Property taxes haven’t been paid on the Hotel Putnam in Downtown DeLand for three years. The people who paid the taxes in the owner’s stead had asked that the hotel be auctioned so they could be repaid, with interest.
To understand this, you need to understand the Putnam’s owner, Mohamed Rashad.
Rashad, 42, knew the property taxes hadn’t been paid. Reminded by a newspaper reporter and alerted about the possibility of an auction, he vowed to fix that.
“I have the money. I can go pay it tomorrow,” Rashad said June 25.
And, on the next business day, he did, dropping a check at the tax collector’s office for $37,698.57. There will be no auction.
Rashad has been distracted. He’s lived in a gated community in the Orlando area for six months, he said, and still hasn’t taken time to get the card that opens the gates, waiting for the security officer instead.
Rashad’s mother died in 2020, and that was hard. He owns 13 other properties, in addition to the Putnam — including five in DeLand — and some of them are also undergoing renovation.
Rashad has a lot going on, and his yearslong battle with the City of DeLand over the Putnam has taken its toll. Paying his property taxes was not top of mind.
Here’s the story.
At press time, some light was breaking through in the long tunnel that leads to reopening the Hotel Putnam as a long-hoped-for feather in DeLand’s historic-preservation cap.
Rashad and his architect appeared to be making some headway with city officials, and a specialized engineer has been brought on board to help design some aspects of the makeover.
But on June 9, Rashad, dressed casually as usual, was in a dark mood.
His blue basketball shorts and black T-shirt contrasted with cream-colored paint on the Hotel Putnam behind him.
Rashad had taken refuge in the afternoon shade on the east side of the once-grand hotel, to speak with his architect and a visitor. His 15-year-old Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, Toby, relaxed in the architect’s SUV.
Behind Rashad, a row of broken windows were covered in plywood.
These aren’t the hotel’s 100-year-old windows, broken by the ravages of time. These are brand-new windows, brazenly busted out by vandals.
The perimeter fencing and nighttime security the City of DeLand required of Rashad haven’t prevented the continual vandalism. Neither, Rashad said, have the DeLand police.
A week after the June 9 interview, seven more windows had been busted.
The new windows — more than 400 of them throughout the building — are part of the tally of nearly $1 million Rashad has invested in the Hotel Putnam since purchasing it for $1 million in 2018.
In the new windows, DeLand City Hall is reflected across busy New York Avenue. In City Hall’s windows, the Hotel Putnam’s reflection can be seen.
Less than 200 feet separate the buildings. In their approach to renovation of the Putnam, however, the occupants are often miles apart.
On June 9, Rashad and his architect, Steve Hepner of Orlando, had just come from a meeting with the City of DeLand Building Department.
There have been many such meetings since Rashad turned in draft construction plans a year ago, hoping to get a building permit and to start in earnest the long-awaited restoration of his beloved Hotel Putnam.
“This building is so dear to me, that these guys would never understand,” Rashad said, referring to the “guys” at City Hall who have the power to grant his permit, or not.
So far, no building permit is forthcoming. At the June 9 meeting, Rashad said, the city introduced yet another roadblock to the realization of his dream: fireproof stair towers.
Never mind that Rashad said he was earlier assured — by a fire marshal who no longer works for the city — that the existing fire escapes running down the rear of the hotel would do.
City officials said they never heard about that; anyway, the fire escapes will not do. Fireproof stair towers are required. They will be expensive. The renovation plans, and the budget, must adapt.
“They kept changing all the specifications, all the time,” a clearly frustrated Rashad said.
This would be an easy — and fun — story to write, if only Rashad’s viewpoint were presented: the story of a valiant entrepreneur struggling against an inflexible, uncaring bureaucracy to achieve the impossible.
But that would be a novel.
The fact that Rashad doesn’t have a building permit for renovation of the Hotel Putnam a year after submitting his plans, city officials said, is mostly because the Building Department’s 55 comments on those plans, made in late August 2020, have not been addressed.
“When he claims that we were holding him up, that’s not accurate,” City of DeLand Chief Building Official Joe Levrault said.
On building plans reviewed by the city, “comments” are points of concern or areas where the plans need to be corrected, beefed up or clarified.
“Provide energy forms” reads one comment, along with “The building envelope must be depicted on the plans.”
“The structural engineer shall evaluate the existing fire escapes for structural adequacy and that all required original components are available.” And so on.
In some cases, like “Exterior illumination is not reflected on the plans,” the correction might simply be specifying where outdoor lights will be installed, and what kind.
The city doesn’t make this stuff up, or make these comments to be annoying, even though the seemingly endless requirements can be annoying.
But the requirements are all specified in the 2017 Florida Building Code, the version in effect when Rashad’s permit was applied for.
The Building Code is not a light read. The first chapter alone has 14,517 words, and there are 36 chapters full of “if this, then that” cross-references to other sections.
