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Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Pacific Beach to Get Small, Upscale Hotel

One of the most conspicuous tracts of the Boardwalk in Pacific Beach will become home this summer to the area’s first oceanfront boutique hotel in more than a decade , Tower 23.

The planned 45,000-square-foot, mostly glass structure at 4551 Ocean Blvd., conceived in 1999, represents the first new hotel to be built in Pacific Beach since 1990. Its owners say the property, modeled after several popular boutique hotels in cities such as San Francisco and Miami, will offer the latest in technology, including free wireless capabilities on the beach fronting the hotel.

Notwithstanding their creative vision, the developers of the $16 million project , one of the most expensive hotels on a per-room basis ever built in San Diego , are taking a significant gamble on the venture. The project was financed by San Diego-based First National Bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of First Community Bancorp, the developers said.

Tower 23, named for the lifeguard tower adjacent to the property near Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier, is the brainchild of Brett Miller, 36, a Pacific Beach restaurateur and the owner of such local fixtures as Moondoggies Sports Bar and Gringos Cocina y Cantina. He and his partner, Robert Watson, 39, who was the regional director of brand operations for the W Hotels Group, said they have been influenced by renowned boutique hotels, such as those of Ian Schrager (owner of the popular Delano Hotel in South Beach and the Clift in San Francisco), Kimpton Hotels and the W Hotels Group.

Tower 23 has been in the works for more than five years. It is a joint venture between Miller’s company, Pacific Beach-based Miller Enterprises, and local residents Vern and Mary Taylor, who own the land on which the hotel will stand. Miller originally envisioned the project as a free-standing 10,000-square-foot restaurant called Jordan (for Miller’s father), but it soon morphed into a proposal for a 44-room oceanfront hotel.


Risky Venture

For Pacific Beach , which has not seen a new hotel built since the Ocean Park Inn was opened in 1990 , the project is not without risk.

The area is crowded, with one of the highest residential density measures in the country , 16 housing units per residential acre , vs. the region’s average of 3.2, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s planning agency.

“There are certainly some issues with the way the development has gone,” according to Benjamin Nicholls, the executive director of Discover Pacific Beach, an organization focused on development of the area. “In terms of access and transportation, PB does have some needs that are not being met. Parking is a big part of that,” added Nicholls.

The area is also relatively young: In 2004, more than 37 percent of Pacific Beach residents were between the ages of 25 and 34, compared with the county’s approximately 16 percent, based on Sandag estimates. For a luxury hotel hoping to capitalize on the open Boardwalk, swarms of college-age people flocking to the outdoor bar could pose a threat to the serene environment the developers are hoping to create.

But, along with Miller and Watson, Nicholls said, “There’s no doubt that the area is changing. It will always be a place for the kids, but more and more it is becoming a place where people want to sit close to the water and have fine dining options.”

As a consequence, Nicholls said Tower 23 is not the only “new business taking a chance on Pacific Beach.” He rattled off a list of new local restaurants, including Isola, a tapas bar, Caf & #233; Yen, and Cantina, which he says have presented themselves as “upscale” and cater to the same clientele that Jordan, Tower 23’s restaurant, hopes to reach.

“I think Tower 23 is at the cutting edge of this trend,” said Nicholls.

But getting the plans for the property at 4551 Ocean Blvd. approved was no easy feat, according to Miller, who went before the Pacific Beach Planning Group, a hearing officer with the city of San Diego’s Planning Department, and the California Coastal Commission.

“We had to fight on the size and scope of the project and for the liquor license, but we appealed and ultimately received approval for the project” in October 2003. The builders broke ground in January 2004.

The result of that process is what Miller calls the incorporation of “creative solutions” into the design of the hotel. For example, the structure has been designed to meet the 30-foot height requirement mandated by Proposition D , a local zoning law passed in 1972 , by lowering the floors beneath the 33-foot elevator shafts. In order to meet the parking requirements, the developers incorporated a subterranean parking structure with 87 parking spots.

Some say Tower 23’s developers were lucky to have gotten the project approved as quickly as they did, given the stringent requirements that govern such property development.

The developers of another larger hotel project in Pacific Beach, the $35 million-plus Pacific Beachfront Resort, which would occupy 1.94 acres behind the Promenade at Mission Boulevard and Pacific Beach Drive, have not had as much success.

