Editor’s Note: Let’s face it: sometimes change can be uncomfortable. (Although, it doesn’t really have to be.) That said, the matters surrounding the proposed La Bahia Hotel in Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats have become a unique opportunity for the entire community. The idea: to replace the La Bahia apartments, which have been somewhat the face of the iconic Santa Cruz beachfront for 85 years, with a four-star, 125-room La Bahia Hotel. Why? A number of reasons, but a few that certainly stand out revolve around boosting the local economy and brightening up the face of the neighborhood, which has been showing severe signs of aging for far too long. Take a look: in its current state, La Bahia is in serious need of existential CPR. Its broad, white stucco walls and red-tiled roof are severely worn down. The neighborhood surrounding it, once thriving, appears to have slipped into an abyss of disrepair.

cover2_arielviewEnter Barry Swenson Builder. More than a decade ago, the local contractor—the entity behind refurbishing the historic Del Mar Theatre, among others—unraveled La Bahia Hotel plans in an effort to breathe new life into 215 Beach Street. During that time, the project had been the subject of hearings, votes, even lawsuits, and the Santa Cruz City Council and Planning Commission approved the plans. Now the project’s fate rests in the hands of the Coastal Commission, which must vote on whether to approve of the hotel’s 14-foot surpassing of coastal height regulations. That vote was initially slated for the Coastal Commission’s March 9-11 meeting, which will be held in Santa Cruz, but two weeks before the meeting, Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed two commissioners, bringing the number of commissioners from 12 to 10—making La Bahia Hotel’s seven necessary votes more risky to obtain. The matter is now slated to come before the commission sometime this spring or summer, once the forces behind the proposal have had more time to talk the project over with Coastal Commission staff. Should the Coastal Commission shoot down the La Bahia Hotel proposal, it is likely that Barry Swenson Builder will pull out of the project.

“All neighborhoods go through life cycles, usually of about 75 years, like a human life cycle. The beach area has run through its cycle. It’s on its downward turn, it needs to go back through its next cycle, and this is a key piece to doing that.” —Jesse Nickell, Barry Swenson Builder

Which is where GT comes in. There are rare moments in time when one’s presence in a community could affect a positive change just by merely speaking up. We’d like to speak up. We believe in the La Bahia Hotel project and we want it to go through—for a number of reasons, which we outline on the following pages. But in studying the evolution of this curious endeavor over the last decade, GT, overall, views the project as a “plus.”

I recall something Jesse Nickell, vice president of Barry Swenson Builder, recently said:  “All neighborhoods go through life cycles, usually of about 75 years, like a human life cycle. The beach area has run through its cycle. It’s on its downward turn. It needs to go back through its next cycle, and this is a key piece to doing that.”

(Let’s get this out of the way: GT is not the official cheerleader for BSB, but we have seen fine ideas within this particular project and note that while La Bahia’s fate was still being decided over the past decade, the builders constructed low-to-moderate-income housing at 401 Pacific Ave. to replace housing that would be lost at La Bahia as a result of the hotel’s construction.)

cover3There’s more: Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone is the Central Coast representative to the Coastal Commission. Stone has shown uncertainty about the project in the past. It is expected that the rest of the commission, or at least some of it, will follow his lead (either way) on this decision.

As for the community itself, the hotel has received varied reactions. Some of the most common concerns have been that the builders are not using 100 percent union labor (read on), and that it would require demolishing the current La Bahia apartments, which have historical significance. But the big picture shows a project that is, on the whole, very promising for Santa Cruz. It could jumpstart the local economy, put thousands to work, boost the tourism industry, and bring new energy to the beach area.

So here we are. Change. It can be challenging. (But does it have to be?) What’s even more frightening is the thought of never changing; never evolving to reach new heights—especially when there seems to be enough hands extended out to you. The proposed La Bahia Hotel is a good idea. Here are a few reasons why we think so. | Greg Archer with Elizabeth Limbach

Eleven Reasons Why

1. The Economic Benefit

Yes, times are tough, fiscally speaking—the city is $6 million in the hole, facing a shrinking tax base and massive cuts to services, and local businesses continue to wade through the wreckage of the economic recession of the last few years. The La Bahia Hotel would generate an estimated $725,000 in Transient Occupancy Taxes for the city each year, alleviating some of its budget woes (and protecting some services the public relies on). The prospect of this hotel injecting the coffers with much-needed tax revenues, creating jobs and boosting local businesses has the city banking on its approval.  If it doesn’t pass, “What it really means is that we’d cut more city services, because we continue to have a small tax base, and it would cost jobs, on the construction and operations side,” says Mayor Ryan Coonerty. “And I don’t know how you do that in this economy.” Local businesses would also see dollar signs because of La Bahia: the Conference and Visitors Center (CVC) estimates that for every dollar a tourist spends on lodging, they spend $1.74 elsewhere in the community. From these figures, it’s projected that the La Bahia Hotel would spawn $10 million in spending in the community each year. For a privately funded project that uses no taxpayer dollars, that sounds like a pretty darn good deal.

