New Plans for Oldtown Salinas
Developers propose new city hall, library, condos and concert venue.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
A decade from now, Oldtown Salinas visitors could walk to their chic hotel after stopping by the National Steinbeck Center, or sip cocktails and mingle with condo owners at lively Main Street restaurants and bars. Maybe they’ll catch a booming concert at the historic Armory building or stroll down Lincoln Avenue, where lights illuminate a brand-new city hall and library.
As envisioned by two development proposals, Oldtown could become a hot spot for civic functions and nightlife, as opposed to an after-hours dead zone once government employees head home.
On April 8, the Salinas City Center Company will present design details for the long-awaited hotel project planned for Main Street’s 100 block. Peter Kasavan, a partner in the company, says the project will include a 150-room hotel, up to 50 condos and retail and office space. Kasavan says market conditions will have to improve, however, before the hotel can be built. The company wants to build retail shops and offices along Main Street first to generate demand for the hotel.
“What we are doing is trying to figure out what the market will support and focus on that component,” he says.
The group’s earlier proposal included 175 condos, which were expected to provide equity capital for the hotel. But because of the housing market downturn, the company has had to rethink its development plan, spending more than $400,000 on consultants and evaluating 10 project concepts, according to a December letter to the city. This has pushed back the project’s timeline considerably; City Manager Dave Mora has extended the company’s exclusive right to negotiate for the third time. The company now has until March 28 to deliver the project’s design and financial strategy.
Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue says he doesn’t want to see the development delayed any longer.
“There will be no extensions on the 100 block,” Donohue says. “Either we do or we don’t have a project, up or down.” That said, Donohue says he expects “to be shown a viable, exciting project that everyone will be pleased with.”
Assuming the council endorses the project’s design concept, it likely will take another year before city officials approve its environmental impact report, and two years until the project’s first phase opens, Kasavan says. This lengthy timeline could rival the four years that the city spent negotiating with Gerry Kehoe, a smooth-talking businessman Salinas dumped in 2005. (After several years of talk, Kehoe still is trying to open a nightclub and restaurant at the bank building he owns at 201 Main St.)
However, city officials remain confident that the City Center Company won’t “Kehoe” them. “If a developer is spending a lot of time up front and very carefully going through their due diligence,” says Redevelopment Director Alan Stumpf, “I think the city has assurance that they’re comfortable with what they’re bringing.”
While the hotel project moves forward, Kasavan says its success could depend on broader redevelopment of the downtown core. This is exactly what Widewaters Group has in mind. The Syracuse-based firm, along with Carmel developer Robert Leidig, presented plans on Feb. 26 to turn 11.5 of city-owned acres along Lincoln Avenue into a mixed-use development with lofts and retail stores.
Curtis Leidig, a partner in Widewaters and Robert Leidig’s son, says Salinas could get a government campus with a new city hall, police station and library out of the deal. But where everything would go and how it would all fit remains to be seen. “We don’t have a specific vision of what would happen in a specific area,” Leidig says. “We want that to happen during discussions with the community.”
Still, Leidig imagines turning the armory building into a concert hall with a wine center. “If that’s a real entertainment venue,” Leidig says, “you are starting to create energy, and that energy benefits the retailers that are already in Salinas.”
City Council members like Jyl Lutes already are sold on the proposal. “We desperately need a new police station,” Lutes says. “We desperately need an entertainment center. They will build all those things that we can’t afford.”
But Widewaters may have competition. About a week after Widewaters’ presentation, Irvine-based SunCal Companies sent a letter to Mora, expressing interest in partnering with the City and “developing a successful master plan for redevelopment of the downtown core.”
SunCal has its eyes on the same property that Widewaters wants, city officials say. According to its website, SunCal has more than 250,000 homes and 10 million square feet of commercial space under development in California, New Mexico and Arizona. Widewaters, on the other hand, is an East-Coast outfit with no developments in California besides the proposed Carmel Convalescent Hospital project.
Frank Savino, president of the Oldtown Salinas Association, says he’s pleased to see big developers courting Salinas. Savino says Oldtown has made slow but steady progress in the past five years, including the opening of Maya Cinemas and the resurgence of the Fox Theater as a live-music hub. “If you see the progress of Oldtown, nothing happens really fast here,” he says. “It makes sense for those guys to really come out of the woodwork now.”