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Landmark Case

[whitespace] La Bahia Apartments Tower of Power: La Bahia Apartments, a quiet relic of 1920s Spanish architecture, takes center stage as labor advocates, neighborhood activists and history buffs step forward to plan the city's future.

Dai Sugano

Is La Bahia part of Santa Cruz's leisurely past or a key to its economic future?

By Mary Spicuzza

SHARP FUMES of ammonia-laced cleanser pierce the stale, musty air filling the hallways of Beach Street's La Bahia Apartments. Moving crews girdled in thick black belts drag new mattresses into the small rooms, preparing for hordes of young workers arriving to operate rides at The Boardwalk for the summer. If UCSC is Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp, the old hotel, which serves as low-income housing the other nine months of the year, now seems to be gearing up for the camp counselors.

Winding down a staircase and through one of the arched passageways, I breathe gratefully, inhaling the fresh air filling La Bahia's outdoor courtyard. A fountain bubbles between a blossoming flower garden and the raised Patio de los Mirtos, a tree-filled haven known during its glory days as Court of the Laurels. Surrounded by the timeless courtyard of La Bahia, built by the Seaside Company in 1926, I half-expect to see the ghosts of film legends Mary Pickford, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks dancing in the gardens. All frequented the Casa Del Rey hotel, a majestic multi-lot hotel that included La Bahia, known for its exotic architecture, luxurious suites and sprawling beaches.

Across from the colorful central courtyard, yellow caution tape wraps around makeshift wooden beams that support a crumbling walkway. This and the cracking paint, stained walls and rusty metal gratings protruding from the broken ceiling hint at how hard the years have been on La Bahia. By 1983, La Bahia had fallen far enough into disrepair to be used as the seedy hotel where Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry stays while tracking a serial killer in Sudden Impact.

"Zero maintenance, rampant vandalism, rising rents and drug dealing problems, plus one of the owners jailed for trying to sink his yacht to collect insurance, led to public characterizations that they were slumlords," local historian Ross Eric Gibson writes in Empire of the Casa Del Rey. "And this former showplace a flophouse."

On Tuesday, July 6, the Santa Cruz City Council hosts a public meeting to weigh preservation of La Bahia against its desire for a conference hotel. During the Beach Area planning process, the site emerged as the recommended spot for a 275-room conference facility. But Mayor Katherine Beiers and the new council have opted to re-evaluate the plans, again considering building on the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel (the former Dream Inn) and Main Beach parking-lot sites.

Grueling public debates over plans for the beach and south of Laurel area shaped last year's City Council elections. Now councilmembers face another wave of decisions over implementing the controversial plan. When it comes to navigating preservation, neighborhood concerns, development and creating living-wage jobs, perhaps nothing represents the hurdles and opportunities ahead better than the ailing La Bahia.

Circle of Friends

ALLEGRA BRIGGS peers from under her sun visor at the towering Sunshine Villa retirement home on Beach Hill. She points to the turret and classic façade of the Front Street Villa, once known as McCray Hotel, which became so run down during the 1960s that it served as inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's decaying Bates mansion in Psycho. Leading me around the side of the revamped old hotel, Briggs explains that later additions feature architectural styles nothing like those of the original 1910 landmark, a process of alteration that she fears could happen to La Bahia.

Briggs, founder of a new group called Friends of La Bahia, says she is anything but a cause-of-the-day activist. Pushing wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose, the former paleontology doctoral student says she'd never attended a planning meeting until last year. It was then that Briggs learned of proposals for La Bahia in the draft Beach and South of Laurel Comprehensive Area Plan.

"Through my involvement with the Beach Area Working Group, I learned a lot about the plan," Briggs says. "I got a sense of what was going to happen. And what was going to be lost."

As we pass a construction site advertising eight new luxury homes, Briggs explains that she learned about old buildings while training to lead Beach Hill historic walking tours. After passing La Bahia every day for nearly five years, the devout pedestrian says she's fallen in love with its bell tower and Spanish arches.

If San Luis Obispo-based developer King Ventures--which is negotiating to buy the property from the Seaside Company--works closely with local residents, Briggs says she won't fight a small project emphasizing historic renovation. But she and her group insist a 275-room conference center on the site would destroy a precious historic resource and overwhelm the neighborhood.

Originally named the Casa Del Rey Apartments, La Bahia was built by the Seaside Company in 1926 to provide waterfront vacationers with extended-stay facilities as an addition to the Casa Del Rey. Architect William C. Hays, creator of several Berkeley landmarks, designed La Bahia hoping to capture the charm of coastal Spain and the village atmosphere of Puerto Vallarta.

Gibson says La Bahia's Spanish-Italian architecture, including its bell tower, arched passageways, mercado square and central fountain, makes it one of the few local buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The city has lost other significant local landmarks, including the original Cooper House and the Trust Building. To prevent losing another, the city's Historic Preservation Commission is now in the process of declaring the old hotel a Santa Cruz Landmark.

