Only thing worth saving at Paso’s River Lodge Motel is the sign. Bulldoze the rest

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

We fully support preserving buildings with strong historical significance — the Paso Robles Inn, for example, or the Printery in Atascadero — but no way does the tired, 1950s-era River Lodge Motel in Paso Robles belong on that list.

The motel sign may be worth saving. It’s retro and quirky, like the old Fosters Freeze sign in San Luis Obispo.

The motel itself? Not so much. If this place were cast in a movie, it would be one of those sad, dingy motels where criminals and deadbeats go to hide.

Yet the city — and Paso Robles taxpayers — are now the owners of this not-so-fine establishment. And because the 22-unit motel could be declared a historic landmark, that could limit future use of the property..

How that came about is a convoluted tale.

Here’s the short version: A hotel developer purchased the River Lodge with the intention of tearing it down and building a 116-room Hyatt Place, but an environmental impact report put a glitch in that plan by classifying the motel as a “historic, cultural resource.”

That created a problem for the developer, since it generated doubt as to whether he would be allowed to demolish a “historic resource.” Negotiations ensued, and the city agreed to a land swap. It gave the developer a nearby, city-owned parcel that could accommodate the Hyatt. The city took ownership of the River Lodge in exchange. (Both properties were valued at roughly $2.8 million.)

Then, in the latest chapter, just last week a lawsuit was filed accusing the city of violating open meeting and environmental quality laws in the way it conducted the land swap. The suit asks for the deal to be undone.

That might not be such a bad outcome.

In taking on the River Lodge, the city may have wound up with a white elephant.

If the motel really can’t be torn down, Paso Robles will be stuck trying to unload a seedy old motel that will have to be restored or repurposed in some way.

We believe, though, that a strong case could be made for demolition. The city code allows for a historic building to be demolished if it “retains no reasonable economic use” or if demolition is necessary to proceed with a project that supports the city’s General Plan goals.

That being the case, why did the city agree to this “land swap”? Why not just let the developer make his case for his project?

Now, the city is left fighting a lawsuit and figuring out what to do with the River Lodge property. It planned to hold town hall meetings this summer to solicit ideas from the public.

Here’s one thought: Since the motel had lately been used for long-term rentals rather than overnight stays, provide at least 22 affordable rental units as replacement housing. If that can be done by remodeling the existing rooms, fine.

If not, get rid of them, because there is nothing truly significant about the River Lodge.

It isn’t even that old — it’s 60-something — nor is it especially unique; there are a couple other examples of motor courts in Paso Robles, namely the Farmhouse and Melody Ranch, that are both in better locations for preservation and in better condition.

Does Paso need all three? No.

The River Lodge is located right off the freeway, in an area of modern commercial businesses and new hotels. The old low-slung motel looks out of place.

Finally, let’s not overlook economic factors.

This is a valuable piece of property. When redeveloped, it can bring substantial revenue to the city in the form of property taxes and possibly sales and bed taxes, depending on its use. For a struggling city that may ask voters to approve a new sales tax to help fund public service, that’s important.

All things considered, we believe securing the city’s financial future should take precedence over preserving this little slice of the not-so-distant past.

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