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Paso Robles wants to save the River Lodge Motel building — but for what?

A hotel developer recently sued the city of Paso Robles, claiming it violated open meeting and environmental quality laws when it acquired the River Lodge Motel in a land swap with a Bay Area developer.
A hotel developer recently sued the city of Paso Robles, claiming it violated open meeting and environmental quality laws when it acquired the River Lodge Motel in a land swap with a Bay Area developer. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The River Lodge Motel, once slated for demolition, might soon belong to the city of Paso Robles.

On Tuesday night, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a land swap between the Bay Area developer who bought the vintage motel and the city, which owns a 3.2-acre vacant property nearby.

But what the city would do with the motel or how it might used remains unclear.

Zenique Hotels purchased the River Lodge — located near the Highway 101-Highway 46 West interchange on Theatre Drive — and planned to raze the 22-room facility to make room for a Hyatt Place hotel.

But the developer’s draft environmental impact report showed the motel’s distinct 1950s-style architecture and prominent location make it eligible for designation as a city historic landmark. That would make tearing the structure down very difficult.

To remedy this situation, the city proposed a land swap — Paso Robles would take over the motel property and Zenique would get nearby city-owned land on Theatre Drive.

City staff on Tuesday presented a plan that showed the Hyatt Place, two nearby hotels and the River Lodge as part of a revitalized commercial area near the two highways.

Another 1-acre city property near the hotels could become a retail and dining area and provide another entrance to the complex, said Warren Frace, the city’s community development director.

The River Lodge — which is currently being used as a long-term rental facility, according to the Paso Robles Historical Society — would be shut down prior to the swap, he said. The city doesn’t currently have a specific plan for the property, Frace said.

One possibility would be to resell it to a new owner who would use the building in a way that preserves its historical significance.

“We’re really looking at this as the best outcome for all involved,” he said.

A competing plan

This move did not please Kevin Bierl, president of Pacific West Development — the Scottsdale, Arizona, company that owns the La Bellasera Hotel and Hampton Inn directly behind the River Lodge.

Bierl had been planning to buy the city land being offered in the swap, and still wanted an equal chance to purchase it. He put forward a plan that involved buying the River Lodge from Zenique and then purchasing the city property to develop a project that incorporated the motel in its historic form.

He suggested he might use the city property to build more lodging or other complementary businesses.

But Rupesh Patel, Zenique’s president, declined to sell the River Lodge, and city officials moved ahead with their property swap plans.

Steve Puglisi, a San Luis Obispo architect who worked with Bierl on his alternative plan designs, spoke at the meeting and said he was still confused as to why the city land isn’t being put up for bid.

“That opportunity seems to have disappeared,” he said. “Frankly, we can’t seem to understand why.”

Moving forward

Iris Yang, the city’s counsel, said the swap wouldn’t automatically move forward based on the outcome of the council’s vote — it would just move the process along. Patel would also be required to resubmit his plans for the Hyatt Place at the new location and go through all the public review processes.

Yang said the city’s vacant property and the River Lodge site are of roughly equivalent value. She said Patel bought the 2.1-acre River Lodge site for $2.5 million, and the city’s property — even though it’s bigger — is worth less because it’s farther away from the freeway.

Neither property has been officially appraised, only evaluated by a real estate broker, Yang said.

Ultimately, council members voted unanimously to move forward with the land swap, with the condition that both properties be appraised within 90 days.

After the meeting, Frace said city officials were eager to see the land swap happen because it gives them more control over the fate of the River Lodge.

If the Hyatt Place project made it to the City Council, an approval or denial of the project on historic preservation grounds could have prompted California Environmental Quality Act litigation, he said.

“The purpose of the exchange is basically, ‘Let’s figure that out now rather than get to the end,’” Frace said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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