With two permits issued Feb. 2, ownership of the closed and crumbling 59-year-old Bethelite property, originally the Thunderbird Motor Hotel and Dinner Theatre, can demolish the property along the Arlington Expressway.
KLT Construction Inc. of Jacksonville Beach is the contractor for the demolition at 5865 Arlington Expressway.
The two permits comprise:
• $450,000 to demolish the two-story hotel. It is 41,248 square feet enclosed and 3,875 square feet unenclosed. The slab will remain.
• $100,000 to demolish Buildings 1-10. Those two-story buildings total 93,914 square feet of space.
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.
As of May 2022, the owner, Yuval “Giovanni” Fishman, was 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.
He said then he expects the need for a land-use amendment and rezoning.
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”
The property has been unused for more than a decade.
“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 in May.
She has long advocated for redevelopment of the site.
“It has been an eyesore for the community for so many years,” she said.
“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.”
A Florida Department of Environmental Protection notice with the permit applications show asbestos removal followed by demolition.
Fishman, who owns the property through “Happy New Good Year 770 LLC; 770 Inn and Suites,” signed an authorization Feb. 2, 2022, for a contractor to demolish the property.
His listed telephone number is that of Miami Gardens Inn & Suites in Miami.
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 permits, including another to disconnect sewer and water, show the Municipal Code Compliance Division code is “unsafe/condemn.”
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.
The city Municipal Code Compliance Division ordered the condemnation of the property, which was built in 1964.
Ownership worked on settlement agreements with the city that gave it a year to demolish or rehab the structures.
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.
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 Abandonedfl.com 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.”