|By Bob Shallit, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 13, 2006 - Chip Conley took one look recently at downtown's historic Cal Western Life Building and concluded: "That looks like a hotel - something you'd see ... on the Eastern seaboard."
As we reported last week, the Bay Area hotel operator is working with the building's owners to get city funds to help convert the 82-year-old office tower into a 200-room "boutique" hotel, the type known for high-end style and distinctive character. He sees it hosting business travelers, wedding parties, even folks from the 'burbs who want to spend a weekend shopping and dining downtown.
In his first comments following the announcement, Conley says the project could have "a catalytic impact on the whole neighborhood. Three hundred people staying there, eating and shopping and then going back to where they live and saying good things about Sacramento."
Conley has an eye for these things. He bought his first hotel property almost two decades ago, soon after getting his MBA from Stanford. That was the decaying Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco's dreary Tenderloin. Improbably, he turned it into a favorite spot for rock stars.
Now his Joie de Vivre Hospitality firm has 28 properties. The terra cotta tower on J Street could be the 29th.
What does he envision? Conley says it would have great guest rooms, meeting facilities, fine dining and design elements that "reflect the personality of the community." What he calls a "hybrid of old and new."
It's a cool idea - a "landmark project in a landmark building," as Conley describes it. But cool enough to warrant millions in public funds? City Council members start weighing that question Tuesday night.
Chain reaction: Conley once considered - and rejected - a proposal to put one of his hotels in the Elks building at 11th and J streets.
Now that building's owners are seeking a little city help to lure seafood restaurant chain McCormick and Schmick's as a first-floor tenant.
The owners want redevelopment funds to make structural enhancements on the building's lower floors as well as tenant improvements for McCormick and Schmick's.
The Oregon restaurant chain has signed a lease for the property. But like Conley's project, it's not likely to open unless building owners get city help. How much help? That's being negotiated.
The matter should come to the City Council for a decision in about a month, says Michelle Nelson, a senior project manager with the city's Economic Development Department. So far, "everything in the process is looking pretty good," she says.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.
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