La Bahia and the End of Summer

The proposed La Bahia Hotel and Conference Center, Photo Courtesy of

The proposed La Bahia Hotel and Conference Center, Photo Courtesy of

This Tuesday, as the Santa Cruz city council weighs in on the third iteration of the La Bahia Project, Summer will have officially ended. As with most places along the coast with great weather, and even more so in Santa Cruz given our proximity to an even wider collection of natural wonders, Summer represents a time of absence. Fewer people show up to voluntary meetings, three day weekends are had, and vacations dot out weeks at a time. The civic and political space is no exception to this yearly cycle, as both the Watsonville and Santa Cruz City Councils, as well as the County Board of Supervisors took a full month off. Given the previous 7 months of work culminating in the budget approval process it is much deserved. But, as with all good things, they come to an end, and there is no better way to start off the hot fun of the election/deliberation season than with consideration of La Bahia.

For those of you who don’t know, La Bahia refers to an old building on the corner of  Beach street and Main, along that one way passage heading toward the Boardwalk. By all accounts it’s a well worn building, now currently lower income apartments, but one that has a long history in Santa Cruz and a number of unique architectural elements of the Spanish Colonial style. Over the course of the past decade the building has been the center of a few failed hotel development projects and has been held aloft as a shining example of why it’s so hard to build anything in Santa Cruz. The reality of course is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

Backtracking a bit, in 1998 the city approved the Beach/South of Laurel Plan, or BSOL for short. In that plan, which was developed alongside a number of open meetings with community members, it calls for the development of a luxury hotel and conference center and specifically identifies the La Bahia site as one that could– should be used. Here comes the fun. Despite this plan, any potential project will have to undergo the following steps to be considered:

1. Developing a plan and site design that fits in with the myriad of rules and zoning designations found along the coast, a difficult task on its own, that must also rely on careful review of previous projects as many of the rules can be waived or exempted, depending on the project and makeup of the Coastal Commission.

2. The drafting and certifying of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a mandatory document that outlines every potential impact a project might have, and then weighs potential alternatives for each impact, including the infamous “no project” alternative. For a project like La Bahia, you are looking at parking, traffic, historical character, storm water, construction impacts, and the community favorite, height/visual impacts. This is by itself, a daunting task, and by this point in the project the average developer has surely committed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

3. Public hearings at citizens commissions, including but not limited to any and all that include parts of the project in their charter. For La Bahia, the two that have been consulted are the Planning Commission and the Historical Preservation Commission, which as you can imagine, had very different perspectives on the project.

4. City Council and the issuance of permit(s), the current state of this La Bahia project, which will be considered on Tuesday. The City Council must certify the EIR and then issue the following permits: Residential Demolition Authorization Permit, Historic Demolition Permit,  Historic Alteration Permit, Building Survey Deletion, Planned Development, Coastal, Design, Administrative and Special Use Permits, and Boundary Line Adjustment; not to mention the drafting of an ordinance relating to this specific development agreement.

5. The Coastal Commission (not guaranteed, but likely), a state wide body of representatives that has special jurisdiction over projects in coastal areas. Should one of the commissioners feel it necessary (hint hint), they can appeal the project to be heard before yet another body for final consideration. Keep in mind that this is where the last La Bahia project failed, by one vote, after the developer, Barry Swenson Builder, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and made a series of concessions to the community (union construction labor, preferred hiring of beach flat residents at higher than standard wages) only to lose it all.

Amazingly enough, despite the first project getting through most of these steps in 2003, they found it would be financially infeasible and decided not to build. The second project (2009), the one that really provoked some bitterness, lost by one vote at the Coastal Commission because, as was the stated reason, it was one story too tall. So here we go again, and this time the developer has taken a careful look to the past to see what really is possible. The La Bahia Project to be considered this Tuesday is as follows, which in many ways is a combination of the two previous projects.


The three La Bahia Projects comparison overview - Santa Cruz Planning Commission Staff Report

The three La Bahia Projects comparison overview – Santa Cruz Planning Commission Staff Report

So while this project has more rooms and parking, it is substantially lower in height and has a smaller banquet/conference room, while also maintaining the south eastern bell tower to preserve the historical character of the building. It is expected to have significant impacts on traffic in the area, but will not cause the surrounding intersections to operate at unacceptable levels of service. It will however contribute to further underperformance at major intersections, like Bay/Mission and Highway 1/9. In total, the hotel is expected to generate 1.4 million dollars in annual Transient Occupancy Taxes, and will increase the city’s hotel stock by 7.5%. The hotel guests are also very likely to spend more money in the surrounding area, which will garner additional sales tax revenue.

To offer your perspective on the new La Bahia Project, you can click here to view and vote on the city council agenda items, or attend the meeting in person at 7pm at 307 Church St, Santa Cruz.


  1. bobby Z says:

    absolutely terrific overview of the La Bahia issue, best in 5 years. keep up the good work.

  2. Nels Pete Pearson says:

    West Cliff Villa’s HOA supports this long awaited project and revitalization of the Beach Street area. A perfect complement to the national award winning board walk. Pete Pearson, President WCVHOA.

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