The iconic, Spanish colonial-style apartment building near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk known as La Bahia may finally be getting a new life. It dates back to the Roaring 20s, but has been deteriorating for years.
The Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which owns the Boardwalk, also owns La Bahia. The building is located kitty-corner across from Beach Street. The company said earlier this year that it was prepared to move forward with a 165-room hotel in partnership with a Chicago-based developer, Prime Group, Inc. Architects for the project say it respects the site’s rich history while curing what has become something of an eyesore in the heart of the city’s tourist area.
“I just think it looks rundown. I just think they could actually use this space for something,” said one recent visitor, Tommy Vo of San Jose.
Still recognizable with its soaring bell tower, the vacant building’s white stucco walls have turned gray. Paint is peeling, plaster is cracking, and the iron gates leading into the inner courtyards are padlocked. Planners envision a showplace, with banquet and meeting space, two restaurants, a pool and a spa.
Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce CEO Casey Beyer said his organization fully supports the plans. He said the new hotel, in conjunction with the meeting and banquet facilities in the Cocoanut Grove across the street, would fill a longstanding void in Santa Cruz.
“We don't have any type of conventions-type facility that can draw small groups that want to have their conferences of industry and then be right on the beach,” Beyer said. “It’ll be a magnet for people to come. It’ll be a center that you can have events and conferences of what I call a very good size for Santa Cruz County.”
But a coalition of preservationists says the renovation plans are disastrous.
“This was not at all a restoration project,” said Ross Eric Gibson of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission. Gibson led a group of local residents and former public officials calling itself the La Bahia Coalition.
Built by the Seaside Company in 1926, La Bahia was originally known as the Casa Del Rey Apartments. It was a luxury alternative to the Casa Del Rey Hotel, which stood directly across the street from the Boardwalk.
“They wanted a place for extended stay visitors so that people could stay longer than just a week or two in the summertime,” Gibson said.
With 44 rooms, a fountain fed by a natural spring, and a series of inner courtyards that have exotic names like the Court of the Mariners and the Court of the Troubadours, La Bahia was designed as a refuge for the well-heeled tourists. They came from San Francisco, the Central Valley and beyond to visit the Santa Cruz beachfront. Film stars including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were said to be regulars.
“You could retreat just a few feet into the courtyards and find complete calm, and even the 20th century was blocked out by the view of the inner gardens. You felt that you'd stepped back in time into a Spanish garden or a California garden of old,” Gibson said. “It’s a vacation for the mind.”
But tastes and travel patterns changed. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the Casa Del Rey hotel down the street and attention turned to preserving surviving structures like La Bahia. By then, the building was already a shell of its former self, serving as housing for UC Santa Cruz students and seasonal workers at the Boardwalk. Today, only a lone caretaker lives on site.
A master plan for the neighborhood adopted by the city in 1998, for which Gibson served as a consultant, called for La Bahia to be turned into a conference hotel, but “retaining the architectural character defining elements” of the original.
Artists’ renderings of the latest plans for the site, produced by San Francisco architecture firm Leddy Maytum Stacy, show a six-story complex rising up the hillside. The section of the old building facing Beach Street with the familiar bell tower is the only part of the original complex that remains.
“That's what they have planned to save and they're saving it out of context,” Gibson said.
Gibson favors a more modest development on the intimate scale of the original. But a 2014 analysis prepared for the city by Oakland-based consultant Economic and Planning Systems concluded that anything smaller that the 165-room proposal was not financially viable.
Beyer believes the developers have struck a good balance between old and new.
“I think it's a win-win for the community,” he said.
The Seaside Company had planned to begin construction this summer, but the Santa Cruz Planning Department is still evaluating the building permit applications the company submitted earlier this year. Senior Planner Ryan Bane described the construction plans as “complex.”
Gibson sees the delay as an opening. He is still hoping the California Coastal Commission will consider whether the project violates the city’s 1998 master plan.
“This is not a dead issue,” he said.
But the commission thus far has shown no interest in revisiting the project. It denied a request for a hearing in 2014 and endorsed the redevelopment plan. A spokeswoman for the commission said a ten-day window to appeal the decision expired “years ago.”
For its part, the Seaside Company is keeping quiet. After initially agreeing to make the La Bahia project manager available to be interviewed for this story, a spokesman said the firm is not ready to talk publicly about the project after all.
“We are still a few months away from having something substantive to discuss,” Kris Reyes, Director of Strategic Development and External Affairs, said in an email.
Reyes said the project has cleared all of the necessary regulatory hurdles and is “fully entitled.” But he offered no explanation about why the project appears stalled yet again, and would not speculate on a start date. The company previously said that construction would take about two years.
UPDATE 10/3/19: An earlier version of this story stated that Ross Gibson and the La Bahia Coalition planned a new appeal to the California Coastal Commission. Gibson says while he remains hopeful the commission and the city will have a change of heart, no new appeal is planned. He also says the La Bahia Coalition is currently inactive.