A Big Dream for Oldtown
Hotel-condo development will mean deep changes in Salinas—if it happens.
Thursday, August 19, 2004
If there is a Santa Claus, he may well be coming to Salinas in the form of an Irishman from Dublin named Gerry Kehoe.
Kehoe got plans for the development of a hotel-condominium complex in Oldtown Salinas. If things move along the way he intends, he says homeowners could be turning the keys to their new condos at about Christmastime next year. If the plan works, Kehoe stands to accomplish what others before him have been unable to do. If it doesn’t, it will be a big letdown to city officials who’ve been wanting something to happen in Oldtown for decades.
“We’ve had a plan for this site going on 15 years,” says Alan Stumpf, director of the Salinas Redevelopment Agency. “But this one is fairly new.”
Kehoe first had eyes for the project, commissioned by the City of Salinas, about three years ago, he says.
“They were making that Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis movie,” he recalls, describing Bandits, which was filmed in the neighborhood in December 2000. “I went down to be inquisitive about what they were doing, and I ended up buying the bank
Then, Kehoe says, as he was standing in the old Wells Fargo Bank building at Gabilan and Main—envisioning a PF Chang’s restaurant for the space (the Chinese bistro later declined to open a restaurant at the location citing lack of foot traffic)—the vacant land at the 100 block of Main Street next to the National Steinbeck Center caught his attention. “And then I ended up entering into negotiations with the City to construct downtown housing and a first-class hotel,” he says.
Kehoe’s idea for housing on the city-owned Oldtown lots includes 500 condos. The first-class hotel he refers to is a 300-room Hilton.
The development will be housed in buildings twice the size of the area’s tallest building (the Community Bank building) and will consist of three 14-story towers—that’s two stories taller than the county’s tallest building, the Embassy Suites in Seaside. One tower will be built where the Greyhound Station is now on Salinas Street, and two more in the empty lot next door to the Salinas Valley Fish House.
It’s an ambitious plan, one that includes state-of-the-art technology from the get-go. Rick Phinney, Kehoe’s marketing director, says prospective condo buyers will be able to take virtual tours of their new homes in a matter of months, where they will be able to choose layouts, flooring, light fixtures and countless other features.
“It’ll be more than a floor plan or a scale model,” he says. “Just a click on the computer, and they’ll have a virtual tour, multi-dimensional, of what their home will look like.”
The condos, ranging from a 500-square-foot studio to a 1,700-square-foot two-bedroom penthouse with ocean views, will run from about $275,000 to $799,000. None will have any more than two bedrooms.
Phinney says the association dues have not yet been calculated, though he expects them to be “lower than normal.” Prudential California Realtor Chris Leon says those association fees typically run about $500 a month.
According to Kehoe, who spoke to the Weekly from his home in Florida, the condominiums are just a small part of the overall picture. “These are what we call ‘lifestyle condos,’” he says. “We’re not selling four walls and what’s inside. We’re selling the entire development as an extension of your living room, with all of the amenities that come with the hotel part of it: valet parking, 24-hour security, the best health clubs, trainers, spas, restaurants, boutiques, a high-end market, bookstore. If you can think of it, it’ll probably be there.”
“We’re going to do stuff that’s never been done before, at least in this county,” Phinney says of the project. This would include a 24-hour concierge. “If you’re tired from a long day, you can call down and ask the bellman to go over to the upscale deli and pick up dinner and bring it up for you,” he says.
Residents will also become members of what Kehoe refers to as “an exclusive club,” one that comes with a charge card in the name of Kehoe’s development company (Berkley, Inc.), which will allow residents to “live life without a dime in their pockets,” he says. “Wherever you go in the area, put it on your Berkley card, and you’ll just get a bill, interest-free, at the end of the month.”
Whether or not the project becomes a reality, Kehoe is certainly a visionary. But Salinas residents have had hopes for Oldtown dashed more than once before. A decade ago, developer Barry Swenson had visions of erecting a hotel on the property. Swenson’s father Carl had done just that nearly a century before in Oldtown, but the building is long gone.
“I wanted very much to build that project,” San Jose-based Swenson says, “probably because of that family tie. It held so much potential. But the City and their lawyers just got too demanding. And I couldn’t pay $1 million in attorney’s fees to make it happen. So instead, I went on and refurbished the old Hotel De Anza in San Jose.”
The city isn’t the problem this time around.
“There’s been fits and starts, and plenty of times when this project has slowed tremendously,” says Mayor Anna Caballero. “And now I hear [Kehoe]’s been in town again, but he’s talking to everyone but me. There have been times when I have no idea where he is on the project.”
Kehoe and Berkley, Inc. are, in fact, in the middle of an Environmental Impact Report that Phinney says should take just another couple of months.
Caballero thinks even that is a bit optimistic.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “This is California. Perhaps he’s not used to the way we do things around here. First of all, we have earthquakes. The area was a slough in the 1800s.”
Caballero is also skeptical of Kehoe’s ambitious completion date.