The Building Code can sometimes seem a lot like the Christian Bible, subject to a wide variety of interpretations. Not so, according to Levrault.
“It’s not a code interpretation, because we don’t interpret the code,” Levrault said. “We implement the code as it is written.”
That’s not to say it’s never confusing. Which sections of the code apply, and how they apply, have everything to do with what kind of project is being undertaken and what kind of use is planned.
In the case of the Hotel Putnam, it’s a Level 3 project, the most intensive and most regulated, and the use is residential apartments, where people will be living, playing and sleeping on the upper stories.
The code, and the City of DeLand, want to make sure those people are safe, and if something happens, like a fire, that those residents can escape the building quickly.
“Shaft enclosures must have a minimum of 2-hours fire resistance rating,” reads one of the 55 comments from August 2020, indicating that fireproof stair towers perhaps should not have been an entirely new idea to Rashad and his architect in June 2021.
Further confounding the complexity of redevelopment regulations is the fact that there’s also a Fire Code, implemented by a fire marshal, who operates independently of the Building Department.
The DeLand Fire Department first logged its 31 comments on the Putnam renovation in September 2020.
According to city officials, those comments have also, for the most part, gone unanswered.
Building Official Levrault and DeLand Community Development Director Rick Werbiskis know people sometimes need guidance through the wilderness of regulations.
It’s especially true of “boutique developers” like Rashad, in contrast to “production” builders, like Kolter Homes building a 600-home subdivision on vacant land on the edge of town.
“It does take more hands-on time, for renovation,” Werbiskis said.
City officials try.
“We’ve met with them on multiple occasions trying to provide guidance on how to move forward,” Werbiskis said. “We have met with Mohamed every time he’s requested a meeting, whether it was five minutes’ notice or five days, because it not only benefits the property owner, but it benefits the city as a whole.”
Not all of those meetings have been pleasant. Rashad has lost his temper, and has loudly called for Werbiskis and Levrault both to be fired.
“I’ve been doing this for 34 years, and sometimes you run into some difficult ones,” Levrault said. “I try my best to move the project along, and work with people.”
Rashad didn’t buy the hotel intending to wage war on the City of DeLand Building Department. But over time, that’s what happened.
“They are bringing out the monster in me,” Rashad said.
He’s convinced that the City of DeLand Building Department may want the Hotel Putnam restored, but doesn’t want him to be the one to do it.
“I am definitely blacklisted in City Hall,” Rashad said.
As an example, he points to a Jan. 21 email from Werbiskis, ordering Rashad to cover up all graffiti at the Hotel Putnam — inside the building and outside — within 24 hours.
There’s graffiti all over Downtown DeLand, Rashad points out, including on the city-owned Old Jail building down the street, that goes ignored for months. Rashad said he’s being singled out for special enforcement.
“They’re stipulating stuff because it’s a small town, and they think they can rule it,” Rashad said.
The city says no.
“We don’t have time to be obstructionist,” Werbiskis said. “We’re willing to work with anybody.”
The City of DeLand isn’t used to major reconstruction projects where the owner — instead of a contractor — is on the front lines.
The standard procedure is, plans are submitted, comments are made, the contractor works out changes, and construction commences. The owner is off somewhere sipping mint juleps.
Rashad has just hired his third contractor, and he’s not sitting by the pool. He’s on the Hotel Putnam property in his well-worn work boots, ready to swing a hammer.
There’s no question that Rashad hasn’t followed procedures the city is used to and comfortable with, and sometimes he has outright ignored the city’s direction.
“I made mistakes,” Rashad said. “Mostly being impatient. But all my intentions were good.”
Mohamed Rashad fits the character in our fantasy novel. He’s a valiant entrepreneur, and he’s struggling.
“I tell Mohamed, it takes a certain kind of person to take on a challenge like this,” Rashad’s architect, Hepner, said. “It’s not for everyone.”
Hepner has watched the dance and the conflict between Rashad and the city.
“He’s done whatever they’ve asked him to do,” the architect said.
Hepner adds, about Rashad, “He’s a unique, energized person.”
“Energized” seems like a fitting adjective. Over three years, Rashad has gotten further and done more than several others who were lured by the challenge of restoring the six-story Hotel Putnam to grandeur.
That’s despite the fact, Rashad points out, that city stop-work orders and other requirements have prevented him from doing any work at all during 18 months out of the 38 months he’s owned the Hotel Putnam.
He’s replaced the windows, cleared out the once-gracious courtyard and gutted the building. Walls, ceilings, plumbing and wiring have all been removed. Truckloads upon truckloads of debris have been hauled away.
“The building weighs half as much as it used to,” Hepner said.
“It’s ready to build,” Rashad said.
Also, unlike other would-be Putnam saviors over the years, Rashad isn’t interested in City of DeLand grants, tax breaks or incentives.
“I don’t want a dollar from them,” Rashad said. “I just want a building permit.”
In March 2018, Rashad put $200,000 down on the million-dollar purchase price, to buy the Putnam from Summit Hospitality Management Group, whose owners built the Hard Rock Cafe in Daytona Beach. More than three years later, the hotel is all his.
“I paid it off. I have funds, and I’m ready to roll,” Rashad said.
Where the City of DeLand and Rashad clash is the point where Rashad’s energy meets the city’s sometimes plodding, by-the-book determination.
Rashad has his own description of the city’s approach.
“They just have a power trip,” Rashad said. “They want you to do it according to their way, according to their time frame.” He adds, “These guys are killing business. They’re control freaks.”
Rashad’s time frame is “Let’s go, now.” And, he has gone forward, sometimes without waiting for a building permit. He’s obtained and successfully closed out some permits, such as for the window replacements, but not always.
At least six stop-work orders have been issued by the city on the Putnam property since 2019, usually because construction was underway without a permit.
“I admit to it,” Rashad said.
Or demolition was underway. Rashad had demolition permits, but what he’s done in the building far exceeded the level of “exploratory” demolition the permit allowed, city officials said.
It makes sense to Rashad to work the way he does.
He tells the story of the security fence built around the Putnam — with a permit, at the city’s behest, after a year or more of nagging on the city’s part. But once the fence was up, the city lost its hurry.
“I’ve done the fence,” Rashad said. “By the time they come and inspect it, somebody’s come and cut the fence.”
Rashad points to another situation that developed in the aftermath of a fire that broke out at the Hotel Putnam during the evening of April 29, 2018, about a month after Rashad bought the property.
The ferocious blaze worked its way up the back of the brick building and threatened to consume the mostly wooden sixth floor.
Thirty-seven firefighters from five jurisdictions across the county tamed the blaze after about two hours, but not before a section of the sixth-floor roof had been destroyed.
Eventually, the state fire marshal ruled that the blaze had been deliberately set. Rashad scoffs — he’s heard the gossip — at those DeLandites who theorized he’d bought the building and then torched it for insurance money.
In fact, he said, fire officials would have been happy to declare the building a total loss, and have the insurance company pay Rashad the $5.6 million it was insured for. Instead, Rashad fought to prove the Hotel Putnam was still sound and worth saving.
“I was the only one fighting,” Rashad said.
He said he hired a structural engineer at his own expense to establish the building’s soundness.
Then, Rashad said, with a gaping, charred hole in the roof of the building he loves — and with summer rains bearing down — he waited two months while the engineer and the city dickered over whether the structural report needed to be finished before a permit could be issued for roof repairs, or whether roof repairs needed to be completed before the structural report could be finalized.
Rashad fixed the roof. No permit. Not sorry.
The puzzle is, Rashad and city officials have the exact same goal: Restore the Hotel Putnam to glory, and put it back into use in a way that benefits DeLand.
As to the building’s soundness, its worthiness for restoration, architect Hepner is firm.
“The building’s sound,” Hepner said. “It’s a steel-frame structure with a masonry exterior. It’s very nice. For a 100-year-old girl, it’s pretty nice.”
The city is positive, too.
“It is my hope that you see this project through, and I will work with you to achieve this, but you need to follow the law,” Building Official Levrault wrote to Rashad in May 2020.
In an interview June 15, Levrault elaborated. “We would like to see it completed. Building permits issued, contractor shows up with a team of workers who get to work. Have inspections completed and see the building utilized in all its glory.”
Development Director Werbiskis is also clear about the city’s vision. “Whether it’s Mohamed or another owner of the building, we will remain consistent in our desire to realize the renovation of the building,” he said.
But although the goal is the same, the vision of how to get there is not. Doing it the city’s way, Rashad said, won’t work, given the resulting delays, costs and the prospect for a realistic return.
Architect Hepner is not critical of City of DeLand officials, but concedes he’s seen more flexibility in historic-preservation projects.
“It’s a 100-year-old building, and there are countless ways to do things,” Hepner said. “They can allow some things, and disallow some things. There’s a lot of interpretation.”
But city building officials, Rashad said, aren’t geared to support historic restoration, and don’t understand what it takes to get a project like the Hotel Putnam done.
“They’re always shooting for the stars, but they have no reality whatsoever,” he said.
Where does the story go from here? It’s hard to tell.
Rashad’s third contractor, who just signed on to the Hotel Putnam project, might be the one who can work with Rashad to get that long-awaited building permit and get reconstruction rolling.
Already, some progress has been made regarding the fireproof stairs, based on a design Rashad conceived.
Or, Rashad could sell the property, and DeLand could pin its hopes on yet another knight in shining armor who might ride into town and get the enormous restoration job done.
Rashad — the seventh hopeful restorer in 10 years — has had several suitors interested in buying the property.
His highest hope, however, is to complete the job himself.
The feisty owner and the Building Department might find a way to get along, but that’s happened before.
“We have kissed and made up a million times,” Rashad said.