While crowds swarmed St. Augustine Beach for the popular farmers market and Music by the Sea programs Wednesday, visionaries were quietly dusting off their crystal balls.
And through the unpredictable mist of the future imagined, a vision was appearing that included large scale walkovers from one side of Beach Boulevard to the other.
“It is a dream some of us have been talking about for a while,” said Richard Goldman, executive director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Now that the beach appears to be coming out of the economic slump dating to 2008, with two new hotel projects potentially breaking ground later this summer and the emergence of the popular Salt Life Food Shack across Beach Boulevard from the County Pier Park, Mayor Andrea Samuels said visionaries are in no short supply.
“Hey, sometimes dreams come true,” Samuels said Wednesday on her way to help officiate the crowd-swelling Music By The Sea program. “I don’t want to turn my city into a parking lot. We need to encourage other modes of transportation.”
A walkover from the area around Salt Life to the County Pier, Samuels said, might be a step in the right direction.
“I would love to see it,” she said.
The county, who controls 5 acres at the Pier, has already entered into talks with Diego Ardid of Key International, the new hotel owner who hopes to dramatically upgrade the former Beachfront Hotel property on the about 5 acres of prime waterfront property across from the Salt Life Food Shack.
Salt Life owner Jeff Jabott has also met with Ardid about the future possibilities of these beach properties and eliminating parking problems.
“You have to stay current,” Jabott said Wednesday. “We are all about solving problems.”
“I would love to engage in public-private partnerships,” Samuels said. “We almost have a clean slate to work with, but we have to be mindful of what the people and we have to differentiate between need and want.”
Samuels pointed to a private-public partnership in Hollywood Florida which resulted in a beach walkover from a hotel parking lot to the beach. Samuels also referenced a Vision Plan, which the St. Augustine Beach Commissioners authorized in October 2005 but failed to adopt when it was finished in May 2006.
The goal of that voluminous document on display at City Hall, Samuels summarized, was to make St. Augustine Beach, “a walkable city.”
Down the Boulevard, between 5th and 7th Streets a similar visioning scenario is playing out on a smaller but just as dramatic scale. Manoj Bhoola announced plans to break ground on a 206-room Courtyard By Marriot on his vacant lot there last week. Across the street on the east side of Beach Boulevard David Kfoury, who owns that colorful car wash in Davis Shores, bought the property where the Island Grill now sits for about $250,000. Kfoury said he initially hopes to fix up the old restaurant property and lease it. After Kfoury closed on the property in June, he said he immediately called Bhoola to talk about a vision for the future.
“I wanted to know exactly what his plans are,” Kfoury said.
When asked about a potential walkover at that end of St. Augustine Beach both Bhoola and Kfoury said they were interested in the idea.
“I’m open to anything,” Kfoury said.
Meanwhile, on solid ground, away from the crystal ball, Samuels said the city has been busy working slowly to solve parking problems and perhaps taking baby steps in the direction of projects that will bring people to the beach without their cars.
A small public parking lot on 8th Street opened to the public this week and was already at capacity by Wednesday. The city also launched a free trolley from City Hall to the Wednesday event Music By The Sea at the Pier, sponsored by Jabbot and Dave Chatterton from Historic City Tours. Both Samuels and Jabbot talked about bigger trolley systems in places like Jacksonville Beach that encourage residents to leave their cars at home.
“I want to look beyond automobile,” Samuels said. “And I don’t think this should be up to the individual cities, I would like to see the state get involved. Tourism is their biggest business.”
Also this week the Tree Board/Beautification Advisory Committee voted unanimously to consider a bike path from 7th to 8th Street and another on 10th and 11th Streets.
“To me the beach is about being healthy,” committee chairperson Ann Palmquist said at the meeting. “It is about biking and walking and all the other outdoor stuff.”
Magic Beach Motel, built in 1951, was site of TV’s ‘Safe Harbor’
The historic Magic Beach Motel will soon be reunited with its signature sign — a rabbit hopping out of a top hat over a line of stars.
The sign is just one step in an ongoing restoration effort by the owners to bring the 1950s-era motel back to its old form.
“This motel is a visual anchor to remind people of the early days of Vilano Beach.” said Vivian Browning, who has been a leader of the revitalization movement in Vilano Beach.
The Magic Beach Motel, also known as the Vilano Beach Motel, has been a part of Vilano Beach since it was built in 1951. The 1990s WB television series “Safe Harbor,” starring Rue McClanahan known for her role as Blanche in “The Golden Girls,” was filmed at the motel.
The motel is being renovated after becoming run down over the years and after a fire damaged the building in 2010. Owners Earl and Remy Jensen have been working for more than a year to get plans up to code and begin building. About five weeks ago, construction began.
“We’re so busy,” Earl Jensen said. “It’s moving very fast.”
Project Contractor Harry Scherwinski said that air conditioning, plumbing and water service have been completed for most of the building, and most of the interior rooms have been reframed. But there is still a lot of restoration to come — new electrical work, a new deck and parking lot, and of course, the neon sign.
The project is scheduled to be finished in April.
The Magic Beach sign, originally installed during the filming of “Safe Harbor,” should be back up next week, Scherwinski said. Overall the building will be as close to the original 1950s motel as possible — flamingos, bright colors and all.
“It’ll be nice to see this thing refreshed like the days when it was originally built,” Scherwinski said.
The murals that decorate each room are also being preserved and restored, Remy Jensen said. Some rooms have Disney themes, including “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.” Others depict familiar local images, including Flagler College, the Castillo de San Marcos and the Fountain of Youth.
“You can never find anything like that anymore.” Remy Jensen said.
Architect Les Thomas said restoring the motel to Art Deco style should be an attraction.
“There were a few places in Vilano that had it,” Thomas said. “The only style really in deco now is in South Beach, Miami.”
Once completed, the exterior of the building will feature an Art Deco clock on the second story and restored flamingos on the walls, along with red neon lighting and colored stripes in peach, seafoam green and other Art Deco colors, Thomas said.
But the Magic Beach Motel will be more than just a pretty building, Vivian Browning said. Along with the new Publix in the Vilano Beach Town Center, the restoration of the Magic Beach Motel is another step toward the “renaissance” of Vilano Beach.
“That’s kind of a signature of our efforts in the community,” she said. “It’s a new day for us.”