This time last year, ominous speculation hovered over the historic Lafayette Hotel on El Cajon Boulevard like an immense, rain-filled cloud: Would the venerable Colonial Revival landmark be razed to make way for nearly 200 condominiums?
A year of community outcry later, the answer du jour appears to be a resounding "no." But as most development stories go, it isn't all good news for those residents who'd like to see the eclectic area around the Lafayette remain essentially an enclave of single-family homes. No, to save the iconic yet struggling hotel, a new development team insists, the funky bungalows on the southern half of the square-block property must go-replaced by rows of low-rise town houses (some affordable) and a 17-story condo tower soaring from the site's southeast corner.
The 250-unit proposal-the brainchild of veteran San Diego builder Sherm Harmer and Hampstead Partners, a locally based urban-infill development firm that recently closed escrow on the property-is now under city review. The plan includes a $4 million rehabilitation of the 58-year-old hotel, said Chris Foster, Hampstead's president.
Last Thursday, Foster and members of his team unveiled the ambitious plans to the University Heights Urban Design Review Council and about two dozen locals who had gathered in the hotel's clamshell-adorned Mississippi Room, which decades ago hosted the region's first NAACP conference.
Not surprisingly, the reaction was mixed-appreciation for the effort to preserve the hotel from the wrecking ball, yet hesitation over a high-density project that would set a precedent in an area that appears ripe for developer invasion.
Sniffed one community activist privately after viewing renderings of the plan, "It looks like a shot of Viagra in the wrong place."
Foster acknowledged that his crew has a tough sales job ahead on the condo tower, but he seemed confident that preserving a neighborhood landmark in the process will put his team in good stead at City Hall. "It's the only solution we really have," Foster told the crowd.
He said numerous past attempts to redevelop the site led him to realize just how important the Lafayette Hotel is to the community. The previous owner, Lennar Communities, wanted to clear the site for a condo complex, and even Foster found scant support for a plan to convert the site to senior housing.
"We went to a group," he recalled, "and I thought we were the conquering heroes going in there because we were going to save the structure. And I left there absolutely beaten.... What I've learned is that people see this hotel as a public space. It's not just the facade that's important. It's the public use-the restaurant, the pool, having family come and stay here."
But currently, he said, the hotel is a money loser, making it impossible to invest even in adequate maintenance.
Unlike previous proposals, Foster said the hotel and the popular Red Fox Steak House and adjacent bar would remain open during construction. In an earlier plan, the funky eatery would have been relocated off-site for two years, threatening the very existence of a unique and popular North Park venue.
Foster joked that the architects on the project, the local firm of Martinez+Cutri, have frequented the Red Fox "more than you think."
But residents seemed skeptical. They questioned the parking, three levels of underground parking that would require the demolition and reconstruction of the hotel's central-courtyard, which includes an Olympic-sized pool that's said to have been designed by Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller.
Most importantly, they worried that the plan's approval would open the door to widespread high-rise development along El Cajon Boulevard. Project collaborator Sherm Harmer cautioned that without such projects, residents wouldn't get the shops and street improvements they desire.
Still, some neighbors were uneasy. "Once these high-rises start, they grow like mushrooms," community activist Leo Wilson lamented.