In Bush Telegraph by Clyde Mooney

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After considerable controversy, Sorrento’s legendary Continental Hotel has closed – to be rejuvenated and reopened as part of a big redevelopment for the awakening seaside community.

The imposing and picturesque Continental Hotel, dubbed The Conti, and the ‘essence’ of Sorrento, is the only four-storey limestone structure in the Southern Hemisphere, boasting over 3,500 m² of floorspace. It overlooks Port Phillip Bay, on the northern side of Sorrento, which forms part of the Mornington Peninsula, separating the Bay from Bass Strait.

Built in 1875, The Conti is listed with the National Trust, and for the last 21 years has been the pride and joy of owner-operators, the Di Pietro family.

The large Hotel occupies a generous block of more than an acre, in an area that is hotly pursued by developers looking to capitalise on the highly desirable precinct. It was enticed to market in early 2015, agents CBRE Hotels promoting the development potential.

The historic Conti was subsequently purchased by career hotelier and former director of Melbourne Pub Group, Julian Gerner, for a figure believed to be around $15 million.

Gerner went on to lodge a DA for a large project, involving further construction on the site and a full make-over of the iconic pub. In July 2016, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council voted in favour of the development, as well as the sale of an adjacent block of public land for $1.8m to facilitate parking.

A number of objections to the proposal had been received by Council, and noise about the approval drove an objection to the height of the new construction, based in it being one metre taller than the original Hotel.

This objection was overruled by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in February, which also vetoed Council’s plan to bill Gerner $125k for a pedestrian crossing at the site.

The new development, projected to cost more than $20m, will add a new structure behind the Hotel, containing 16 residential apartments and around 40 traditional hotel accommodation rooms. There will also be a wellness centre, mixed-use retail, a restaurant, function area and public bar.

The old Conti will see a comprehensive make-over, bringing modern amenities, wedding and conference facilities and all the trappings, including refurbishment of its 24 heritage rooms.

“We are essentially retaining and preserving the old Continental building and using the balance of the site and neighbouring carpark for the rest of the development,” Gerner explained to PubTIC.

“The two will be harmonious, with residents enjoying high-end apartments with water views, in the heart of town, while the original building will be more modern, meeting the high expectations of a boutique hotel.”

Gerner settled on the property just yesterday, and the project is still in early stages. The plans and heritage permits are in place, and he says finance for the development deal is underway.

While the popular pub has now closed in its current form, the incumbent Di Pietro family throwing a big end-of-era party last weekend, Gerner says it will be back in all its glory with the completion of the project, which is expected to take up to two years.

“I think the most important thing is that the standard we have proposed, which has been approved and supported, will keep The Conti alive in perpetuity and keep it as a pub, where most of my experience lies.

“It needs a big cash bomb to restore it and keep it as a hotel. If we didn’t spend on development, it wouldn’t be a hotel anymore.”

Hotel Continental, circa 1900. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria