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San Luis Obispo’s Motel Inn could welcome guests as soon as next year

This is the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo in August, 2015.
This is the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo in August, 2015. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo’s historic Motel Inn may be brought back to life as soon as next year with a 55-room hotel and recreational vehicle park at the north end of Monterey Street.

The inn opened 91 years ago as part of a developer’s dream to establish a chain of mission-style lodges “dedicated primarily to the service of the motoring public,” according to newspaper accounts, until the Great Depression put an end to those plans.

The inn at the city’s northern gateway was shuttered in the mid-1990s, and plans to rehabilitate it have been discussed for more than 15 years since developers Rob Rossi and John King bought the dilapidated property in 2000 for $3.6 million.

The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission on Wednesday approved their plans to redevelop the property — an icon famous for reportedly being the first overnight stop to use the term “motel.” The commission’s action is final unless appealed to the City Council.

The project includes a 34,500-square-foot inn with 15 guest rooms and suites in the main Motel Inn building and 40 other rooms in 12 detached bungalow units, as well as an RV park with 13 spaces for recreational vehicles and 10 Airstream trailers that would stay on site for overnight guests.

The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the project at 2223 Monterey St., with Commissioners Hemalata Dandekar and Ronald Malak dissenting because they wanted balconies in two bungalow suites to be angled away from San Luis Obispo Creek.

The property falls into a “special considerations” zone with specific protections for the creek habitat and homes in the nearby San Luis Drive neighborhood.

The other commissioners disagreed that the balconies would directly face the creek and cause a problem for neighbors. The commission did direct Rossi and San Luis Obispo-based real estate development company CoVelop Inc. to move several bungalow entrances so they would not face the creek. (Commisioner Michael Multari was absent.)

All of the commissioners spoke positively about the project, including those who voted against it.

“I really like this project,” Dandekar said. “I think it’s going to be a great addition to the city.”

Resident Bob Lucas, who lives in the San Luis Drive area, said he was concerned about the number of openings facing the creek but commended the overall project and the developers’ outreach to the neighbors.

“It’s great to see something happening there,” he said.

Originally known as the Milestone Motel Inn, the site was developed in 1925 when Monterey Street was the highway. It is on the city’s master list of historic resources.

Pasadena developer Arthur S. Heineman, who coined the “motel” name, opened the Spanish Mission Revival-style inn on Dec. 12, 1925, as part of a plan for a string of such inns from San Diego to Seattle, according to past Tribune reports. Each inn would be a day’s car ride apart — just as the Spanish missions were laid out a day’s march from one another. But Heineman’s plan ended when the Great Depression began four years later.

Many of the motel units and accessory buildings deteriorated and were demolished, but the original lobby and a portion of the wall of the original restaurant remain.

In a separate and already approved plan, King Ventures will incorporate those remaining portions into a new restaurant, which will share parking with the hotel, said city staff and Damien Mavis, principal of CoVelop.

Mavis said construction on the restaurant and hotel would be on a similar time schedule; he hopes construction could start by the end of the year and may take a full year to complete.

“We’ve reduced the size and scale from what is allowed and was previously approved and have forced the project inward,” Mavis told the commission. “I think the whole package has turned out very nice.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

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