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Proposal seeks to revive historic Rehoboth boardwalk hotel

Katie Tabeling

A rendering of the proposed Belhaven Hotel, a four-story hotel with commercial space on the ground floor and an underground parking structure | DBT PHOTO COURTESY FILLAT + ARCHITECTURE

REHOBOTH BEACH — Almost 60 years after it was swept away in a storm, the Papajohn family has grand ambitions to revive the historic Belhaven Hotel at the focal point of Rehoboth Beach’s boardwalk.

Preliminary plans filed by Fillat + Architecture show a four-story structure with a hotel, commercial space, retail stores, and a 124-lot underground parking garage at 2 Rehoboth Ave., where the city’s main avenue meets the boardwalk. The design features 110 hotel rooms with a conference center and pool on the second floor. The ground floor would feature commercial space, ideally an artisan restaurant and other tenants that already lease space out of the building.

Driving this concept is the Papajohn family’s desire to celebrate Rehoboth’s past with a touch of high-class flair, according to Alex Papajohn, who proposed the project with his father, John Papajohn.

“This would be a more modern version of the hotel that my grandfather bought after staying there in the 1930s, but with more modern amenities,” Alex Papajohn told the Delaware Business Times. “No question, there are nice hotels along Route 1 these days, but we want the Belhaven to be an elevated experience, being up there with other four-star establishments, and it could be right here in Rehoboth Beach.”

In some ways, the Belhaven Hotel project symbolizes the ultimate American dream: an immigrant entrepreneur leaving behind a successful business to have the next generation carry it on in the modern age. Greek immigrant Nick Papajohn stayed at the hotel in 1937, and when he heard it was in bankruptcy, he bought it with his two brother-in-laws.

A decade later, the property was split into its L-shaped layout. The hotel was destroyed in the historic storm of 1962, along with much of Rehoboth Beach and its boardwalk. Today, the property makes up an iconic corner of the resort, with tourist-favorite tenants like The Ice Cream Store and Candy Kitchen.

“We hope this project can be a catalyst for other reinvestment in the city,” Alex Papajohn said. “Other business owners and tourists could see a massive separation in style in the downtown area, and it could motivate others to make some changes and make a little more reinvestment in downtown Rehoboth.”

But right now, the Belhaven Hotel revival is still a vision rather than a reality. The proposal is actually the third iteration of the hotel in the span of a year, and it still is in the city’s workshop phase.

Last summer, the Papajohns presented an early draft of the plan with an underground parking garage and a rooftop bar. But that proposal had the hotel at  68 feet, well above the city’s cap of 42 feet for buildings with embellishments, among other violations of the city’s code.

Ultimately the project was put on hold until the Papajohns and Fillat + Architecture could address some of the issues. This June, the proposal came back to city officials, but both the city and the Papajohns were unsatisfied with the hotel’s look.

“We anticipated this could take a while, because it’s such a prime and strategic location in Rehoboth,” Alex Papajohn said. “There’s a lot of stakeholders involved, including the politicians, the citizens and even the city staff that have to work with the code. This is something we want everyone to be proud and happy as they can be.”

At the moment, the Papajohns are waiting on an amendment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s floodplain maps since part of the project falls in the VE (storm velocity) zone. FEMA does not allow dwelling units above underground parking in a VE zone.

While keeping the underground parking garage would be the optimal design, Alex Papajohn said removing it would not be “a deal killer.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic about this project. We have hurdles to get over, but we’re excited and hopeful about the future and what this could bring for Rehoboth,” he said.

By Katie Tabeling


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