The Coastal Commission’s ruling against the La Bahia Hotel project spawns a collective ‘Now What?’
After hours of public comment and deliberation, the California Coastal Commission voted 6-4 against the plan to build La Bahia Hotel, a 125-room hotel and conference center, at their Thursday, Aug. 11 meeting.
The hotel, a project of Barry Swenson Builder, would have gone in the Beach Flats neighborhood where the iconic—but currently dilapidated—La Bahia apartments have stood since 1926. The hang-up that led to the commission’s ruling was the height of the proposed hotel: 15 percent of the planned building would be 14 feet above the Local Coastal Program (LCP) limit.
Plans for the hotel were in the works for more than a decade, with Barry Swenson Builder spending about 10 years and $2.2 million working on it. The city council approved the plan in 2009.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” Mayor Ryan Coonerty tells Good Times. “This was a very good project that would’ve created jobs and was consistent with the values of Santa Cruz.”
Steve Sanchez and his wife Nicole own several properties in the Beach Flats neighborhood, some of which date back to the 1800s. They attended the meeting to speak up about why they supported the project.
“The neighborhood is teetering,” he says. “We see this as an opportunity to feel safer in our neighborhood.”
“Our friends, when they visit, worry about safety,” adds Nicole. “This could be a new historical monument in the making.”
The couple wasn’t alone in seeing the hotel as part of a positive future for the neighborhood, and Santa Cruz in general. The decision, which took place at Watsonville City Hall, came as a disappointment to a large group of supporters in attendance, many of whom wore pink stickers that said “Yes! La Bahia” or “La Bahia Supporter.”
Those who spoke in favor of the hotel included several city councilmembers; employees from UC Santa Cruz; developer Barry Swenson’s brother, Ron Swenson; local business owners who stressed the city’s need for more space for tourists and conferences; a member of the Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors; the general manager of the Dream Inn, who complained that having only one upscale beachfront hotel wasn’t enough to accommodate tourists; Chip, executive director of the Downtown Association; a representative from the Santa Cruz Visitors Council; and many longtime Beach Flats residents who wanted to see more local jobs (the hotel would have created 102 long-term hotel jobs and thousands of short-term construction jobs with a first hire policy for the Beach Flats neighborhood).
“What we have is tourism, that’s it,” one long-time resident of Santa Cruz said at the meeting. “I’m really tired of people driving past Santa Cruz to Monterey to stay at a quality hotel.”
There was a much smaller—though certainly spirited—group of opponents to the project in attendance, made up of Beach Flats residents, Sierra Club members, and union members. Don Webber, a retired lawyer who lives in the Beach Flats neighborhood, and head of the group Build A Better La Bahia, gave a scathing speech condemning what he called “La Behemoth,” citing both size and historical relevance as reasons.
“We object to the destructiveness and scale of that development,” he told the commission. “[If this passes], an important part of history will be relegated to a picture in the hotel lobby.”
Webber also compared the idea of tearing down a local landmark to improve La Bahia to “the Pentagon destroying countries in order to liberate them.”
Another area resident in attendance echoed Webber’s fervor, and pointed his finger at Barry Swenson Builder.
“There is no need to change the existing LCP just because one developer comes along and says ‘I want to build something huge there,’” he said.
Many objectors declared that the proposal smacked of spot zoning—one even called it “spot zoning on steroids”—because it would be making a special exception for one small area. However, city zoning administrator Eric Marlatt denies that this is true because of legal reasons.
“I don’t care about nomenclature,” Webber says. “I’m just against the idea that you get your own zone.”
Another key reason the project did not pass was California Coastal Act 30251, which requires all coastal developments to have compatibility with their surroundings.
California Coastal Commission Vice Chair Mark Stone, who is also a Santa Cruz County supervisor, was looked at by many as the key to passing the proposed LCP amendment, because of his ties to the area. However, Stone worried that bending the height regulations for this hotel would set precedent for a slippery slope of over-development that could fundamentally change the makeup of Santa Cruz.
“What happens if all of these properties ask for a higher height limit?” he asked. “I would hate to see us set a standard that would drive prices up so high that we would lose [low-income and diverse] beachgoers.”
Mayor Coonerty saw Stone’s “no” vote as a betrayal of sorts.
“Mark Stone failed to represent the values of Santa Cruz, which is particularly disappointing,” he says.
Other critics of Stone have suggested that his vote was politically motivated. Stone has often been pro-labor in the past, and Barry Swenson Builder was unable to reach a contract agreement with the local labor union for the project. Although the developers still guaranteed local and/or union workers at least 80 percent of the construction jobs and planned to match the nearby Dream Inn’s union wages and benefits for their operational staff, the project entered into sticky political territory. However, Stone stuck to reasoning that the hotel was simply too big a project for the location.
“I think a project like this can be done in the framework that exists,” he said in the meeting, before casting his “no” vote.
Barry Swenson Builder’s time with the Seaside Company, current owners of La Bahia as well as the Boardwalk, runs out soon, and they have announced that they will not continue to fight for the hotel. It remains to be seen if other developers will submit new plans.
The entire meeting was notably tense, with snickers during speeches and mutterings of phrases like “I’ve heard that before” and “so obnoxious” coming from both sides. People often spoke right up to and past the buzzer of their two-minute time limit.
One of the most passionate testimonials came from a pregnant woman whose voice cracked with tears when she said she hoped to someday walk her baby’s stroller past the new La Bahia Hotel.
“I know that we will have a hotel and conference center there [someday],” she said. “Is this hotel too tall? No, it’s not, because it’s a beacon of hope.”
The only time when all sides agreed was during the applause when the roughly four-hour long public comment period ended—it was a long day.
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