The proposed resort has been mired in the approval process for approximately 20 years, according to the spokesman for the developer, Steve Maciej, the president of San Diego-based Prana Consulting. He said the 227-room hotel project went before the Pacific Beach Community Planning Committee four times last year. He now refers to the proposal as “the poster child for difficult projects.”

Maciej said Tower 23 is good news for Pacific Beach, which is “in need of new, modern, nice lodging, especially on the waterfront.”

Miller and Watson hope the project will become a prototype for similar commercial ventures in the Pacific Beach area and around Southern California. To this end, they have formed the Bond Urban Habitat, a development and management company, with one other project currently in the works in West Hollywood (a mixed-use property offering commercial, retail and residential product set to open in early 2006), and “others to be announced shortly,” according to Watson.

With Tower 23, the duo is targeting a clientele comprised of three-quarters leisure travelers and one-quarter business travelers. “It caters to 30- to 45-year-olds looking for more than a bed to sleep in,” said Miller, who added that the hotel will bring an element of “South Beach sizzle” to San Diego, ideal for people looking to have some fun.

But with daily room rates ranging from the $200s to $1,000 for the largest rooms, the developers are also taking a sizable bet that this demographic will be willing to pay the fee for such luxurious accommodations.

Watson said Tower 23’s $363,000 “per-key cost,” places the hotel in a category alongside the most expensive in the country. He attributes most of the cost to food and beverage expenses, given that the restaurant, Jordan, will have a capacity of 400 and the hotel itself comprises only enough rooms for about 88 guests at one time.

“This hotel is being built on a 25,000-square-foot footprint,” added Miller. Any large hotel chain such as a Westin would want to put up a 10-story hotel with 22 rooms per floor, so with more rooms, the per-key cost would be much less, he said.


In Good Company

Bob Rauch, the director of the Center for Hospitality and Tourism Research at San Diego State University and a local hotelier, said the high per-key cost puts Tower 23 among the handful of hotels in San Diego that he estimates have costs per room of more than $300,000, including the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad and the Hotel Parisi in La Jolla.

“This is a feasible plan and I think clearly if the food and beverage component is as exciting as the developers envision, then they’ll have a unique product,” added Rauch. “That’s exactly what the market wants today , unique.”

He said that Tower 23 will have to provide amenities that are competitive with other local operators.

Along these lines, Miller said with this project he is attempting to “redefine the way people look at hotels (in San Diego).”

Each room will come equipped with flat screen high definition television screens, X-box video game systems, dual line cordless phones with voice-over IP capability and, of course, free Wi-Fi access. In the area, nearby hotels such as Ocean Park Inn and Pacific Terrace also offer wireless access, but at least in the case of the latter, there is a $15 per day charge.

But for Tower 23, it doesn’t end there.

Miller said the hotel will offer free wireless capabilities from the beachfront abutting the hotel, to the water’s edge. He plans to call the space Work Beach and compares it to other well-known local beaches along San Diego’s coast, such as Dog Beach in Ocean Beach and Black’s Beach in La Jolla.

The developers are also seeking to partner with Cisco Systems or Sony Corp. to finance the equipment for the wireless beach.

One of the priorities of the project’s designers is to “maintain a sense of place,” meaning that the property remains uniquely San Diegan, according to Watson.

To this end, the six-member team of architects led by Graham Downes has incorporated elements such as driftwood from local beaches into the restaurant’s benches.

The materials used in the construction are “for the most part, really simple,” according to Downes, who added that the most unusual aspect of the project is the attention to detail paid at every level.

In this essentially glass box at the foot of a busy drive, Ocean Boulevard, Downes notes an interesting dichotomy of public and private space at play: the guests’ rooms in the three-story space are close together, he explained, invoking an intimate surrounding. But the exterior glass walls mean guests inside are on display to an outside passer-by, said Downes.

Tower 23 will be a clean white glass box, he said, that at night, “will display a pulsing of lights from the bar, from the deck and from the rooms, reflecting off the Boardwalk, and creating a theater of animated light.”

In June, when Tower 23 is expected to usher in its first guests, Miller and Watson hope this will be enough to launch their vision into reality.

“This group of developers is always looking to project its vision of a progressive PB,” said Nicholls of Discover Pacific Beach. He added, “They are taking a bit of a risk, but I think the risk will pay off.”

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