Laura Layden, Naples Daily NewsPublished 4:47 p.m. ET Sept. 12, 2019 | Updated 2:02 p.m. ET Sept. 13, 2019
On his daily walk with his dog in Crayton Cove, Ralph Pollio got a welcome surprise.
He arrived just in time to watch the start of demolition of a condemned building next to the Cove Inn on Thursday.
Pollio, 84, watched a crane strike at the five-story building for at least a half hour, relieved to finally see the south building of the troubled Bay Club project coming down.
"It's an eyesore," he said. "Every time I walked by I kept saying today is going to be the day, today is going to be the day they knock it down. It just went on — and on."
An excavator knocks down a portion of the Bay Club building at Crayton Cove on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Naples. (Photo: Jon Austria/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK- FLORIDA)
Neighbors had a nickname for the unsightly building that sat idle for nearly a year with rubble all around it — Fallujah — referring to a war-torn city in Iraq.
Demolition, which is being handled by B J Excavating in Naples, will take a few days.
The start of demolition drew interest from some of the building's closest neighbors, a few tourists and city leaders. They watched as the bucket on the crane knocked down concrete, steel, plywood and railings, little by little, with sprinklers running in the background to cut down on the dust from the falling pieces.
One observer likened the scene to a "house of cards" that would eventually implode.
At times, the blows from the bucket practically drowned out the noise from the planes flying overhead and the beeping of garbage trucks nearby. It was that loud in the early morning, but onlookers didn't seem to mind.
Demolition a challenge
Naples Mayor Bill Barnett said he wished the demolition had happened much sooner, but legal disputes involving the project and its developer made that impossible. He came in part to see the crane in action and to feel the rumble under his feet.
"I guess we're all like kids in a way," he said.
The building — at 801 12th Ave. S. — has sat untouched since late October, when the city halted work in the middle of a renovation after determining there had been improper demolition. Since then the developer, Harry Zea, hasn't been able to touch the building.
Zea disputes that he took his renovation too far.
"The city approved the renovation to the building and the amount of demolition," he said in a text message. "How it was to be done is in the plan."
He points out the building was ugly and mostly abandoned when he bought it and he could have just painted it and left it standing as is, exceeding the city's height limit because it was built before the city adopted stricter rules, making it "grandfathered in."
Legal and financial troubles have put the management of the luxury condo-retail project in the hands of a receiver, who arranged the demolition after City Council unanimously agreed to the two conditions Zea sought before the tear-down started.
The conditions? The demolition won't take away the developer's rights to build above the city's height limit or wipe out the parking exceptions the city granted for the project.
Demolition work of the Bay Club building at Crayton Cove began, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Naples. (Photo: Jon Austria/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK- FLORIDA)
Most importantly, City Council has agreed to base a future decision about building height on alterations made before the city's building official issued a stop-work order, not on total demolition.
In May, the city's code enforcement board imposed a lien of $35,000 on the property for unpaid fines. Fines started accruing in January after the advisory board found the shell of a building in violation of city codes. Since then, fines have ballooned.
The city recently deemed the building dangerous and unsafe, calling for "immediate demolition and/or demolition and internal bracing," concerned about the dangers it posed should another hurricane hit Naples.
The project approved by the city included 10 residential condos in two buildings on a little more than 5 acres.
Threat of lawsuit
By leaving parts of the existing building up, Zea planned to exceed the city's height limit, and that's what he counted on to make the project financially viable, he said.
Asked if he felt defeated by the city, Zea said in a text message, "Not at all."
With the demolition of the south building, the project could lose $15 million to $20 million in value in the top floors where penthouse condos were planned if the project is held to the city's 42-foot height limit, Zea said.
He said that "taking" could lead to a claim under the Bert J. Harris Jr. Property Rights Protection Act.
Crew members work to demolish the Bay Club building at Crayton Cove on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Naples. (Photo: Jon Austria/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK- FLORIDA)
Zea said the city has denied his "basic right to conduct business freely."
"We live in America where the justice system is set up so the government can't take away your rights, and I believe in this country," he said.
Vacationers Lynn and Sid Bethell, from Sheffield, England, were among a handful of onlookers who gathered to watch the demolition shortly after it started at 8 a.m.
The couple walked to the site after hearing the screeches and bangs of the crane from their room at the Cove Inn.
Sid, 67, worked in the construction industry, so he took a particular interest in the handling of the project.
Frequent visitors, the couple agreed that capping building height is important for a community like Naples, known for its beauty and charm.
"You don't want high-rises," he said.
Contractors 'really good'
The troubled Bay Club building is coming down in Crayton Cove. Video taken Thursday, September 12, 2019. Laura Layden, email@example.com; 239-263-4818
Naples City Councilman Reg Buxton drove to the construction site to see the work so he could confirm it had started if asked about it by the residents he represents. They have spoken to him constantly about the unsightly building, he said.
He also wanted to make sure the contractor took the necessary steps to keep the dust to a minimum — and he found that it had, with sprinklers running around the job site.
"These guys are good. Really good," Buxton said, as he watched them in action.
He's glad he'll no longer have to ask the mayor and other city officials when the building is coming down, he said.
"It's a happy, happy, happy day," Buxton said.
He noted it has been a long process to get to the point of demolition. He said the city had a contingency plan that would have allowed it to take the building down sooner if a serious hurricane threatened Naples.
City attorney Jim Fox, who joined other city leaders at the site, said he knows the surrounding business owners will be happy about the demolition, too, especially the Cove Inn and The Dock restaurant steps away.
While there are many groups fighting over the project, Fox said they're only looking out for themselves.
He said "only the city" is concerned about protecting surrounding residents and businesses from harm.