Development in the city of Santa Cruz is never easy.
In the case of building a new hotel with even modest conference facilities, it’s proving maddeningly slow and frustrating.
The push for such a hotel stretches back decades. The only project still standing, in terms of a development application, is the La Bahia Hotel — and now it’s tottering.
The latest setback came last week when city officials abruptly pulled their hearing before the state Coastal Commission after deciding their chances of getting commissioners to approve a building height waiver were probably slim.
On the face of it, the La Bahia project, which got Santa Cruz City Council approval in April 2009, would seem to be a no brainer. The hotel would replace a crumbling property owned by the Santa Cruz Seaside Co. that currently provides rental housing for students and Beach Boardwalk employees. The site is smack dab in the middle of the city’s tourist-rich Beach Area, just down and across the street from the Boardwalk — hardly a pristine coastal area requiring environmental protections.
The hotel would provide significant tax revenues to a city desperately trying to grow its way out of a projected $6 million deficit, along with jobs in a county with double-digit employment.
Moreover, the La Bahia was a successor project to a planned expansion of the Beach Area Dream Inn hotel that would have included conference facilities. That hotel ran afoul of neighborhood and political opposition and the developer pulled out.
The La Bahia was proposed as a partnership between Barry Swenson Builder, a development firm with a long track record in Santa Cruz, and the property owners, the Seaside Co.
Trouble came quickly, however. First the project ran afoul of historic preservationists who don’t want to see the existing La Bahia torn down. Then trade union leaders rose up in opposition because Swenson would not pledge to hire all union crews to build the hotel.
And property owners living behind the La Bahia fought the proposal because they said its height, already modified by Swenson, would block their ocean views.
It was the latter point of contention the Coastal Commission was to take up, since the city was required to seek an amendment to the local coastal protection law allowing the hotel’s height, over four stories in places.
But city officials along with Swenson representatives had been worried that county Supervisor Mark Stone, the local representative on the Coastal Commission has been non committal on how he would vote. Stone’s earlier nuanced position on the city’s application to build a trail through the Arana Gulch greenbelt was blamed by some for the commission’s sending the project back for changes.
Stone replies that his Coastal Commission role is not to be a cheerleader for Santa Cruz projects, but to ensure the coast is protected.
The overall makeup of the commission — Gov. Jerry Brown recently removed two members appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — left the city needing to convince 6 of 10 remaining members to support their amendment to the Coastal Act without knowing if Stone supported their application. Meanwhile, commission staff has cast a critical eye at the project and indicated they might not support it without further changes.
Where do La Bahia backers go from here? Swenson needs to decide if yet another redesign is worth it.
City officials have little choice but to move forward, since they have to find a way out of a financial fix while upgrading the Beach Area, which remains a mix of tourist attractions, lodging, residences and rundown structures.
As we said, nothing is ever easy in Santa Cruz.