“Fifteen months? Nothing moves that fast,” she says. “With all due respect, if that was the timeline, he would have had the EIR done a year ago.
“The challenge is that it is a visionary project. He’s sold the vision to the council. But there are pieces that are very aggressive, and they have to work. The only way we’ll know whether they’ll work is to do the EIR. Everything hinges on that. And until then, we don’t have an agreement, no contract.”
Stumpf agrees it’s quite a plan, and territory the city’s yet to tread.
“We’ve done parking analysis, even a shadow study, which is something new for Monterey County,” he says, “because these buildings will cast a shadow across Oldtown. But we’re just waiting. Waiting for his geotechnical study, the EIR, and we’re hoping that’ll be concluded by around the first of the year.”
Vanessa Swan, owner of This or Die in Salinas, like many, is a skeptic.
“500 condos? Here in Salinas? Yeah, right,” she says. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Swan’s Oldtown store is close to falling victim to the dearth of foot traffic.
“I’d love to be able to keep the store open until 8, 9, 10 o’clock,” she says. “I’m stretching it by waiting to close until 6:30. And Saturdays, forget it. It’s so slow, I shouldn’t even open at all.”
Swan has just opened a store in Monterey, hoping the Alvarado Street location can keep both trendy boutiques afloat for a while. “I don’t want to have to close the Salinas store,” she says. “Right now I don’t have to, but I’m just going to have to wait and see.”
Phinney says he’d urge storeowners like Swan to do just that.
“I would absolutely say to her, ‘Stick it out.’ This project is going to bring a minimum of 750 people to live right there in that downtown area. If we even take an average of someone making $40,000 per year, that’s $30 million in gross income dumped into a two-square block area of Salinas,” he says.
Kehoe says his plan is all about downtown revitalization.
“The merchants suffering today will find there’s an economic boom coming their way,” he says. “We’re about to spend over $200 million in the community in the next few years. You’re going to walk downtown with your partner and see a movie, buy a cup of coffee, an ice cream, visit the shops. The downtown can finally become a beacon of the future—a vibrant, living, breathing anchor of the city.”
Caballero is guardedly enthused by that prospect.
“There’s no question that it’s an urban facelift,” she says. “It can create a new vision to a downtown that has always been the heart and soul of this community.”
Alexander Urciuoli, spokesperson for Citizens for Responsible Growth, says that while the organization has no official position on the project, he thinks the plan “on its face, checks off a lot of the boxes down our list of goals.”
“It’s city-centered growth, it doesn’t urbanize any ag land or tap a natural resource, and it goes up instead of out. If it’s done right, it’ll be great. If it isn’t, we could end up with an eyesore we’ll have to look at for years to come,” he says.
Stumpf says the Redevelopment Agency sees the plan contributing to the preservation of the county’s most precious commodity—its ag land.
“We have to step up and face the fact that destruction of our ag land is ultimately very costly. We have to plan for the future.”
Mayor Anna Caballero sees that, but also fears that the current plan may be too much of a good thing.
“This council, for the past 13, 14 years, has been focused on being wise stewards of the land,” she says. “And I do know that we have to develop up. It’s the only thing that’s going to be the salvation of ag land. But how high is too high? I don’t know yet. I haven’t decided that 14 is some magic number to me. I can tell you that I’m not in favor of 14-story buildings cropping up all over the city.”
For his part, Kehoe says he is staying focused exclusively on Oldtown. He says when all is said and done, including a development he’s not yet ready to talk about, there will be 1,000 condos downtown.
Kehoe’s promising to do it right.
“We’re absolutely committed to making sure the historical integrity of Salinas is maintained as we construct these buildings,” he says.
For that, Kehoe has employed MWM Architects out of Oakland. MWM has built multiple resort towers on a reef in Guam, and the 23-story Sutton Place luxury hotel in Chicago, and has done a slew of historical restorations around the country.
“We tried to keep it local,” Phinney says, “but we wanted someone who had the experience of bigger developments.”
“Most environmentalists should embrace this. The naysayers are going to be really embarrassed when they see how this thing turns out. This project is a phenomenal way to let Salinas grow responsibly, to increase the tax base, to revitalize the downtown area, and to make it a place people will want to come.”
That’s if it happens. In a recent poll conducted by the Salinas Californian, 57.1 percent of respondents said they didn’t think the project would ever really get off the ground.
“I would love it. Really I would,” Swan says. “But I just don’t see it. Then again, I really hope they prove me wrong.”
Caballero is ready for someone to prove anything, and quickly.
“I have questions,” she says. “It’s a hotel-condo. How do they interface? How will it operate? What kind of inclusionary housing will they have? It’s stuff that can make or break a project,” she says.
Phinney admits that the Christmastime 2005 projection may be a little bit outside the realm of possibility and says that anywhere from 15 to 22 months is probably more likely.
Caballero just wants it to move along.
“It’s a tremendous project,” she says. “But right now, it’s all just theoretical. It’s taking a while. And the longer the process takes, the more frustration I feel,” she says. “Either it needs to be done, or we’re going to be in the market to shop for a new hotel.”