Saturday, January 23, 2016

Project Bella: What's the rush?

Last Wednesday the Pacific Grove city council approved a special election, scheduled for April 19th, asking the townsfolk to change the zoning of the American Tin Cannery site to allow for a new hotel on the property. The hotel, code named “Project Bella,” is being billed as an economic necessity for PG, and a much better use of the site than the existing indoor retail mall that never lived up to expectations. 

Project Bella may indeed be the best thing to happen to Pacific Grove since Holman's, but why is a special election necessary when a regularly scheduled election will come just eight weeks later? The answer is simple. A special election favors the developer. 

Special elections tend to attract fewer voters, those most interested in the subject, so the results may not reflect the town as a whole. Also, it gives voters less time to scrutinize and discuss the project, giving the developers more control over the information presented to voters. It therefore comes as no surprise that the developer, Domaine Hospitality Partners, is perfectly happy to pay the full cost of the election, about $40,000 according to KSBW News. 

So far Domaine has had complete control over the messages to the community, and they've painted an awfully rosy picture of their hotel plan. They boast that Bella “will be designed, built, and furnished to the highest standards shared by only a very few of the world's best hotels,” a tall claim considering even the local competition, much less the world. And, strangely enough, they expect to fulfill their promise of unparalleled luxury with an architectural design reminiscent of the industrial history of the cannery building that currently occupies the site. 

Which brings me to my biggest concern. Both the developer and civic leaders who are supporting Project Bella have been pretty vague about the fate of the historic American Tin Cannery building, which turns 89 this year. It was the only Cannery Row cannery built in Pacific Grove, and arguably has the most attractive facade of any cannery on the row. 

After the local sardine industry shriveled the building was occupied by NAFI (National Automotive Fibers. Inc.), a division of Chris-Craft Industries. NAFI (pronounced “naffy”) manufactured carpeting for automobiles in the facility for many years. When I was third-grader at Carmel River School, locally made NAFI carpeting was installed in our classrooms. After NAFI went the way of the sardines, the American Tin Cannery entered its retail phase, first as a big box type store called Ardan and later the outlet mall we all know, but rarely patronize. 

I know this little bit of history because my dad was an accountant at NAFI in the 1960s. His office was near the base of the smokestack a few steps from Eardley Avenue. One day he gave me and my mother a tour of the plant. I think it was just after quittin' time because there were very few people there. I remember the cavernous space with north-facing windows built into the angled roof which provided a source of light. On the floor I saw rows and rows of industrial strength sewing machines, the kind you see today only in documentaries about Chinese textile mills. It made a strong impression on my seven year old mind. 

Descriptions of the proposed hotel in the local press have been hazy as to how much, if any, of the existing building would be incorporated into the new. Most reports ambiguously say the hotel will be built “at” the American Tin Cannery. Nowhere have I seen it stated explicitly that the American Tin Cannery will be demolished, but neither has it been said the building will be spared. One recent report suggested that the hotel will be an “homage” to the cannery. An artists rendering of the interior displayed on the developer's website shows features that look similar to the existing structure, but the aerial site plan shows the hotel with a very different footprint, most of it set well back from the street. Curiously missing from the website are any street-views of Project Bella. 

Put it all together and it becomes evident that the American Tin Cannery will be no more. Yet for some reason PG preservationists don't seem to have picked up the signals yet. If the demolition of an old pump house could attract their attention, the destruction of the American Tin Cannery should raise alarms like mad, yet they haven't said a word. 

Do Pacific Grove voters really know what they'll be getting on that property? I suspect Project Bella supporters don't want Pagrovians to know too much just yet. It appears they want to lure voters to the special election with glowing promises of economic benefits and unsurpassed luxury before the townsfolk realize they must sacrifice a unique piece of the town's heritage – hence the need to conduct the vote two months before the scheduled June 7th election.


The Rugged Shore of Pacific Grove

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