Monterey's Last Hotel
After 15 years, there's renewed hope that the hole in Cannery Row will host more than frogs.
Thursday, August 26, 1999
While most recent attention has been focused on the battle to build the Cannery Row Marketplace on one end of Cannery Row, another large Cannery Row project is suddenly showing signs of renewed life. Earlier this month Ted Balestreri''s Cannery Row Company (CRC) announced plans to go forward with building a hotel in the unsightly, sprawling hole near the aquarium--the one filled with concrete slab and exposed re-bar that stretches over several blocks.
If all goes according to plan, Woodside Hotels will finish erecting the hotel and then operate it under a 99-year lease from CRC, which owns the site.
"We''ll all be happy when the hotel is built and there are more people roaming our streets," says Nancy Stokes who owns a business on Cannery Row.
The hole often puzzles tourists; it looks like a construction site, but no construction equipment or workmen ever appear. Locals have dubbed it "the Frog Pond" or "the Balestreri Wetlands" because during rainy winter months it has often filled with water and produced a chorus of croaking frogs. Both tourists and locals have wondered how such an eyesore could sit in the middle of a prime tourist spot for some 15 years, all the while retaining its building permit? And could it happen again? Could another project sit unfinished for years on the Row or elsewhere in the city?
The simple answer is yes, it could happen again. To keep a building permit active, Monterey''s city code requires only that there be some progress on a project every 180 days. So, although it doesn''t look like any progress has been made at the Frog Pond for years, the original 1981 building permits are still active because every six months some new piece of the building is added, albeit a small piece.
Monterey''s director of community development, Bill Wojtkowski, explains that, if a construction project were to have any deleterious impact on public access to the Row (such as the proposed Cannery Row Marketplace might have), the city would consider attaching performance bonds to new development projects. He emphasizes, however, that he doesn''t see building permits with open-ended timelines as a major problem. "You have to ask, is this [the stalled hotel construction] the exception or the rule, and how far do you go with the exception?"
The long tale of the Frog Pond begins way back in the early 1980s when CRC leased the site for 99 years to a partnership between Thos. Rohr and the Atlas Company, a large company that owns and operates numerous upscale hotels across the country. Balestreri explains that Atlas developed plans to build a hotel on the site, received permits from the city, and began building in 1985.
The hotel was to be the last one built in Monterey. So many hotels had gone up in the early ''80s that, in 1986, voters passed a City Charter amendment to prohibit any new hotel construction on sites that had not already been zoned for that purpose.
But Monterey is still waiting for its last hotel to actually have doors, let alone open them to guests. Atlas abruptly stopped construction when, according to Balestreri, just a year or so after beginning the project, the company ran into financial trouble and decided it would forego progress in Monterey to save some of its other holdings. It was a time, says Balestreri, that some 60 percent of all hotels across the country couldn''t make debt service.
CRC attempted to force Atlas to resume construction by taking it to court. While CRC won the first round in Monterey County Superior Court, it lost in the San Jose Appellate Court and was left with little choice but to seek a settlement with Atlas.
Balestreri says that for a long time Atlas tried to keep the project alive, but in the end, was happy to get rid of it and stop the bleed. By its own account, the company had poured some $5 to 6 million into the project.
In 1994, Atlas and CRC reached an agreement that dissolved Atlas'' lease. Since then, Balestreri says CRC has been busy looking for a new developer. Marriott was interested for a time, and Westin Hotels spent about a year considering the site. It was Woodside, which already operates the Monterey Plaza Hotel, that finally struck a new 99-year deal with CRC.
"The Monterey Plaza has done so well that they are the natural partners for this project," commented Balestreri. The Plaza also sits on a CRC-owned site.
According to Balestreri, it is pure coincidence that the hotel plans were announced just as the Monterey City Council began considering the Cannery Row Marketplace development. He emphasizes that his company does not own the Marketplace site and has "no ties whatsoever" to that development.
Balestreri also notes that, because the permit for the original Atlas hotel has been kept active, construction could resume without any new permits. It is only because the plan for the hotel has been updated that Woodside Hotels is seeking a new permit from the city.
The new draft plan includes a public promenade that wraps around the bay side of the building and will offer good views of Doc Rickett''s lab. "At no time in the past was there public access to that piece of coast," boasts Balestreri. The plan also includes rooflines that mimic those of the canneries and a cut out on the ground floor that allows a unique view down to the bay waters below. The hotel will have 205 rooms instead of the original 212, more retail space, and the building''s footprint will be slightly smaller than that originally planned.
Balestreri exudes excitement in discussing the new hotel. "We''d like to see it be the finishing touch" on the Row, he says, something that will give "a sense of pride for the community."
Others who believe that previous developments have not done enough to preserve the historical significance of the Row are reserving judgment until they get a look at the development plan. "I''m glad that it''s finally going to happen, but I''m also anxious to see what the plans will actually be," says local historian Neal Hotelling. "This is a wonderful opportunity to further enhance Cannery Row or further detract from it."