Briggs says it's not a choice between jobs and preservation, arguing instead that the city should transform the building into a small hotel or retail center full of shops for tourists and locals. "People talk about private property rights," Briggs says, brushing her windblown curls out of her face. "But your right to swing your arm stops at my nose."

Katherine Beiers
Dai Sugano

Courting Rituals: Mayor Katherine Beiers says the City Council needs to take a step back and include the public in shaping beach area plans.

State of the Union

THE LAST THING union activist Nora Hochman wants to see crop up in Santa Cruz is another boutique hotel in place of the proposed conference facility. "We're concerned about quality jobs, and as the number of hotel rooms drops, it impacts the ability of those jobs to be union jobs," Hochman says. "Our whole reason for existence is to organize workers in significant numbers, to allow them to collectively bargain in ways that make a difference. Boutique hotels don't allow us to do that."

The city can't require King Ventures to hire union labor--a decision to unionize must come from the workers. But the council has expressed support for a unionized work force, and a project must guarantee a "prevailing wage" to qualify for city redevelopment funds.

"We don't have any legal basis to say it will be a union hotel. But a prevailing wage generally means union wage," says Ceil Cirillo, city redevelopment director. "Until we know what the project is, we don't even know if redevelopment funds would go into it."

Hochman, longtime political director for Service Employees International Union Local 415, sees the city's main choices as questions of size and scale. And she says Santa Cruz's need for living-wage jobs requires a conference hotel of at least 250 rooms.

"This town is desperate for work. Ends are not meeting for people here," Hochman says. "Union work is stable and secure; it minimizes transience and turnover. We hope to work with the council to build significant jobs."

Ends haven't been meeting for the city, either. This year the council may be pulling $400,000 from reserves to balance the budget. If King Ventures builds the 275-room conference hotel, it could bring more than a million dollars to the city's general fund each year, thanks to a 10 percent-per-room tax surcharge.

"The ticky-tacky motels in town represent random, wanton development," Hochman says. "They are ugly. On behalf of HERE [Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union], I can say they are ugly. We support that this be an attractive, compatible building."

Union advocates concede that the their primary concern isn't preserving landmarks or keeping neighbors happy, it's organizing workers. And according to the beach area draft plan, the city has needed a conference center for years. "Since 1992, two separate market studies have indicated market support for a major conference facility located on the beach front in Santa Cruz," the plan reads. It cites a 1995 study, done by Scott Hospitality Consultants, which recommends a 275- to 325-room hotel close to the Cocoanut Grove featuring a restaurant, bar, fitness center, pool and prime ocean views.

"If you reduce the number of rooms too much, it'll be just another hotel on the beach, which is different from what the city had said it needs," says Leonard O'Neill, secretary-treasurer of HERE local 483. "And the city has to go on record that they're interested in quality, living-wage jobs."

Scene Stealers

DON WEBBER leans his tanned hands on the balcony wall, surveying the fog-wrapped wharf only minutes from his First Street home. Even on a hazy morning, his flower-lined deck explodes with color. "Essentially, I don't want the neighborhood to suffer," Webber says. "I can understand why they want to do a hotel here. But when you factor in the size of the lot, what will the net buildable portion of the property support?"

The most recent proposals, outlined in the beach area plan, suggest preserving the Beach Street façade of La Bahia and following the contour of the land by building structures sloping up the hill. But exploiting the high ground for its prime views means stealing scenes from neighbors like Webber, who's lived in his home for 15 years.

"This response is offered as part constructive criticism, part suggestion for improvement and part self-defense," Webber wrote to the city after reading its draft environmental impact report. "The obliteration of ocean views dramatically lessens the quality of our lives and value of our homes."

Webber describes his vision for the La Bahia lot's high ground, which is now covered in a mass of rusting metal poles and broken roller-coaster cars. He hopes to see the vacant lot covered by hotel gardens that could be used for wine tastings or weddings.

"The architects come and spend 15 hours looking at the site, but I've spent 15 years looking at it," Webber says. "I think that La Bahia is a great hotel site. My question is, Are we setting ourselves up to build a great hotel on it? Or just a great big one?" He thinks the city is working on the assumption that the site can support such a large conference center without any evidence to back it up.

Gary Roberts, a First Street home owner who's lived on Beach Hill for 60 years, argues that a large hotel would also worsen traffic, parking and noise problems.

"Any plans have to be neighborhood friendly," Roberts says. "We have Boardwalk traffic, wharf traffic. I don't think our streets can handle any more."

Councilmember Mike Rotkin confesses that, if he lived on Beach Hill, he probably wouldn't want a new hotel suddenly blocking his view of the ocean and bringing new traffic. But he insists killing the project would be absurd.

