A $70 million makeover of the aging Town and Country resort in Mission Valley won approval Tuesday from the San Diego City Council after the developer reached agreements with organized labor to safeguard existing jobs and not stand in the way of unionizing hotel workers.
The 7-1 council vote, with Councilman David Alvarez absent, came following multiple hearing postponements over the past several months amid objections raised by the Unite Here union for hotel workers. They cited concerns about environmental impacts and inadequate protections for hotel jobs.
The proposed revitalization calls for 840 new housing units and 254 fewer hotel rooms. The development team led by Lowe Enterprises secured the union's support with assurances that there will not be a loss of hotel jobs. Because the resort will be more upscale than it is today, it will demand a higher level of service and therefore more workers to execute that, the developer said.
The hotel owners also agreed to what is known as a card-check neutrality pact, which means they will not oppose any efforts to unionize the workforce, said C. Terry Brown, president of Atlas Hotels, co-owner of the Town and Country.
In her remarks to the council, Brigette Browning of Unite Here Local 30 acknowledged the progress made in conversations with the developer to protect the jobs of hotel workers.
"Since last fall, we have worked with the developer Lowe to address the loss of hotel rooms with respect to the proposed project, environmental concerns, as well as the lack of onsite affordable housing on the proposed site," Browning said. "I am pleased to say our discussions have resulted in addressing our previous concerns and ensures the preservation of hotel worker jobs moving forward."
The developer did not commit to building affordable housing within the 40-acre project, something that both Unite Here and the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council sought. Lowe and partner AECOM Capital have the option of paying an affordable housing fee of $8.1 million or making 10 percent of its housing units affordable to lower income households.
It was that lack of lower cost housing that caused Councilman Chris Ward to cast the sole vote in opposition.
"Housing affordability Is an issue for at least half of San Diegans," Ward said. "And this is a project that is unwilling to even provide affordable rents — 840 units and all we're given is the potential for affordable housing."
In a concession to the unions, Lowe spokesman Craig Benedetto said the developer would be willing to later seek funds from the $8 million it will pay to the San Diego Housing Commission, in hopes of building some affordable housing on the Mission Valley site.
"The project before you today will allow for a productive, cooperative relationship between Unite Here and the Town & Country Hotel into the future, as well as the potential to provide on-site affordable housing," Browning said.
The union's support is a significant turnaround from last fall when, in a letter from its attorneys, it characterized the project as an "overwhelming net negative" that fails to provide affordable housing, worsens traffic congestion and jeopardizes hotel jobs.
Councilman Scott Sherman, whose district includes the Mission Valley area, lauded the developer for reaching out to the community, saying the project will be a considerable improvement to the area.
"It is a very solid project, and some are concerned about not having affordable housing on site and I share some of those concerns," Sherman said. "But I don't think it's fair to ask you all to change in the middle of the game."
The project, which calls for restoring nearly 12 acres of a degraded river corridor running through the site, also received high praise from the San Diego River Park Foundation.
"This is the first new green space in Mission Valley in 17 years," said foundation president Rob Hutsel. "It is a community woefully under-parked. This will improve the health of the river through one of the worst sections of the river."
Four years in the making, the project is now expected to start construction this year, with hotel renovations completed by 2020. The housing, which will depend on market conditions, may not come online until at least 2022.
Todd Majcher, vice president of resort development and design for Lowe Enterprises, acknowledged that the Town and Country is not the hotel it once was and is in dire need of a facelift.
"At the heart of what we're trying to do is restore a Mission Valley icon," he told the council. "For a long time it has been left in disrepair and is in desperate need of love… We feel very strongly it's the right thing to do in Mission Valley, and we've made significant concessions to get here today."
Under the redevelopment scheme, the hotel complex and its convention center have been re-imagined as three distinct districts: a 17-acre hotel area, 10 acres for the housing, and the river park district. The hotel's 954 rooms would be reduced to 700, and conference space would be downsized as well. Four new residential towers, with parking, would be built on the eastern and southern fringes of the site on Hotel Circle North.
Lowe and partner AECOM became co-owners of the Town and Country in 2014 after forming a joint venture with the original owner, Atlas Hotels, to reposition the property as a major player in the increasingly competitive lodging market.
Known for years as a destination for family vacations and modest-sized conventions, the Town and Country began life as a 46-room motor inn in 1953, set amid farmland and pastures. It wasn't until 1970 that the convention center and a 10-story hotel tower opened.
In order to carry out the developer's vision for the property, the existing low-rise lobby and porte-cochere entrance at the front of the property, just off Hotel Circle North, will be demolished, along with 247 of the existing low-rise rooms. Arbors, gazebos and a large tiki hut will also be removed.
A meandering and heavily landscaped driveway will provide a new entrance to the hotel, leading to a new lobby at the center that will have a view onto the new pool area. Off the new 11,000-square-foot lobby will be another new 11,000-square-foot building that will include a restaurant designed with ample outdoor seating and views of the pool and lounge amenities.