2. Jobs

About those “tough times” …  they include a 13.8 percent unemployment rate in Santa Cruz County. The La Bahia Hotel would create thousands of short-term jobs during the construction process and 102 long-term hotel jobs. More than just jobs, the hotel will provide opportunities for its employees—offering to pay for continued education and career advancement classes for workers wishing to move up.

3. Green is Good

As a certified LEED Green Building project, many facets of the hotel, from controlling soil erosion during construction to water and energy efficiency measures once it’s up and running, are eco-forward. Transportation is a major factor when talking about a 125-room hotel, as well as a major player in environmental issues, and great steps have been taken to “green” that area, too: employees will be encouraged to utilize alternative transportation by being given bus passes and being provided with secure bicycle parking, showers and lockers. By providing 50 bicycles and nine electric bikes (and some incentives for using them), Nickell says they hope that guests will opt to leave their cars in the parking garage in favor of biking or walking around town. With (most) everything in walking distance, why not help visitors keep their eco footprints low while they’re here? There will also be six docking stations for electric cars, making it an appealing destination for green travelers.

4. A Landmark For The Future

Here’s the thing about landmarks: some don’t last forever. The La Bahia apartments were built by the Seaside Company—still the owners—in 1926, and the sprawling Spanish-style buildings have been a fixture of the Santa Cruz beachfront ever since. But while it may be historic, it’s also decrepit. Cracked, discolored, structurally questionable—what was once the emblem of a booming mid-20th century beach scene is now a gravestone; a dilapidated reminder of better times. When does fighting against change become fighting against a future? It takes vision to stop clinging to what we have and look ahead to what we could have, and that’s what we believe this project does: imagine Santa Cruz in 30, 40 or 50 years with the “historic” La Bahia Hotel nestled into the coastal landscape, attracting visitors with its landmark mystique. While only some parts of the original building will be saved (the original building was too far gone to just refurbish, and was also not earthquake safe or wheelchair accessible), the new hotel will be a replica of the historic La Bahia building, re-imagining and echoing its design and feel—bringing it new life, exposure and accessibility. Additionally, the original building will be remembered in a historical display in the lobby.
5. State Parks Get A Boost

As part of its development agreement, Barry Swenson Builder has allotted $200,000 for designing, building and funding a to-be-determined state parks project, such as a new campground or campground improvements, in Santa Cruz County. The company is currently working with California Parks and Recreation on pinning down a plan. Santa Cruz County’s 14 state parks are local treasures, and seeing as the 2011 state budget proposal includes $11 million in cuts to state parks, this donation, although not huge, is a helpful gesture.

6. Love Your Local Tourist

While residents can often tire of the barrages of out-of-towners, tourism is the city’s largest industry and the county’s second largest and, as such, something worth embracing. And while we have some jewels, our overall inventory of hotels isn’t that impressive (relax, we dig you, Dream Inn, Chaminade and Seascape)—and the Boardwalk area, where future tourists will inevitably spend some time, is often criticized for the lack of upscale accommodations. This four-star beachfront hotel would bolster the Santa Cruz image and make it a more desirable destination. The best way to improve the tourism industry, according to the CVC, is to enhance off-season tourism (as a beach town, most tourism business is done in the summer months). The La Bahia will feature a 5,000 square foot conference and event space and will collaborate with the Cocoanut Grove, which has 25,000 square feet of event space, to accommodate business conferences, parties, events, and other group needs. These “conference goers” tend to spend more while visiting and come anytime of the year, not just in the summer. The Chamber of Commerce, CVC, and local officials have been advocating for more event space as an economic necessity for years; here is such an opportunity.

7. 14 Extra Feet:

About 15 percent of the entire building—the very back portion—will exceed the Coastal Plan’s height regulation by 14 feet. It’s all about the ocean views, and the taller back area will house a penthouse and other top-rate suites, making them the most profitable rooms in the establishment. Considering the fact that the homes behind the hotel would have their views compromised with or without this extra amount, GT doesn’t see this 14 feet as a win-or-lose situation. Or, should we say, it doesn’t need to be. It requires an amendment to a plan written for the community many years ago, but that’s not an unusual undertaking. The overall size and feel of the hotel doesn’t, we believe, fly in the face of the community’s style or needs. While it’s unfortunate that some Beach Hill residents will have their ocean views compromised, we’re talking about the views from a few houses, which, FYI, aren’t protected, versus a significant employment and economic boost for the whole neighborhood (and beyond).

8. Unions

Much of the rhetoric about this project has been about its relationship to the local labor unions, and understandably so—unions are the bread and butter of the American workforce. And while the Coastal Commission will technically be voting on whether to approve the height exception, the politics relating to union support will be a big factor in its decision. But, while the La Bahia Hotel group could not form a contract agreement with the
union, it’s important to step back and realize that it’s not a black-and-white union/non-union issue. The yearlong negotiations reached a standstill, and so the project moved forward. The developers have guaranteed local and/or union workers at least 80 percent of the construction jobs—meaning at least 40 percent in the bag for union workers—and promised to match the Dream Inn’s union wages and benefits for their operational staff. The police and firefighter unions have showed support for the project, and, according to Nickell, the labor union’s staunch opposition to the hotel is part of a long-running tiff between the two over Barry Swenson’s failure to join the Carpenters’ Union. Although they haven’t joined themselves, Barry Swenson Builder often works with union subcontractors and has dealt with $65 million in union contracts since 2006. It would’ve been preferable if the hotel had a union contract, but the project has too much potential for overall community benefits—jobs chief among them—to not pursue it as a result of a lack of one.

9. Barry’s Santa Cruz Track Record

Barry Swenson Builder has played a part in countless Santa Cruz developments, many of which Cruzans consider local gems, like the Del Mar Theatre (which it helped save and convert into a movie theater before it almost became offices). After the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake devastated Downtown Santa Cruz, the company rebuilt or renovated 15 earthquake-torn Santa Cruz buildings, nine of which were on Pacific Avenue. Wherever possible, it saved original parts of the buildings or replicated the original design: It rebuilt the St. George (where Bookshop Santa Cruz currently resides) from the ground up, incorporated the two remaining walls of the Old County Bank into the current building (which houses Pacific Wave and NextSpace), and refurbished the former Bank of America building that is now New Leaf Community Market. The company’s headquarters are in San Jose, but Nickell runs his operation out of Santa Cruz. We believe its history of the development of local projects shows a good understanding of what Santa Cruz is all about.

10. Beauty Not Blight

Beach Street is a defining Santa Cruz location; dubbed a “signature street” in the city’s plans. It’s directly linked to the Boardwalk, Wharf, and only minutes from Downtown; and behind it rests one of Santa Cruz’s most characteristic neighborhoods, the Beach Flats. Why let it wither away? Where a rundown eyesore now sits, a beautiful hotel could be erected, helping the whole area to be more vibrant and attractive. Once the hotel settles in, other much-needed improvement plans could start trickling in; this hope is spelled out in the city’s Beach and South of Laurel Area Plan from 1998, which identifies La Bahia as having the best potential to “serve as the main catalyst for future beach improvements. Unparalleled views and location suit the site well for development of the premier conference hotel facility in the beach area.”

11. Thinking ‘Local First’

There will be a first-hire policy for the Beach Flats, meaning that neighborhood residents will have first dibs on the construction and hotel jobs. This hyper-local employment effort will be a huge economic opportunity for Beach Flats. The neighborhood will also benefit from the project’s one-time $505,000 traffic improvement to the area around the hotel. The local art community will also get a boost, as the developers plan to use local art to decorate hotel hallways and rooms.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts with the Coastal Commission as it prepares to vote on this project later this year. Contact Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone, the Central Coast Representative, at [email protected] or 454-2200. View the complete list of contact information for the commissioners at coastal.ca.gov/roster.html.

Contributor at Good Times |

Elizabeth Limbach is a writer and editor based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the former Managing Editor of Good Times Weekly. While at Good Times, she won six California Newspaper Publishers Association awards including First Place in the category of Best Writing for “Learning to Love Autism” (2011) and “Breaking the Silence” (2013). Her freelance work has been published by TheAtlantic.com, Parade.com, American Way, Ms., Sierra Magazine, E – The Environmental Magazine, Edible Monterey Bay and Edible Silicon Valley, among others. Find her online at elizabethlimbach.com.

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