give a really nice feel to the place,” he said.

He said he hired a full-time project manager.

The owner: ‘We are going to make the best of it’

The property is more than twice as old as the 26-year-old Bonnardel, who also goes by Samuel.

While younger than most developers, Bonnardel leads 770 Inn and Suites LLC, which acquired the property in June 2017 for $3 million and has been determining its use. The group is based in Aventura, near Miami, and he is the managing partner.

Bonnardel knows the property has challenges. “We bought it like this. We are going to make the best of it,” he said.

Bonnardel said he is working with code enforcement and that his group has hired a crew to maintain the property.

He said that the only way to resolve some of the violations is to apply for a building permit to bring them into compliance.

Bonnardel said he was in contact with the city about the violations and his team painted over the graffiti, repaired the fence and boarded up windows, although more were subsequently broken.

Electrical and plumbing work will depend on getting permits.

He expects to speak with an attorney about options for the nuisance liens.

Shmuel Bonnardel’s group paid $493,900 for a two-story, almost 29,000-square-foot office building at 6501 Arlington Expressway. He said his group plans to establish a local base there.

He hopes soon to have a full project name and said his group will form an umbrella identity and establish offices in a nearby building it purchased Dec. 4. 

Through 650 NE 122 ST LLC, Bonnardel, as manager, paid $493,900 for a two-story, almost 29,000-square-foot office building at 6501 Arlington Expressway. 

His group owns one of two buildings at that address and he said he will establish a local base there. A “leasing now” banner with his phone number stretches across the side facing the Arlington Expressway.

He also owns other Jacksonville properties.

Bonnardel said his group, whose hotel and development properties are in South Florida, Atlanta, Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut, bought two Jacksonville hotels and has a contract to buy another that he declined to identify.

He said his group restored and stabilized 474 units in Michigan and sold off 169 units, now operating 305 units. It built a combined 85 units and did multiple hotel restorations, he said.

Bonnardel said his group bought America’s Best Inn at Interstate 95 and Baymeadows Road and the Diamond Inn on the Westside. 

Records show he bought the America’s Best Inn in August. The Diamond Inn was acquired in 2016 and sold on Jan. 8 for $4.5 million.

Asked Monday if he had access to the financial resources needed to complete the first phase and the entire deal at the Bethelite property, Bonnardel responded, “Yes, of course.”

The city: ‘Be mindful’ of the area

The Bethelite property anchors the southern part of the Renew Arlington boundary. The CRA runs from the Arlington Expressway north past Jacksonville University and east along Merrill Road from JU almost to the Southside Connector.

Bethelite and the adjacent Town & Country Shopping Center are in what the CRA’s zoning overlay calls the “catalyst character area.”

“Anything they can do to improve the appearance of that property would attract other people” to the CRA, said Renew Arlington advisory board Chair Matt Tuohy, director of the JU School of Aviation at the Davis College of Business.

The importance of the site was relayed by Nasrallah in a June 25 email to Gilbert-Lytle.

“Be mindful that your project is within the boundary of an area of redevelopment that (is) under the spotlight by the Mayor, City Council and the President of JU. Along with the residents of Arlington, they are very passionate about the future of Arlington.”

Crescimbeni said Arlington has the three most important assets in real estate – “Location, location, location. It’s a skip to the airport, it’s a skip to the beach and it’s less than a skip Downtown,” he said.

He envisions the Thunderbird and the Town & Country site as potentially similar to the resurgence of the Brooklyn area near Downtown.

Morgan envisions a boutique hotel, restaurants, upscale apartments and a small grocery store to serve the neighborhood.

How that happens remains to be seen.

But Crescimbeni is not supportive of retaining any of the existing buildings on the Arlington Expressway Bethelite property.

“Windows are broken out, doors are off. It is in total disrepair,” he said.

Morgan said Bonnardel met Aug. 8 at JU with Renew Arlington organizers that included her, Nasrallah and university President Tim Cost.

At the time, she said Bonnardel was not sure what he wanted to do with the site.

“We gave him some ideas,” Morgan said. “We really wanted to do some mixed-use development and we were hoping that is what he wanted to do.”

Her concern is that one development – the initial hotel – on land “that really needs to be cleared” will attract vandals.

Bonnardel was invited to address the Renew Arlington advisory board that day but said he had a flight to Atlanta immediately after the meeting at JU.

Crescimbeni said if Bonnardel seeks rezoning or any assistance through Renew Arlington, “the buck stops with the council as the CRA.”

The council sits as the community redevelopment agency, while the advisory board reviews projects and makes recommendations.

Morgan said the CRA’s focus is “the whole picture.”

“That is why we really want to make sure they were developing the kinds of things that would really intensify and spur more development in that area,” she said.

Crescimbeni said while he is optimistic overall about the location and its potential, he’s not as confident in the project’s success given the “piecemeal approach” of starting with one building rather than first creating a comprehensive plan.

“I have concerns about the ability to do the first step not to mention the entire plan,” he said.

Crescimbeni said he wants to meet with Bonnardel.

Morgan said Bonnardel was looking at another partner to bring into the project. She said Renew Arlington representatives spoke with him about the incentives available for “bigger picture” plans.

Bonnardel said Wednesday he “absolutely” is interested in seeing what assistance is available.

Cost said that he met briefly with Bonnardel, “but I’m not aware of his plans or his capability to execute on them.”

At some point, the Renew Arlington advisory board will review the plans.

Morgan said she continues to look at the possibilities for the site.

“Hopefully we will be able to move it in a good direction once he solidifies exactly what he wants to do,” she said.

This story was originally published by the Jacksonville Daily Record on Thursday, Jan. 24.