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Toxic Soil Postpones Developer Wen Chang's 140 room
 Ecofriendly Hotel in Downtown Merced, California

By Leslie Albrecht, Merced Sun-Star, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 7, 2006 - The centerpiece of Merced's downtown revitalization is almost a year behind schedule because of ongoing problems with contaminated soil.

Developer Wen Chang, the man who wants to build Merced's first business-class hotel across the street from the Civic Center, had hoped that this month would mark the midway point in construction.

Instead, city consultants are digging holes in the lot to free toxic vapors trapped in the ground.

If the cleanup goes as planned, construction on the hotel could start in April or May, said Merced's Development Coordinator Daniel Ainslie.

"That's the million dollar question," said Chang of a possible construction start date. "I have to coordinate with the lenders, and the lender is always the toughest part."

Two potential lenders for the $16.7 million project were scared away after the soil contamination was discovered, Chang said.

Now County Bank could step in, Chang said, but nothing is final yet. After financing is secure, the construction phase should take about a year, he said.

"Originally we thought Merced would be quick and easy, but then this episode (happened)," Chang said.

The soil contamination was discovered early this year when an engineer dug up some dirt with a "suspicious odor," Assistant City Manager Bill Cahill told the Sun-Star in July.

The toxins, left over from a gas station that sat on the site 30 years ago, don't pose a health hazard, Ainslie said.

But the levels are high enough to report to state agencies and trigger a cleanup that's cost Merced's Redevelopment Agency -- which is coordinating the hotel project -- both time and money.

Since the toxins were first discovered, the City Council has authorized $260,000 to pay for consultants to study the soil and groundwater and clean the site.

The hotel is one of three structures planned for the 18th and M Street site, known as the Merced Center project.

The other two pieces, a parking garage and Merced College facilities, have been cleared of contamination issues.

Earlier this week the council approved a $10 million contract with Novato-based West Bay Builders to build the three-deck parking garage.

Construction on both the parking garage and Merced College facilities should start in January, Ainslie said.

But it's Chang's hotel that will change the face of downtown Merced.

And if Chang achieves his goal, he'll also change the consciousness of American travelers and launch them on a journey to enlightenment, he said.

Chang, an entrepreneur with a philosophical bent, said he recently delivered a lecture on eastern mysticism at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

It's his mission to help human beings return to their "true nature," he said, and staying at his hotels will help them on their journey.

Merced's 140-room five-story hotel will follow environmentally friendly design guidelines and feature eye-catching elements like a koi pond in the lobby with a waterfall behind it and rooftop gardens. It's meant to serve as a model for a chain of green hotels Chang wants to build worldwide.

Chang's South San Francisco-based company, Atman Hospitality, has already opened one green hotel in Napa, and another is under construction in Anderson.

Chang said the Merced hotel will echo the new UC Merced campus, which also is being built with environmentally friendly elements.

"What we try to do is create a new experience for the traveler," Chang said. "Every traveler in their subconscious has one need. It's to encounter something fresh and something unexpected, almost like culture shock."

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Merced Sun-Star, Calif.

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