Los Angeles Times

City moves to replace problem motel

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday voted to get the ball rolling on a plan that would demolish one of the city's so-called problem motels and replace it with a new apartment complex.

Four council members — Councilwoman Sandy Genis dissented — approved the first step in the process to take out the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, 2277 Harbor Blvd., and construct 236 apartments, some of which would have views of the city's golf course.

Ownership of the nearly 4-acre property would not change under the conversion plan. Lionel Levy of Los Angeles-based Century Quality Management owns the Motor Inn.

It is the firm's only motel, and was built in 1972.

The council majority, led by Mayor Jim Righeimer, has been critical of the 236-room motel, contending that the property is an eyesore whose occupants generate far too much criminal activity.

"This is exactly what this council has talked about, and that's improvement," Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said of the plans.

Don Lamm, spokesman for Century Quality Management, said his firm is interested in improving the land.

"We've all known this property," said Lamm, a former city official. "It is deteriorating. It is at the point where it is becoming functionally obsolete."

Lamm added that the project is almost completely designed. It includes an underground parking garage with 325 spaces and an additional 279 above ground for a total of 604 parking spaces, a pool, clubhouse and courtyard areas.

The complex would also have easy access to the Joann Street Bicycle Trail, a route that leads to Fairview Park and the Santa Ana River walkways.

"I tried to come up with a project that would have everything you would look for," Lamm told the council, adding that, "We believe we're offering a great community [asset] compared to what's on that property."

Some residents and members of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition spoke against losing the motel, saying that the Motor Inn is "housing of last resort" for the poorest of residents. They also pleaded for a new development that is 100% affordable housing.

"You need to look beyond just the needs of the rich and big business," said coalition member Kathy Esfahani. "You need to look at the needs of all of us who live here."

Leece agreed that the Motor Inn was an eyesore and, in some respects, has outlived its usefulness. But she also echoed some of the concerns raised about losing affordable housing.

"I think the developer needs to look at what else [he] can give back to the community," Leece said.

Righeimer said he was open to the property containing some low-income units, but scoffed at the idea of the entire property becoming an affordable-housing project.

"It's just never gonna happen," he said.

Genis was critical of the property's high density — 59 units an acre — and the potential traffic impacts. Lamm said initial traffic studies show the apartments having less of an impact than the motel.

Genis also said recent city data show that at least one large apartment complex in 2012 had more police calls than the Motor Inn.

Thus, she added, it would not be safe to assume another large complex would generate less police attention than the Motor Inn has.

Mensinger decried living conditions for families at the Motor Inn, saying that renting a 300-square-foot room for $1,200 a month is a "great business for a slumlord."

"I wouldn't make this a dog kennel, much less a place for people to be housed," he said.

Some residents raised concerns that the city's ratio of renters versus homeowners — 60% to 40% — would be increased with the new apartments.

"Homeowners are more invested in the community than apartment dwellers," said resident Cynthia McDonald.

Mick Meldrum of Santa Ana-based ICI Development Co., owner of the Harbor Center, spoke in favor of the plans. The center, across from the Motor Inn, is anchored by Home Depot, Rite Aid and Albertsons.

"We are very excited about this proposal," Meldrum said. "The project is a major upgrade and will bring new vitality to the surrounding areas."

The Harbor Center has had to double its daytime security because of panhandlers and loiterers, some of whom "frequent" the Motor Inn, Meldrum said.

"This has put an unwelcome burden on our tenants," Meldrum said. "The proposed project will help bring new clientele to the shopping center, which will certainly benefit our tenants and the city as a whole."

The project still faces several steps in the coming months that include a zoning change — from commercial to high-density residential — and an amendment to the city's General Plan. Traffic and environmental studies and consideration from the Planning Commission will also be needed.

Last summer, city code enforcement issued more than $40,000 in fines based on 490 alleged health and safety violations at the Motor Inn. The owner later paid $19,050 in direct fines and fixed many of issues, which included unkempt living conditions and broken smoke detectors.

According to police data, the Motor Inn had 497 calls to police in 2013, the most of any motel or hotel in Costa Mesa.

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