|By Maria Zate, Santa Barbara News-Press,
Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 19, 2007 - After 14 years of battles, setbacks and other delays, developer Fess Parker appears ready to get the green light to build his 150-room luxury hotel along the Santa Barbara waterfront, and construction might even start by year's end.
The visible homestretch of a long and often contentious journey, which began in 1993 when the city gave its original approval for the project, marks another victory for Mr. Parker, who admits that he enjoys engaging in epic battles to achieve his goals.
"I do love a good spat," Mr. Parker said during an exclusive interview held at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos. The Texas-born former actor, who gained fame by playing frontier heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, celebrated his 84th birthday last week and expressed no desire to slip into a quiet retirement.
"People who have retired and who are not busy doing things are not long for this world," he said when asked why the new hotel was important to him and why he chose to keep working so hard. "I like what I do and I'm going to keep on doing it as long as I can."
Despite butting heads with many locals over this project during the past decade, Mr. Parker and the city actually had the same goal all along: to transform an unsightly parcel of waterfront land into an attractive, high-end hotel that would provide a boost to bed tax revenues. Santa Barbara still has room for another hotel that can command room rates above $300 a night, and Mr. Parker's new hotel will be a most welcome addition, according to several city officials and tourism experts.
"I'm very excited about it. It will be cleaning up an empty lot that attracts homeless people right now and is unsightly. So the hotel will be a vast improvement," said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. "It's a niche hotel that we don't have right now along the city waterfront. I think that's exciting for the city's bed taxes.
"And even more important than anything else is," she added, "it will enliven that part of the waterfront (near East Beach)."
In recent years, Santa Barbara's hotel inventory has experienced significant changes, especially in the luxury properties segment, said Shannon Brooks, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.
"Our luxury offerings have strengthened considerably, which helps us retain market share given the competition presented by Southern California with several new coastal luxury resorts that have opened in Orange County and San Diego," Ms. Brooks explained.
The future waterfront hotel (that's just a working name as Mr. Parker has not yet given the project its formal moniker) will join an existing line of top-notch, beachside accommodations nearby, among them the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara which recently completed a $260 million renovation, and Bacara -- both at the highest range for nightly room rates.
Not far behind in price and pampering is the remodeled and expanded Harbor View Inn near Stearns Wharf, plus Fess Parker's other hotel, the DoubleTree near East Beach.
Additional properties that are currently closed but plan to reopen in a couple of years with a big bang include El Encanto, owned by posh-property powerhouse Orient-Express, and the Miramar, with a long-awaited resurrection by developer Rick Caruso.
Regardless of the competition, Mr. Parker's waterfront hotel should do just fine, said several tourism professionals.
"All of our luxury hotels have a distinctive style of their own and cater to different clientele, so a new hotel can set itself apart and will complement other luxury offerings in our region," said Ms. Brooks.
Most important for Santa Barbara is the additional bed taxes that the waterfront hotel will contribute to city coffers. The Biltmore, Bacara and San Ysidro Ranch pay bed taxes to the county, not the city. (In Bacara's case, some of it goes to the city of Goleta.) Dave Davis -- former community development director of Santa Barbara who helped shape Chase Palm Park, Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort and the revitalization of downtown -- said the city has been waiting a long time for the waterfront hotel to open its doors.
"The city did a hotel economic study in the late '80s or so. And it found that even with the hotel that is now the DoubleTree, that didn't provide an anchor high-end hotel that the city needed. The study showed that there was still room for another four- or five-star hotel in the area," he explained.
Originally, the city envisioned the property where the DoubleTree now stands as the ideal location for the high-end hotel, Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Parker was looking for a hotel company to partner with him in the project but he insisted on keeping half of the ownership. That requirement drastically cut his chances of partnering with a well-known luxury brand, according to Mr. Davis.
Mr. Parker eventually hooked up with a big-name partner, but he ended up with the mid-level Red Lion chain. DoubleTree later purchased Red Lion, and the name was changed.
"Fess wanted a 50-50 partnership and none of the big (high-end) hotels would enter into that kind of deal," said Mr. Davis, who is now the executive director of the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara.
"He ended up partnering with the Red Lion, but the city really wanted a Biltmore."
The Red Lion made a tremendous leap in altering the image of Cabrillo Boulevard, in the late 1980s to early 1990s, a time, according to Mr. Davis, when the majority of hotel and motel properties on the street "were the pits."
"Now we're seeing all these renovations and upgrades over there. It took a decade to make those changes," he said. "Fess' new hotel is the last cornerstone of the plan to upgrade the hotels on Cabrillo. There is no other (vacant) land available for a new hotel."
Mr. Parker received approval from the city in 1993 to build a 150-room hotel on the site across from the DoubleTree, with the grand entrance at Calle César Chavez. He originally planned to put all of the parking underground, but later determined the cost to do so would make the project unfeasible.
He came back to the city asking to build a 225-room hotel instead, to help pay for the underground parking, but the city said he would have to go through the approval process all over again. Frustrated, Mr. Parker attempted to circumvent the planning process. He pursued a ballot initiative in 1999 asking voters to allow him to build the 225-room hotel. Santa Barbarans overwhelmingly voted "no." So Mr. Parker had to work with the city in finding a way to make a 150-room hotel work with the required parking.
Back in 1999, the estimated cost to build the 225-room hotel with parking underground was $58 million. Today's plan for a 150-room hotel, with all-valet parking at two locations off site on Calle César Chavez, is estimated at $90 million. Mr. Parker adds that the hotel is expected to contribute $1.5 million a year in bed taxes to the city.
As part of the original Waterfront hotel development agreement with the city, Mr. Parker agreed to donate five acres of property for a park that would eventually become Chase Palm Park. He also agreed to build a low-priced, 100-room hostel nearby.
Construction of a hostel was a requirement imposed by the California Coastal Commission, Mr. Davis said. When the city revised the land-use plan along Cabrillo Boulevard to allow the addition of a luxury hotel, the Coastal Commission insisted that a budget accommodation also be built nearby to "balance" the type of new lodgings around the beach.
"Fess had approval to build on 3 acres, but he was given the option of expanding it to 3.4 acres if he also built a hostel," Mr. Davis said. "It was his choice. And he chose to build on 3.4 acres, so that meant he had to do the hostel."
The hostel has essentially received its final approval, with only small details needed for a blessing from the Historic Landmarks Commission.
"Santa Barbara is not known for our budget accommodations," said Ms. Brooks from the visitors bureau. "And a new hostel would present our international visitors and the younger demographic with another option, making Santa Barbara more accessible to them."
On Wednesday, the Waterfront hotel design team goes before the Historic Landmarks Commission seeking approval for the final plans. Building permits have been applied for and construction could start by the end of the year.
If it does, said Mr. Parker, he anticipates opening the hotel in late 2009.
He still has not decided on the hotel's final name, however. But there are three things that will be part of the hotel's identification: 1) it will have a reference to the waterfront location and 2) it will include Santa Barbara.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, the hotel name will be prefaced with "Fess Parker."
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Copyright (c) 2007, Santa Barbara News-Press, Calif.
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