By Lauren Foliart
City on a Hill Press Reporter

Local residents, union workers and their families gathered in the City Hall courtyard Tuesday evening to rally against the proposed La Bahia Hotel Project, grabbing attention and serving as a powerful precursor to the public City Council hearing that was held in the Civic Auditorium later that night.

“La Bahia too tall, community benefits too small” and “Barry Swenson is unfair” were only two of about a dozen phrases that adorned the picket signs of marchers.

Located across the street from Main Beach and the Boardwalk, 215 Beach St. is occupied by the La Bahia Apartments, which provide low-cost housing for students and families. However, the historic 1926 Spanish dwelling radiates with tourism potential.

Discussion around the La Bahia Hotel Project began early in 1994, when contractors started recognizing the revenue potential the area presented for the city.

The rally was part of a long-running Santa Cruz debate, in which union workers and residents have spoken out against allegedly unfair restrictions and regulations tainting the hotel project. Participants marched hoping that the City Council would take their concerns into consideration before their final decision on the matter April 14.

“Tonight’s meeting is the first time public benefits have been considered in regards to the La Bahia project,” said Ned Van Valkenburgh, vice president of the Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. “It’s a pivotal night.”

Don Lauritson, senior city planner for Santa Cruz, gave a staff presentation at the beginning of the public hearing. He detailed the specifics of the project and the benefits Santa Cruz could see from its installation.

“In 1996, the La Bahia site was showed best for the building of new conference rooms and accommodations because of the scenic views of the bay and the beachfront property,” Lauritson said.

In the case of city benefits, the hotel will ultimately attract tourists, increase city revenues, extend the operational season of the beach, and offer locals with full-time jobs, Lauritson added.

However, several residents and union workers feel the benefits lack the weight to overcome the negatives. Local community members feel the plans for the hotel are not sufficient and fair with regard to the city as a whole. Disagreement with size regulations and historic preservation has brought an uproar to the Santa Cruz people.

“Any hotel will make a lot of money in Santa Cruz without having to be huge and overbearing,” said Bill Malone, Build a Better La Bahia group spokesman. “They said it would be only 12 feet over the limit — why does it have to be anything over the limit?”

In addition, workers from unions such as UNITE HERE expressed exasperation at the fact that the Barry Swenson Builders company, which signed on to the project, refuses to unionize and provide fair benefits to the working class inhabiting the prosperous beach community.

“A larger representation of workers from unions would benefit the local community because it would benefit local workers and their families,” Van Valkenburgh said.

Ultimately, the decision will be left to the discretion of the City Council on April 14. What comes from that meeting will pave the road for the years to come in constructing the beautiful La Bahia.

“Santa Cruz would benefit from a hotel like this, but it needs to be one that fits our values, traditions and beliefs,” Van Valkenburgh said. “We shouldn’t let economic times lower the standards of our community.”