A Bay Area developer’s plans to tear down and replace a 63-year-old Paso Robles motor lodge has sparked a controversy over the future of the historic building.
The River Lodge Motel — a 22-room facility located near the Highway 101-Highway 46 interchange at 1955 Theatre Drive — was built in the 1950s, and motorists can easily spot its distinct retro sign when driving past on the freeway.
Zenique Hotels, a Burlingame-based hotelier, purchased the 2-acre property in 2015 and plans to replace the motel with a 116-room Hyatt Place hotel. Rupesh Patel, Zenique’s president, declined requests for comment.
A draft environmental impact report submitted to the city showed the motel’s distinct architecture and prominent location make it eligible for designation as a Paso Robles historic landmark, which would make tearing it down more of a challenge.
The motel — originally known as the Suburban Lodge — was likely built in 1954, according to the report. It exemplifies the Hacienda Ranch style that became popular after World War II and was part of a development that included a gas station, restaurant and drive-in movie theater.
The motel’s original roadside sign was likely added when Highway 101 was expanded to four lanes in 1958. The sign, unlike the hotel, was created in the Googie design style — a futuristic style popular during the Space Age. The hotel was renamed in 1993, and its current sign reflects the name change.
City land swap
Today, the area is also home to two hotels — La Bellasera Hotel and Hampton Inn — on Alexa Court, just behind the River Lodge.
Kevin Bierl, president of Pacific West Development — the Scottsdale, Arizona, company that owns both hotels — said city staff told him they want to avoid historic preservation issues by acquiring the River Lodge in a parcel swap with Zenique.
The city owns a 4-acre piece of land near the three hotels that it intends to exchange for the River Lodge property, Bierl said. He said he developed a plan to buy the 4 acres and the motel, which he’d be willing to restore. But the city hasn’t seemed willing to take him up on his offer, Bierl said.
“We’re really disappointed in the city not being transparent with us,” he said.
Meg Williamson, assistant city manager, confirmed the city owns land in the Theatre Drive area. She said the future of that land has been the topic of closed-session City Council discussions, but they haven’t resulted in any reportable actions.
The environmental impact report is still being circulated, and the project hasn’t yet been scheduled for any public hearings, she said.
Motor lodge legacy
The River Lodge is one of numerous motor lodge-style motels that remain in the Paso Robles area. The Farmhouse and Melody Ranch motels are also prominent fixtures on Spring Street, near downtown Paso Robles.
After the report came out, the Paso Robles Historical Society and the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association wrote letters to the city expressing their disapproval of the planned project, which they said would wipe out a piece of the city’s history.
Grace Pucci, a past president of the Historical Society and its current business manager, said her organization wants to see the motel restored and preserved. She said River Lodge rooms are currently being used as long-term rentals, but she’d like to see the motel become a boutique hotel.
“We have remnants of other eras here,” she said. “We don’t want to see that go away.”
Isaiah Jackson, manager of Melody Ranch, said his family established their motel in 1960. It’s remained a family business ever since, Jackson said: “To this day, we have customers that stayed with us when my grandparents first opened the Melody Ranch.”
“Places like ours provide a sense of nostalgia,” he said. “My grandfather literally did business here on a handshake. They are reminiscent of a simpler time. ...”