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La Bahia

coverwebWhy La Bahia Hotel is a good idea and how Santa Cruz could greatly benefit from it.
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.

cover53. 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 cover6union, 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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 454-2200. View the complete list of contact information for the commissioners at coastal.ca.gov/roster.html.

Comments (10)Add Comment
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written by yes i work for BSB, July 27, 2011
I've seen several hundreds project across my desk while working for BSB Architectural and this is one that stands out the most as a really special gem...for Santa Cruz. Growing up, Santa Cruz was always a favorite destination. I've traveled through Europe, and on the coast of Italy and the same charm exist in Santa Cruz, however, there are many people I've met who have missed the key ingredient of this hotel. It's not the buildings that make a great city, it's the locals who have become indirectly ambassadors of their town and how they treat their visitors is a big key. This hotel addresses all of these issues and goes farther. The most beautiful towns have the warmest people, and the accommodations and service is a reflection on how they perceive tourist. Tourist leave with fond memories that they bring back to their own towns. This hotel brings people to heart of Santa Cruz with 21st century accommodation that builders, workers, guests tourist expect...in a special city. From it's inviting courtyards and views, to it's connection to beach it will invite guests to enjoy and explore what is special about Santa Cruz and hopefully create new relationships and fond stories for the next generations.
My Perspecive as a Former Owner
written by Gary Stutz, March 28, 2011
My family owned and operated La Bahia from October 1976 to October 1979. We rented 10 to 15 units year round to retired people and monthly to mostly UCSC students in the off season. In the summer we went to daily motel rentals. The building is infested with termites. It was held up by the stucco even in those days. The glass all needed to be replaced. The kitchens and baths in all the units needed to be redone. La Bahia was built with electric heat when new. The US Navy used the Bahia for housing during WWII and while they were there they tore out the electric heat and installed steam heat, converting an apartment to a boiler room. They laid steam pipes on the ground under the building. We patched the rotten pipes to keep the heat on. After 35 years I'd be surprised if the heat still works. We talked to Hilton Hotels about redeveloping the property, but were shut down by the City of Santa Cruz. This is a project that will get done sooner or later. Do it now.
Too much bong for you?
written by Don, March 10, 2011
Who do you think are BSB employees? I'm not for one. I guess anyone who is for this project is demonized one way or another. Hate speech shows you don't have a reasoned argument to use. I'm grateful that you acknowledge that you don't know enough about La Bahia to comment, but then you go off on a hate rant. That stuff makes you paranoid, know that? I'm surprised and saddened that the site administrator let these comments pass.
...
written by shininglight, March 09, 2011
Look what happened with the project to build at Clares and Wharf in Capitola. Im surprised they were not investigated into the fire, after they were not getting their way.
...
written by shininglight, March 09, 2011
I don't know enough about the background of La Bahia to have an opinion. Interesting article though.

I just don't like when employees of Barry Swenson Builders pretend to be casual citizens giving opinions in the local paper, supporting their cause without noting they actually work for BSB. It shows me that there is more than meets the eye with that company and I do not trust them. It shows me that they lack morals and who the hell knows what they will do when it comes to the actual workmanship, what they will shortcut, who they will hire. Not all of their employees are on their payroll, my understanding is that when some drughead doesnt show up for work, they go get illegals to do the work.
Simple Greed
written by kevinhunson, March 08, 2011
When I found out about the plan to raze the current La Bahia and turn it into a seasonal playground for the super-rich, I was puzzled. After all, Santa Cruz had a reputation for progressive thinking and action. There is the admirable (and easily achievable) goal of powering our little paradise via solar energy and many other initiatives to improve the lives of everyone.

What I have found, much to my disgust, is that I was sadly mistaken about the leadership of this town and it's ability to thwart off poaching real estate swindlers . To paraphrase Hunter Thompson --In a Santa Cruz run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are f'd until we can put our acts together.

La Bahia is the most significant landmark in Santa Cruz excepting the mission itself. It has been neglected, with malice, by it's current ownership with the express goal of building said monstrosity. That cannot be questioned. Everything said and done over the past 15 years points to an all-to-typical tactic used by unscrupulous developers everywhere...buy the building, let it decay until it can be declared unsafe then tear it down. To the corporate mind, it's cheaper than saving something worthwhile.

Many of the issues, like parking, lower income housing, traffic congestion, and certain a queasy feeling one get's from tearing down the town's landmark, have been assuaged with cheap half solutions.

One thing is for sure: this is about profit, pure and simple.

Which leads us to the actual issues and my questions:

Why tear down the most recognizable local landmark and replace it with plastic replica that will only get used by ultra-wealthy "swine" in the summer months? Doesn't the beach area already have one high rise eye-sore?

Why not fix the existing structure and power it via solar panels?

Why does Santa Cruz need another hotel that will be dormant most of the year at the very time that average people are suffering the most and need affordable housing?

These questions, and many more, need to be answered if Santa Cruz intends to be a compass for our troubled times and a beacon for other cities in our current climate of corporate moral turpitude and malfeasance.

If there are any questions as to the fixability of the current building I would direct viewers here:

http://www.nycedc.com/ProjectsOpportunities/CurrentProjects/Brooklyn/LoewsKingsTheatre/Pages/LoewsKingsTheatre.aspx

One of many examples of buildings in far worse condition than La Bahia being restored for the good of all.

Thank you.

Kevin Hunson
Santa Cruz


What happened to GT?
written by Don, March 08, 2011
My, my, my. GT is certainly growing some hair on its chest! There have been some well-written pieces lately that I could even call journalism. I'm amazed that they have taken a stand on such a controversial matter instead of their usual siding of the hippies and the vocal minority. Thanks GT for finally representing the major segment of the community that would benefit from this project.
...
written by Jerry, March 07, 2011
Great article! Seems like a great time to start a new "life cycle" for the neighborhood. Win-win situation for sure!
La Bahia Hotel is a good idea
written by pacificgroupkid, March 04, 2011
The project looks fantastic and fits right into the neighborhood. The leed certified green design will help the community and our kids generation. The bikes will minimize any traffic impact. The tenants and homeowners in the area and entire city will benefit. Let's welcome in Santa Cruz's new landmark!
It is time for La Bahia
written by cre8ivichiban, March 02, 2011
This is a great project that has taken a great deal of care and time to be sensitive to the neighborhoods and the community. I for one do not want to see the VOCAL MINORITY who seem to pop up at every chance to be in a protest derail this project. The La Bahia property is long overdue for a renovation and Santa Cruz deserves to benefit from the efforts made on this project.


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