"Six to eight people would hate this, but that can't be the decisive issue," Rotkin says. "We need to do what's best for the community at large, and so many people would benefit from this project. To not support it would be idiotic."

But Third District County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, who represents Santa Cruz, says that people throughout the community, not just a handful of neighbors, have valid concerns about the proposed hotel's size and scale.

"Last fall, voters said pretty clearly that they were not happy with the direction of the previous council," Wormhoudt says. "It's prudent to assess community opinion. There are serious infrastructure issues like roads, water and traffic."

Add to those concerns the loss of more than 40 units of affordable housing and the possibility of a building moratorium due to Santa Cruz's impending water crisis.

Still, Rotkin firmly believes La Bahia is the ideal location. He says that building a hotel on the site of the parking lot of the former Dream Inn has made an atrocious showing in past feasibility studies, and argues that building on the Main Beach parking lot would block many more views. He believes that in addition to building a tax base and adding to the general fund, the proposed conference hotel could save La Bahia, revitalize the Cocoanut Grove, provide jobs for Beach Flats residents and aid small local businesses near the wharf.

Rotkin adds, "The proposal preserves a building that is otherwise doomed to the scrap heap."

Don Webber View to a Killing: Beach Hill neighbor Don Webber insists the La Bahia site cannot sustain a large conference hotel.

Dai Sugano

Landmark Case

ROSS ERIC GIBSON pages through Waterfront Renaissance, one of his many works on Santa Cruz's past and future. The slightly built historian sits surrounded by a living museum of local history, including a statue from the original Cooper House hanging over former Mayor Swanton's old wooden chair. As I marvel at his view of winding West Cliff Drive, Gibson giggles recounting that his grandparents bought the house when others shunned the area, then known as the "pneumonia belt."

Over the years Gibson has seen numerous incarnations of plans for La Bahia, but hasn't been overwhelmed by their dedication to preserving its history. In 1984, Texan Thomas Underly eyed La Bahia for development. He proposed relocating residents and replacing the landmark with a four-story Hilton, inspired by the original building.

"The sketches showed a freeway-vernacular parody of historic architecture, with clunky postmodern features," Gibson writes in Empire of the Casa Del Rey.

Gibson, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, and others breathed a sigh of relief when the plan died due to controversies over resident relocation, architectural preservation and environmental concerns.

Then in 1994, a neighborhood group suggested restoring La Bahia and rebuilding the Casa Del Rey, a casualty of the 1989 earthquake. A plan submitted the following year by the city's architectural consultant, Bruce Judd, caused an uproar in the normally mild-mannered gang of local preservationists.

"The 1995 space-study for a 275-room replacement to the La Bahia, while not an actual proposal, nonetheless demonstrates the fallacy of concentrating all the facility's needs on a single site," Gibson writes in Empire. "This dump truck approach to packing every use possible on a single site ignores what made the Casa Del Rey great in its day. "

Recent proposals have included taking over Westbrook Street and expanding over the nearby Seaside Lodge, a bright-pink testament to architectural errors of the '60s. Gibson, who says the Judd report shouldn't be used as a guideline, suggests expanding even further, possibly encompassing the Surf Bowl.

The soft-spoken Gibson hardly fits the profile of a development foe--and he's not. He describes La Bahia as an "unfinished landmark," a simplified version of the project's original vision cut short due to funding troubles in the late 1920s.

"The interests of the historic community are not to obstruct the goal of first-class convention facilities," Gibson says, "but to overcome the limited imagination of anti-historic budget-rate planning during the last 30 years."

Back to the Future

WANDERING ALONG the cobbled walkways of La Bahia, I weave past a stack of children's bicycles and step on a chalk rainbow etched outside a stoop. Part of the history of the building also rests with its month-to-month tenants, many of whom couldn't afford to pay first- and last-month's rents and a deposit on another spot.

Early in the planning phase, without King Ventures' specific project proposals on the table, it's difficult to imagine what the future holds for the crumbling La Bahia. For now, negotiations feel like the courting phase of a new relationship.

Rotkin says it's a courtship that's gone on far too long. "I'm very frustrated with the project at this point. The developer has been sitting back and wondering, 'Is the city ready to talk or not?' What is holding us back?" Rotkin asks. He says that considering the Beach Plan was unanimously supported by the current council, and a conference hotel at La Bahia was cited as a top priority, he is dismayed by the process.

"The fact that this thing hasn't been approved is symptomatic of a problem citywide. Not just in the City Council," he says. "We want to have a public process. But to sit back and start over--it seems to be going nowhere."

But Mayor Beiers believes that taking a step back to re-evaluate plans allows newer council members and the community to fully participate in planning. "This is a way of getting us all up to the same level of information," she says. "It's something we need to do."

The Santa Cruz City Council hosts a special meeting about La Bahia and conference hotel plans at 4pm on Tuesday, July 6, in council chambers.

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From the June 30-July 7, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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