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Jax Daily Record Friday, May 13, 202205:00 AM EST

Demolition permits sought for old Thunderbird hotel in Arlington

The owner is settling fines with the city, paid taxes and determining potential development of the Arlington Expressway property.

Ownership of the closed 58-year-old Bethelite property, originally the Thunderbird Motor Hotel and Dinner Theatre, applied to the city for two permits to demolish the crumbling hotel and 10 buildings along the Arlington Expressway.

The owner, Yuval “Giovanni” Fishman, is working toward redevelopment of the 18.7-acre site.

Lawyer Steve Diebenow, a land-use and government relations lawyer and partner with the Jacksonville-based Driver, McAfee, Hawthorne & Diebenow firm, said May 12 his firm was hired to resolve code compliance issues and to start the entitlement process for redevelopment.

“In the last few months they have brought all their taxes current, entered into settlement agreements with code compliance issues, paid the fees and entered into settlement agreements on the fines,” Diebenow said.

The former registration area at the Bethelite property on May 13.

He said ownership hired a demolition contractor and is about to start asbestos abatement and then demolish all the structures on the property.

Diebenow expects the need for a land-use amendment and rezoning.

“We just started talking with elected officials and some of the neighborhood organizations, but we haven’t filed any applications,” he said.

Asked what the uses could be, Diebenow that will be “borne out over the next several weeks or months as we figure out the best uses of the property going forward.”

Diebenow said he believes it is Fishman’s intention to redevelop the property himself, but that depends on timing.

“The first part was getting everything taken care of from the past.”

“Eyesore for so many years”

Lockwood Quality Demolition Inc. of Jacksonville is shown as the contractor to take down and remove the debris among the two parcels at 5865 Arlington Expressway.

The property has been unused for more than a decade.

Council member Joyce Morgan.

“It was such a landmark. To see it in this type of disrepair, it’s been disheartening,” said District 1 City Council member Joyce Morgan, who has long advocated for redevelopment of the site.

“It has been an eyesore for the community for so many years,” she said May 12.

The site is north along the Arlington Expressway east of the former Town & Country Shopping Center that is being renovated into the College Park retail and apartment center. It is 4 miles from Downtown over the Mathews Bridge.

Morgan said she expects to meet with the owner and Diebenow.

She anticipates hearing about new development, possibly multifamily.

“We are looking forward to getting the new designs in to see the possibilities, the true possibilities, of what can happen at that site,” Morgan said.

“It has tremendous possibilities or it would never have had the kinds of things it had there if it had not been a great site already.”

The demolition process

The permits show demolition costs total $550,000.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection notice with the permit applications show asbestos removal June 1-20 followed by demolition July 1-Oct. 1.

Fishman, who owns the property through “Happy New Good Year 770 LLC; 770 Inn and Suites,” signed an authorization Feb. 2 for Lockwood to demolish the property.

His listed telephone number is that of Miami Gardens Inn & Suites in Miami. He could not be reached for comment.

Permits show the Arlington Expressway property comprises 93,914 square feet of two-story structures and 41,248 square feet of one-story buildings. The building slabs will remain.

Demolition hours will be 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, and Saturday if necessary. The structures will be demolished using an excavator and material will be hauled away using roll-off trucks for disposal at a licensed recycle or landfill facility, according to permit information.

The property is east of the former Town and Country shopping center, now called College Park. (Google)

The permits, including another to disconnect sewer and water, show the Municipal Code Compliance Division code is “unsafe/condemn.”

“They accrued a lot of fines,” Morgan said. “They are going to be paying some fines before they can do anything. They have fines to pay for code compliance.”

In November 2019, a fire destroyed part of the property, engulfing an empty storage building. 

In March 2020, as the pandemic began, the city said new property ownership led to re-issued condemnation signs on the closed property warning that it faces demolition.

“This structure is unsafe and unfit for human habitation and subject to demolition,” said the “condemned” sign on the fence at the time.

Citations included failure to keep signs or billboards in repair; nuisance vegetation; trash and debris; graffiti; fences in disrepair; broken doors and windows; unsanitary conditions; missing handrails; deteriorated soffit; an abandoned vehicle; and more.

Violations concluded the property is a fire hazard, violates codes, is unfit for human habitation and “structure has parts in danger of falling or being dislodged by the elements.” 

The city Municipal Code Compliance Division ordered the condemnation of the property, which was built in 1964. 

The signs have been removed.

In November 2019, a fire destroyed part of the property, engulfing an empty storage building.

Ownership is working out settlement agreements with the city.

“The owners submitted 13 settlement agreements last week with regards to the property,” said a statement May 12 from the city.

The city said the Office of General Counsel reviewed and approved the agreements this week.

“Once fully executed, these agreements will provide the owners 1 year to demolish or rehab the structures on the property. The owners have stated they intend to demolish the structures on the property once the agreements are executed,” said the statement.

“They advised they have submitted two demolition permit applications for the properties(one for each RE#) to the building department for review. We confirmed today that they have pulled a Utility Disconnect permit.”

That permit was issued May 11.

Property records show 770 Inn and Suites LLC of Miami bought the property in 2017 and quitclaimed the property to Happy New Good Year 770 LLC on Oct. 25, 2019. Happy New Good Year 770’s address in Wilmington, Delaware, is that of CSC North America. CSC is a document recording service.

Duval County Tax Collector records show the property tax bills for 2021 and 2020  among the two parcels were paid in full as of April 13, 2022. The 2019 bills were paid  Jan. 13, 2022.

The faded entrance sign to the Bethelite property on May 13.

The past

The property long served as the Thunderbird Motor Hotel and Thunderbird Dinner Theatre, catering to the then-new Arlington neighborhoods popular with young executives working Downtown. 

The site says the Thunderbird Motor Hotel opened in 1959. It said a major renovation in 1969 “transformed the Thunderbird into an extravagant Polynesian and American Indian-themed hotel that became host to countless stars such as The Rolling Stones, Fats Domino, Ann Sothern, and the Sammy Spear Orchestra of The Jackie Gleason Show.”

It quoted a postcard for the Thunderbird from the early 1970s: “300 Luxurious rooms, Gourmet Dining Room, 2 Lounges with Live Entertainment, Complete Convention Facilities, Only minutes from Downtown and the Gator Bowl. Location is close to everything and offers the ultimate in service.” 

The site said the hotel featured conference space, two swimming pools along with Tiki bars, the Zodiac Room, the Kettle Pub, and the King’s Inn Lounge.

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 property anchors the southern part of the Renew Arlington boundary. The Community Redevelopment Area 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 College Park are in what the CRA’s zoning overlay calls the “catalyst character area.”

“I would like to see something that is really strong for the community, some kind of really nice commercial mixed-use development,” Morgan said, adding that she has had many ideas come her way about the site.

“It would be nice for something that truly complements all that is going in at the former Town and Country, now College Park,” she said.

“That would be the essence of good development.”

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