The next piece to the puzzle of Santa Barbara’s waterfront redevelopment will fall into place this summer with the opening of the three-building Hotel Californian.
Management is being coy about the opening date for the 121-room hotel, which straddles lower State Street. It incorporates the original Hotel Californian, which pioneered the city’s Spanish Colonial Revival style when it opened in 1925.
I walked the construction site with Managing Director Carlos Lopes on May 1, dodging wooden barriers and sidestepping wet tile grout for a sneak peek at rooms, common areas and the Hotel Californian’s ornate rooftop with a sweeping view of the harbor and Montecito hills.
The finishes are going quickly, dust is everywhere and carpet is being laid. Furnishings should be installed by August and then the countdown to opening begins. Lopes says he’s actively recruiting talent for the project; he was interviewing for one senior position when I arrived at his temporary offices.
The developer of the Martyn Lawrence Bullard-designed project is Michael Rosenfeld, known for redeveloping the Century Plaza in Los Angeles. Nobody is talking about the price but it obviously cost a bundle.
Lopes, a veteran hotelier and former CEO of Rock Resorts, told me he sees the Santa Barbara Biltmore and El Encanto as the most comparable properties in the area — but with a location that’s hard to replicate. Bullard’s intricate Moorish design “clearly positions the Hotel Californian as a luxury lifestyle hotel at the epicenter of the Funk Zone,” he said.
Part of the idea of the project is to create a hotel version of the open air-style retail that the region pioneered with Rick Caruso’s Westlake Promenade and Paseo Nuevo on State Street. It includes the 62-room Californian building, complete with rooftop, on the west side of State Street. On the east side of State Street are the Mason building with the hotel entrance and 58 guest rooms, and the State Building with the ballroom and Presidential Suite. Rooms start at $550 per night, according to a hotel fact sheet.
The Hotel Californian has two restaurants and a mixed-use flavor that allows guests and conference goers to mix easily with the street and explore everything from a redeveloped Rusty’s Pizza to the Moxi Museum and the surrounding wineries, restaurants and brew pubs that have made the Funk Zone a hot spot.
Those connections are important to Lopes, who said the project’s restaurants are going to be heavily invested in featuring “the bountiful products of the Central Coast.”
Lopes, who is no stranger to the Central Coast, believes he can source much of the menu from the region and he said he’s committed to buying locally whenever possible.
Getting construction barriers removed and traffic flowing back to normal on the waterfront will be a relief to merchants and Santa Barbara officials who’ve been struggling with falling sales and tourism tax revenue. So will the new revenue generated by the Californian.
But these are unpredictable times and a more complicated issue will be the hotel’s overall impact on the downtown corridor. State Street remains a work in progress as restaurants close, the homeless proliferate and stores retreat amid a structural shift to online shopping. And the question remains whether the Californian’s visitors will have enough impact to turn things around.
Meanwhile, the Moxi will undergo a leadership change with founding director Steve Hinckley leaving and Alixe Mattingly filling in until a permanent successor can be found.
There will be an audible sigh of relief across the Central Coast tourism industry when the Californian arrives with plenty of national and international publicity.
But the bigger challenges of State Street will likely remain, with the results of a new downtown retail study and the arrival of a new mayoral administration in November playing a crucial role.
• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]