DAYTONA BEACH — A bone-rattling pile driver shakes the firmament for hours at a time beneath mammoth arms of towering cranes that intersect overhead, adding girth and height to what is destined to become a record-setting skyscraper on the evolving skyline of the World’s Most Famous Beach.
It’s no day at the beach lately in the courtyard at the Sea Dunes, a two-story, 10-unit, aqua-colored motel that stands, a defiant symbol of old-school lodging, at the foot of one of the area’s most ambitious beachside redevelopment projects.
Chomping on a fat cigar on a sunny afternoon during Bike Week 2018, one of the hotel’s loyal returning guests, Gary Christopher, 72, reports that he still wouldn’t stay anywhere else, despite the noise and dirt generated by the construction site all around him.
“I’d rather it (the construction) wasn’t there, but you can’t fight progress,” said Christopher, who traveled with half a dozen friends from Omaha, Neb., motorcycles and supplies packed into the aisles of a retired commercial bus. Christopher has been staying at the Sea Dunes every year for Bike Week since 1999, he said, adding that several friends have been booking stays at the hotel for longer than that.
“Everybody who sees this says this is the best spot on the whole strip,” Christopher said, gazing out at the pedestrians and traffic at the intersection of Oakridge Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. “You get to mingle with everybody coming by. Sooner or later, everybody drives by here.”
Other mom-and-pop hotels that had existed on the 4.5-acre project site — the Shamrock Motel, the Sandpiper Inn, the Esquire Beach Motel — were bought and leveled to make room for the nearly $192 million Daytona Beach Convention Hotel & Condominiums complex. The project is being developed by Protogroup, a Palm Coast-based family-run company whose Russian owners include Alexey Lysich, the company’s vice president.
The project’s signature design element will be the presence of two towers, one rising 380 feet, the other rising 320 feet. The taller tower will be significantly higher than the 342-foot-tall Peck Plaza in Daytona Beach Shores, currently the area’s tallest building. Together, the towers will offer 501 hotel rooms, plus additional condominiums.
In terms of cost, the $192 million Protogroup project dwarfs the total cost of the Volusia County-run Ocean Center convention complex, which cost $76 million to build in 1985 and was the subject of an $82 million expansion in 2009 that put the total cost at $158 million.
'A lot of dedication'
By comparison, a look through the windows of the Sea Dunes’ locked front door reveals two narrow, utilitarian staircases and narrow halls leading to downstairs units. There's no buzzer to rouse anyone inside, no fliers with room rates for the curious. Christopher said he booked his 10-day stay for between $700 and $800.
Reached by phone, Lysich had no comment about how the presence of the tiny Sea Dunes was affecting the construction project or how the old building would fit next to the completed towers, a project expected to be finished in 2020.
“I cannot give you any comment, other than to say that the Sea Dunes is not part of the project,” Lysich said.
Lysich told The News-Journal in 2012 that he had made four or five offers to buy the building from Mike Kundid, a Daytona Beach attorney whose family has owned the small hotel/apartment complex since 1960, but maintained that Kundid never responded.
Kundid's attorney at the time, Jim Morris, said then that Kundid had never received a written, formal offer for the building. Asked if Kundid and his sister Paulita, who lived in the building as children, would consider selling, Morris said they would "evaluate an offer" if it were viable.
Morris is now the deputy city manager in Daytona Beach.
Although initially willing to be interviewed for this story, Kundid ultimately offered only brief comment.
“A lot of dedication, a lot of hard work has gone into the hotel, that’s main thing,” Kundid said. “With the changes around us, our building has remained a constant. This is our baby.”
In the 1960s, Kundid’s childhood unfolded with the beach as a playground behind the Sea Dunes, a motel his family has owned since 1960.
"I have wonderful memories," he told The News-Journal in 2005. "The city of Daytona Beach had swing sets on the beach. My sister and I played and went down to the Boardwalk."
When their parents died in the 1980s, he and his sister, Paulita, took over the Sea Dunes Motel in the 400 block of North Atlantic Avenue. Kundid’s wife, Bunny, now also works at the hotel.
Kundid previously has said that he hoped the Sea Dunes could find a way to fit into the major changes arising around it.
"We are in discussions with urban planners and engineers about using our premises and existing structures for a new business to serve the thousands of people who will be staying or living at the new project,” Kundid told The News-Journal in January 2017. “We see it as a great opportunity to grow with our beloved community."
'They are committed'
Across the street at the International House of Pancakes, the little hotel and its owners are regarded as heroes in a story that workers cast in David and Goliath terms.
“I’ve been on beachside for 44 years,” said waitress Teresa Everett, 62. “You see things come and you see things go, so it’s nice to see something that stays. I have some regulars that stay over there for Bike Week or Race Week and have been coming here for years.”
Another restaurant employee, Mike Bailey, 37, takes a break from busing tables to echo that praise.
“I respect them for their decision,” Bailey said. “They just proved that all the money in the world can’t buy nothing. Not labor nor love.”
Gary Koliopulos, owner of the Beach Express souvenir shop on South Atlantic Avenue, said he is pleased that the free market prevailed without the process of eminent domain or government intervention.
“Rightfully, he owns the property; he can do with it what he likes," Koliopulos said. “It’s going to look a little bizarre, actually, but that’s the way it goes. That (Sea Dunes) hotel is not going to stay there forever and I think it’s going to become that much more valuable a piece of property when the Protogroup project is finished. If I owned the property, eventually, I would think that a franchise restaurant would want to come to that location.”
The decision to stay was regarded more cautiously by Kevin Gelnaw, co-owner of the Starlite Diner, the silver-paneled eatery that’s also a fixture on Atlantic Avenue.
“It limits the beauty of the building,” Gelnaw said. “As far as the closeness to the new project and the apartment building, it’s right up against it. There is virtually no possibility of them (Sea Dunes guests) having any sort of ocean view. I have all the respect in the world for mom-and-pops, like us, but this sounds like a bad business decision.”
Whatever happens to the view, it won’t deter at least one of the Sea Dunes’ regulars from returning next year.
“We were just scared that this place was going to go away,” said Christopher, one of the annual Bike Week guests. “But they are committed; they’re staying. Thank goodness.”