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Neighbors Resist Planned Hotel

GTnews HotelLower Ocean residents feel they weren’t given enough say in Hyatt plans

Despite fervent objections from many residents in the Lower Ocean neighborhood, a planned Hyatt Place Hotel is moving closer to fruition.

The Santa Cruz City Council approved initial plans for the hotel, to be located at the space formerly occupied by the Unity Temple, back in 2011, and approved modifications to the plans earlier this month. The project was originally approved for 111 rooms but has been downgraded to 106. The original plan also called for an underground parking lot and five designated employee parking spots, but developers sought approval to switch to all valet parking, with cars stored using elevator-like lifts.

Some 50 residents packed a meeting room at Unity Temple on Thursday, Jan. 9 for an open hearing on the changes, but the hearing became more focused on opposition to the project as a whole than on the specific plan modifications. Residents also turned out to the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 14 for a public comment period that lasted three hours.

The space at 407 Broadway has lain fallow for years, attracting all manner of crime and contributing to neighbors’ safety concerns. The neighborhood it is in is technically zoned only for residential use, but the city council previously approved an exemption for the hotel.

It would be the first hotel bearing the Hyatt name in Santa Cruz, says Tejal Sood, who, with her family, will operate the new hotel. The family also operates the Hampton Inn on Ocean Street and the Comfort Inn on Riverside Avenue. The hotel would include a large meeting space that advocates say will attract groups to the city and, Sood says, provide the sort of conference facility that doesn’t currently exist locally.

This is of great concern for residents who worry that the hotel’s guests will contribute to major traffic congestion, with people coming and going from the hotel during the day.

The traffic study completed back when the project was initially brought before the council found that the maximum traffic potential impact of the hotel would be a 5 percent increase. Architect Peter Bagnall says that will likely be less now because of the five-room decrease. Still, many residents doubt the efficacy of the current traffic study and believe it overlooks far too many potential complications.

Bagnall and Sood don’t believe the project will cause major parking problems for the neighborhood, and they dismiss the contention that the project fails to provide sufficient parking for hotel employees.

“We believe we have enough spots,” says Bagnall, who added that the developers will give the city $10,000 to assist with a parking permit program if there is an issue.

Sood also plans to offer bus passes and other alternative transportation incentives, similar to what her family has done for employees at their other hotels.

Another chief concern among neighbors is that the hotel will promote crime and bad behavior by bringing in out-of-towners who don’t have an invested interest in the community.

Much of the city council disagrees with that concern, instead seeing it as an opportunity for improving the area.

“The quality of this project will make a substantial improvement to security in this area,” says Councilmember Cynthia Mathews.

The sole councilmember to vote against the modified parking proposal was Micah Posner, who is also the only member who lives in the neighborhood where the hotel is to be built. He doubted the contentions that the hotel will somehow improve the neighborhood, and maintained the council should be listening more to neighbors, who have overwhelmingly said they don’t want the hotel.

GTnews Hotel2Sood, who has been working with the police department on the matter, says that security has played centrally in plans for the hotel. “It’s really, really important,” she says. “We’ll have full-time valet staff and they’ll be trained to recognize and report problems.”

She says the hotel will include 24-hour staffing with increased lighting and security cameras, which she believes will help contribute to making the neighborhood safer. That’s a sentiment shared by Santa Cruz Police Deputy Rick Martinez, who says the current empty lot is a hotbed for drug activity, prostitution and other crime. He believes the hotel will deter much of that. The valet parking will be staffed 24 hours, Sood says, so there will also always be someone around.

However, she points out that she can only do so much when it comes to crime in the neighborhood.

“That’s not something I can solve myself,” she says. “[But] I think having a well-lit, 24-hour business where people are there all of the time will hopefully deter some of that.”

The project is essentially a done deal, according to the city council, and the recent resurfacing of the plan was simply a matter of approving changes to the parking scheme. That hasn’t stopped neighbors from pushing to halt the project, however. A major bone of contention is that the hotel will be located in an area zoned for residential use, but a special exemption has been made to allow its construction. Many neighbors are outraged by that decision and believe councilmembers erred in not speaking with them about the changes back in 2011.

“A core part of the frustration is [that] there wasn’t enough information for the public [at the time of the initial proposal],” says resident Karsten Wade, who has lived with his family on Riverside Avenue for about 11 years. “People living 300 feet from the proposed site were required to be notified but the city council didn’t reach out to us [beyond that].”

Word of the parking modification “sort of stirred the pot,” says his wife, Debora Wade. “Neighbors should have had more involvement,” she says. “When you buy into a neighborhood, you don’t expect such huge change.”

Councilmember Don Lane told residents he understood their concerns, but “that decision was already made a few years ago, for better or worse.”

Approval has already been given, he said at the city council’s Jan. 14 meeting, and “we do want to listen to the community, but part of our listening is that we have to listen to everyone.”

Lane’s comments at the meeting seem to underscore a large part of the frustration neighbors feel.

“Now it’s a done deal and it seems like we can’t do much,” says Debora Wade.

One aspect plaguing the project may have gotten some reprieve, however. The project’s development called for taking out a heritage tree at the site, which Bagnall said previously was unavoidable. The city’s arborist apparently agreed, finding that the tree’s age and other factors made moving it to a different spot unfeasible. Resident Gillian Greensite, an advocate for local trees, told the council she has spoken with Environmental Designs, a company with 100 years of experience in moving big trees effectively. She says officials with the company believe this tree can be transplanted successfully, and asked for the opportunity to be evaluated before the tree is cut down.

Councilmember Pamela Comstock says she wouldn’t agree to delay the project for the removal of the tree, but she and the rest of the council agreed to, at the very least, explore options for safely transplanting it within the next three months.

“Realistically, nothing will be done in three months anyway,” Sood says, in regard to the timeline for the project. An exact schedule for beginning construction has yet to be announced.

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