After years in the making, Lake Minnetonka is close to breaking ground next year on the first lake hotel in nearly half a century.
And if architect Neil Weber's hopes become reality, hotels could someday be near the lakeshore in Excelsior, Wayzata and Mound -- the three cities with commercial lakefront out of the 14 cities surrounding Lake Minnetonka.
"It's neat to talk about bringing back things to the lake that haven't been here for many, many years," said Weber, of Weber Architects and Planners. "All of a sudden the whole area is becoming a regional attraction, and the hotels are part of that."
His first of two plans for hotels at the opposite end of the lake propelled forward last week -- after years of delays -- as the Excelsior City Council unanimously approved the concept of a four-story boutique hotel. That edges it closer to becoming the first hotel on the scenic 125-mile shoreline in decades.
A global attraction
Starting in the 1880s, hotels popped up all along Lake Minnetonka, with five dozen hotels on the lake at one time. It was a major draw for tourists and Twin Cities residents looking to escape the city for the summer months.
But the ill-fated wood structures almost all burned to the ground over the years. The last hotel closed in 1964. Since then, visitors have bombarded the local chamber of commerce offices with requests for lodging on the lake.
Jeanne and Rick Carter live in Excelsior and Minneapolis and operate Excelsior's Bird House Inn, the only bed-and-breakfast on the lake. The 150-year-old house is booked for most of the summer, with guests coming from as far away as New Zealand, Denmark and Canada for reunions and weddings, and from as close by as Eden Prairie and Minneapolis for weekend getaways.
"I'm actually pretty excited about it," Jeanne Carter said of the hotel. "The two concepts are so different that I think we can coexist."
Different cities, hotels
That's why lake cities have sought a revival to hotels, but attempts were unsuccessful in 2005 and 2008. Weber said the market in the area has only taken off in the last 10 to 15 years, and since then, it's been a struggle to find the right site.
In Excelsior, he had variance issues before his four-story boutique hotel plan was approved last week as a planned-unit development.
"We took our time, there's no question," Weber said. "But there's an awful lot of citizens in Excelsior that are supportive of the hotel now."
Council Member Mary Jo Fulkerson said council members had concerns initially with maintaining the quaintness of the city, because the hotel would be taller than any other building. But she said they support Weber's plans.
"It's a beautiful spot and one of the prime spots on Lake Minnetonka," she said. "I think it will be a nice addition to the city."
The Excelsior Hotel and one planned in the new Promenade of Wayzata -- the renovated Wayzata Bay Center owned by Presbyterian Home Services -- will take after the unique towns.
The 40,000-square-foot Excelsior Hotel will have 58 guest rooms with 14 room plans, lake views, a top-floor ballroom and a restaurant -- all geared to guests vacationing or attending special events like weddings. The $12 million hotel will be independent, not associated with a national chain. Unlike its wood 19th century predecessors, it will have a brick exterior but with detailing reminiscent of the old hotels.
In contrast, the 60,000-square-foot Wayzata hotel, which has yet to be named, will have 100 guest rooms with only five or six room styles, like most hotels, and will have a contemporary design. Weber said it will be branded as part of a major hotel company, have a pool or spa, and be located farther from the lakeshore. It will have retail space below it and an adjacent larger restaurant, and the hotel will be geared more toward guests trekking 15 minutes away to downtown Minneapolis.
Weber, a former Mound resident, said he's in talks about building a hotel in Mound as well. But in the meantime, he said he is aiming to get final approval from the Excelsior City Council by the end of the year. Construction could start in the spring of 2013, with doors opening in late 2013 or early 2014.
The Wayzata hotel is a second phase of the Promenade of Wayzata project now under construction. The hotel, which is to be located on the east block of the project, is contingent on retail space being leased out. Construction could begin as early as 2014.
"We're going to generate business from all over the world for Wayzata," Weber said. "It's fun to be a part of something that will have such a big impact."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib