A fire that started in a pile of rubble in an alleyway behind the SeaBreeze Tavern in Aptos late Sunday night has all but destroyed the building, bringing to a close a story that began when it was built 92 years ago in what was then a burgeoning beachfront mecca.
Firefighters responded to a call of a blaze around 9:30pm. The flames chewed their way from the alleyway into the building and, fed by piles of items stored inside, quickly engulfed the building, weakening the exterior walls, says Aptos/La Selva Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Mike Demars.
Fearing for their safety, fire crews exited the building and focused on defending the surrounding buildings, Demars says.
A fire inspector on Monday called the building a total loss.
“It’s probably coming down,” Demars says.
The cause is still under investigation, he says. There were no injuries.
Former owner Thomas Richard “Rich” McInnis declined several requests for comment before press time. He was living in an apartment above the tavern, but was not at home when the fire began.
The property was in foreclosure and was sold in February for $1,043,500 in a bank auction to Champery Rental Reo LLC, which is a subsidiary of Redondo Beach-based Wedgewood. The company bills itself as an “integrated network” of companies that specialize in acquiring “distressed residential real estate.”
Company representatives did not respond to numerous requests for comment on their plans for the property.
In the weeks before the fire struck, Santa Cruz realtor Mark Vincent, who served as Champery’s “boots on the ground” salesman, said that Wedgewood typically restores and resells distressed and foreclosed properties.
Vincent said the company was excited about the opportunity to buy the “iconic” building.
“That location is fantastic, and the Rio Beach Flats is a wonderful spot,” he said. “Everyone knows the property.”
It’s unclear what Wedgewood’s plans are for the property in the wake of the fire. Neither that company nor Vincent returned calls and emails seeking comment.
SHOT OF COURAGE
Before the fire occurred, the decrepit SeaBreeze—and its neighbors along the Esplanade—were players in a story that started in 1928, when A.A. Liederbach built it to serve as headquarters for Peninsula Properties, which was developing the Rio Del Mar area to serve crowds of tourists, according to the Aptos History Museum.
The building has held several businesses since then, most recently the SeaBreeze Tavern. Georgia May Derber owned the business for 20 years, using an inheritance to purchase it when she was 27. But she allowed the business to fall into disrepair and, after it closed in 1988, lived as a hermit in her upstairs apartment until she was discovered dead there in 2004.
When McInnis bought the tavern in 2005 for just over $1.3 million, county leaders and residents saw him as a knight in shining armor who would restore it, said former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ellen Pirie.
It never played out that way, though, she said.
“There was certainly a lot of hope at the beginning that the SeaBreeze could become that sort of neighborhood-community focal point that people hoped it could be,” Pirie said.
The county “tried to bend over backward” to help him get permits, she added, but they all came to naught.
“If you had told me 15 years ago that we would be talking about this, and that it wouldn’t have progressed in any way, I just wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” she said.
Through the years, the SeaBreeze has been both an eyesore and a headache for the community, befouled with discarded furniture and other junk outside. Perhaps most famously, a toilet was visible on the deck over the main entrance.
Complaints from neighbors have included the pornographic films shown on the side of McInnis’ building, trash stored around his property, the installment of barbed wire, and McInnis allowing RVs to park on the streets adjacent to the building, said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, whose Second District jurisdiction includes the seaside town.
“Over time, the SeaBreeze has morphed from a historic crown jewel of the Esplanade to a site of neglect, disrepair and illicit activity,” he said. “Clearly, the community expects better, and hopefully the new owners can work to help anchor the renaissance already beginning in the Rio Del Mar Flats.”
McInnis’ legal troubles do not stop with code violations. He was arrested in July 2018 for domestic abuse, false imprisonment and resisting arrest, and in November of that year for violating a protective order.
He was also arrested in 2015 for running an illegal cannabis dispensary out of the tavern.
He permanently lost his liquor license in 2017 after he was hit with a multiple-count complaint by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). At the time, McInnis told The Pajaronian that he was not fighting the revocation because he planned to switch to cannabis-infused drinks. That plan never came to fruition.
ABC spokesman John Carr said that McInnis additionally failed to pay license renewal fees.
According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, McInnis filed for bankruptcy 12 times between 2008 and 2018, all of which were denied by the court.
The five most recent cases, the court said, were dismissed for failure to file required documents.
McInnis told the court that the dismissal came as “political retribution” by county officials for his unsuccessful run for County Supervisor in 2012. In that election, he garnered just over 6% of the vote, placing him last in a field of five candidates.
“Mr. McInnis claims that his string of bankruptcy filings was due to the economic recession and a conspiracy against him perpetrated by the local government,” the court stated in a filing.
The most recent permit that allowed McInnis to run a bar-cafe—and to occupy two residential units on the second story above the tavern—was issued on June 15, 2007, said Santa Cruz County Principal Planner Matt Johnson.
The tavern racked up several code complaints over the years, Johnson said, the most recent being a citation for improper storage and a fine more than $10,000, a bill he has never paid.
County inspectors responded to a complaint about storage containers being illegally kept on the property, Johnson said.
The county took over two vacant lots adjacent to the tavern in 2017 after McInnis failed to pay more than $100,000 in delinquent property taxes.
ONE MORE ROUND
McInnis and Supervisor Friend have had a contentious relationship over the years, going back to 2012, when the two ran in the same supervisorial seat, following Pirie’s retirement and when Friend easily vanquished his four competitors, McInnis included, at the polls.
Over the years, Friend has fielded many complaints from constituents about the SeaBreeze and about McInnis himself. “He’s obviously a smarter person than I think a lot of people think,” Friend says, “because he’s known how to game every element of the system for a long time—but not for good. He hasn’t used it for good.”
While Friend thinks many Aptos residents are curious about the particulars of the investigation, he says he’s wondering what’s next for the iconic property.
Although a restoration could be in order, Friend isn’t sure how it would happen. He doesn’t know whether responsibility for its resurrection would fall to local, state or federal authorities. “There’s a lot of stuff that is gonna have to get worked through, and obviously, you gotta do all that before you hit the rainy season,” he says.
Given that the smoke has just begun to clear, Friend is quick to add that it’s too early to say what direction discussions will take, but he believes the flood insurance on that location, near the mouth of the Aptos Creek could be expensive. And while the property may look like an ideal site for condominiums, Friend doesn’t believe the zoning would support such a use.
Friend says the Aptos Esplanade has enjoyed a renaissance in spite of the SeaBreeze, thanks to the work of Cafe Rio owner Jeanne Harrison, the county’s recent construction of a nearby roundabout, and a new flood mitigation project. But he adds that Aptos residents continue to long for a revamped SeaBreeze, one commensurate with the history of the site and with the work put into the neighborhood over recent years.
“It’s a pretty significant investment that’s gone into the flats, and then you’ve got this guy’s shithole at the corner,” Friend says. “But the community sees [the SeaBreeze] still in those early photos from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s [and thinks] about how and what it could be. Now that it’s been burned, I think that the question is ‘What can it even be?’”
Additional reporting by Jacob Pierce.