By Caitlin Rushton
The battle over La Bahía, the apartment complex on 215 Beach Street, has been brewing for almost a decade.
In its prime, the 1926 relic, built by famed Berkeley architect William Hays, was known for its striking Spanish-style architecture, courtyards and sprawling ocean views. Today the building slumps in a state of disrepair and has been tainted as a community “eyesore.”
There is a muddled conflict of interest over what to do about La Bahía, or La Behemoth, as opponents have deemed it. The building has been standing firm in Santa Cruz for decades, providing low-cost housing for students during the school year and workers during the summer. The prime location boasts an enviable view of the ocean, across the street from the Boardwalk and close to downtown.
Currently the plan is to demolish the 90 plus year-old building to build a first-rate hotel. Plans for a 125-room hotel and conference center with a 3,000 square foot restaurant, swimming pool and underground parking garage have been in the works since 2003. If approved, the building would become the tallest structure on the Santa Cruz shore, at 72.5 feet.
The only existing piece of structure to be preserved would be the top portion of the bell tower, though the building would also have to follow La Bahía’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and house an interpretive history exhibit in its lobby area to make up for the demolition.
Though the hotel is projected to bring much-needed revenue to Santa Cruz, not everyone is pleased with the way the project is being handled. Developers, planning commissioners, union workers and neighbors are all jostling over how to turn the run-down apartment complex into a hotel in a way that will benefit everyone. Tensions and tempers are high while the project continues to inch inevitably forward.
Because of the drop in industrial jobs and revenue, the city decided it was crucial to invest in tourism to help keep Santa Cruz financially afloat. In 2003, Barry Swenson Builder, a development company based in the Bay Area, proposed a plan to convert the La Bahía complex into a hotel.
“We have hotels that are more mom-and-pop [style], but we don’t have a medium- or high-end hotel in Santa Cruz,” Jesse Nickell, vice president of Barry Swenson Builder, said of the current Santa Cruz tourism industry. “We have a bigger vision: a unique piece of property. It’s one block between the wharf and the Boardwalk, it’s probably the most unique piece of property we’ll get to develop.”
The original plan included preserving some of the more unique features of the current structure and was approved by the City Council.
However, plans changed after a closer review of the site in 2005. Following a more thorough investigation, the developer decided that the building had suffered too much damage and deterioration to be converted successfully and proposed tearing the building down completely and starting from scratch. Since then, the road towards realizing any building plan has been rocky.
Nickell said the current plans for the boutique-like hotel include features that appeal to upper-middle-class, vacation-bound families. Some vacation condominiums will be offered for sale during holiday months, and the facility will cater to corporate and university-based functions in the off-season.
Although the current La Bahía building is not particularly popular, it is designated as a historic building, and the partnership had to do some negotiating to get Historical Commission sign-off on demolition of the structure. It took four or five meetings to reach an agreement: that the end product will be of a standard that a Historical Commission 80 years from now will try to save.
Over the years, the plan for La Bahía has changed multiple times, with its proposed height often at the center of much debate.
In April 2008, plans put the hotel’s proposed height at a towering, all-time high of 90 feet.
Senior City Planner Don Lauritson explained that other plans included two towers, but the design would block viewpoints from the wharf, West Cliff and Beach Hill. The proposal quickly died after these communities voiced strong opposition to the proposal.
The current, but still tentative plan, would put the hotel between 58-60 feet, still over the city’s height limit of 43 feet.
The Coastal Commission and City Planning officials have yet to approve this plan. Whether they ever will is uncertain, Lauritson said.
“The general view is that it would be out of scale with the neighborhood. Their letters appeared to make it unlikely they’d approve [the new proposal],” Lauritson said of the Coastal Commission.
Frustration over the lack of agreement between all involved parties has become a common emotion.
In addition to being at odds with the neighbors and city planning groups, Barry Swenson Builder has made another powerful group angry: Santa Cruz union workers. There are no concrete agreements to employ union workers in this project, though the company has been known to do so in San Jose.
“This developer builds almost all their stuff using unions, and somehow 30 miles away they decide they don’t want to do that,” city council member Tony Madrigal said. “What makes Santa Cruz so different from San Jose that they don’t also want to show that same respect in how they pay the people who would be building the project?”
Community and labor groups have withheld endorsement of the project without labor agreements.
Santa Cruz’s Community Coalition for a Sustainable Economy (CCSE) said it would be difficult to formally endorse the project until the owners of the project reach agreements with the key unions, which represent the community’s values on workers’ rights to organize and to receive a living wage.
The Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, representing 30,000 union members, voted unanimously at its July 2, 2007 delegate meeting to oppose the La Bahía project until the developers come to agreements with the Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties Building Trades and UNITEHERE Local 483 unions, demonstrating a commitment to quality jobs.
Pro-union sentiment is strong in Santa Cruz, and the developer’s decision was once again met with public displeasure. On Aug. 21, a rally outside the site took place, sponsored by the Build a Better La Bahía Coalition and UNITEHERE Local 483.
“Our middle class came from union workers,” said Mark Weller, spokesman for UNITEHERE, adding that Santa Cruz has lost two-fifths of its manufacturing jobs. “This country probably won’t get back [those jobs], but service jobs can’t be shipped overseas. You have to have a person there to change the bed. We need to make good middle-class jobs for the future and we need a union movement to push those jobs up.”
However Nickell said that Barry Swenson Builder has nothing against union workers and that agreement between the two parties has been stalled because of the lack of a subcontractor.
“Our coalition is concerned that here’s a project that is in violation of nearly every one of Santa Cruz’s values,” Weller said. “They’re asking for changes in height limits, changes in zoning plans and changes in coastal plans. Barry Swenson is basically thumbing their nose at the values of our community.”
Although the plan has been revised several times and building has yet to commence after over a decade, many are still hoping for its completion.
“Santa Cruz needs to try to get something built,” Lauritson said. “Ten years later we still haven’t built there, but I think everyone here is expecting something to happen. The trick is to not lose the identity of the community during the development process.”