Neighbors are pleased by Key International pull-out, but what about the owners?

The Miami Beach investor behind the Embassy Suites at St Augustine Beach failed to convince the North Coastal Design Review Board that their plans to develop a 194-room Vilano Beach Hotel, on the site of the iconic Magic Beach Motel, was the highest and best use of the land.

When the investor, Key International, hired Jacksonville’s “blue chip” real estate development law firm, Rogers-Towers, and their local partner, Ellen Avery-Smith, they intended to win an appeal to the Board of County Commissioners that would allow the construction of their high-end hotel in the mile-long shadow of the Vilano Beach Town Center.

Neighbors and cultural special interests, however, were mortified at the thought of no longer being able to drive by the significantly dilapidated, brightly neon-lit art deco remains of an early 1950’s oceanside motel.  Vilano Beach residents and other voices around the county opposed the project, citing concerns about overdevelopment in the area.

According to the group’s website, residents formed the North Beach Community Alliance.  Among other things, participants gathered signatures for a petition to pause developments “within the Vilano Main Street zone”.

Members are calling for what they see as a much-needed assessment of the infrastructure to determine if the community can support and sustain the extensive current and proposed projects.  The County, of course, has no overarching plan to curtail commercial development that brings with it the promise of capital investment, better-paying jobs, as well as the opportunity to help recover from a global pandemic.

So, this apparent “win” for those interested in the Vilano Beach Town Center, supporters of North Beach Community Alliance, and historic preservationists from the academic community at Flagler College, like “visiting scholar” Dr Leslee Keys, is a very real loss, both financially and as a matter of the health, for the principals in EJRFA LLC, who owns the property at 50 Vilano Road.

In August, Remy Jensen told First Coast News in Jacksonville, “We’re older now. It’s kind of hard to keep up with it.”  Having accepted the terms of the contract from Key International, the family told reporters they were happy to be selling, retiring, and caring for health issues.

The decision by Key International to pull the plug on their purchase offer comes less than a month after they appealed the denial of their design application, only to have that denial upheld in a 4-0 vote by the St Johns County Commission.  The developer informed the Jensens that they are no longer going to buy.

Described in the media as “the mom-and-pop owners” of the vintage motel, 74-year-old Earl Howard Jensen and his 75-year-old wife, Remedios Roxas Jensen, have been struggling for some time under the weight of high maintenance costs, beach erosion, and lost business.

This week, Earl and Remy Jensen are being reawakened from retirement, aided by their daughter Feliza Jensen, scrambling to re-open the Magic Beach Motel after the sale fell through.  They told Historic City News that they were shocked and disappointed, but they must move fast.

Jensen said the short notice left him and his wife with the task of getting the small motel open for guests again. Earl could be seen Monday readying their vintage motel.  He was making repairs and putting up holiday decorations. Maids cleaned the rooms.  For now, the Jensens need guests for a vintage motel they did not expect to be running again.

Last week, Sally O’Hara, who has lived in St Johns County for decades and is a leader of the Florida Downtown Association, joined with Dr Keys providing enough evidence to convince a county board to designate the iconic motel, with its quaint and quirky atmosphere, pastel-color scheme and walls adorned with pink flamingos, as “culturally significant” to the small beach community. 

“We don’t want Vilano Main Street becoming Anywhere, USA,” O’Hara said.

“Now, there will have to be reviews gone through,” Dr Keys said, explaining that the designation means it will be tougher to demolish.

This situation with the Magic Beach Motel has prompted some nearby residents to look at other spots in Vilano Beach and ask if these places should also be deemed “historic” or “culturally significant”.

“We have a number of historic properties that need protecting,” O’Hara added.  One example cited is the former Barrancotto’s Roma Restaurant.

Carol Anderson, a member of the North Beach Community Alliance, said there is a large group of people interested in keeping the “small beach community vibe” in Vilano Beach.

It was not a surprise to learn that many in the community were relieved when they learned that the sale fell through, but they also want to help the Magic Beach Motel owners.  As for the Jensens, they still would like to sell. O’Hara said the community wants to help them, given the unexpected situation the Jensens are in.

“We’ll try in every way to rally the troops to help them figure out, number one, if they want to do something different with the property, how to do it in a historically correct way,” O’Hara said. “And we’ll seek investors and help them sell.”