Hostel Faces Hostility From Merchants, Preservationists

Times Staff Writer

American Youth Hostels Inc. is facing opposition to its plans to build a 200-bed hostel on a downtown Santa Monica site that includes the city’s oldest building, the Rapp Saloon.

Hostel officials plan to renovate the old saloon and city landmark on 2nd Street between Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard, The building once served as Santa Monica’s city hall. The saloon would be used as a meeting room and lounge for hostel members staying at an adjacent four-story building that hostel officials hope to begin constructing in early 1987.

The $3.35-million project, like other hostels, would provide inexpensive lodgings in a dormitory-style setting for people who have paid $10 to $20 to become members of American Youth Hostels. Members pay a nightly fee and cannot stay in one hostel more than three nights in a row.

But some downtown merchants and property owners fear that the hostel would become a flophouse for the homeless. And the Santa Monica Historical Society wants the building for its own use.

Not the Answer

“We are not a part of the homeless answer,” Tony Stanton, a board member for the Los Angeles chapter of American Youth Hostels, said. “Our clientele come to a hostel expecting a safe, clean environment.”

He also said he is opposed to giving up the saloon to the society.

Both positions will be aired during several public hearings. The hostel organization submitted its plans to the Planning Department for analysis late last month. The hostel must be approved by the Planning and Landmarks commissions and the Architectural Review Board before construction can begin.

The hostel site is near the Third Street Mall, a three-block stretch of businesses that are striving to come back after years of decline. Some are not happy about the proposed hostel.

“The merchants are really trying to stop it,” said Margie Ghiz, manager of the Midnight Special Bookstore on the mall. “I think they are afraid that the homeless are going to be using the beds.”

But Ghiz, who said she shares some of the businesses’ concerns, is in favor of the project. “I think the intent of the hostel is to house tourists,” she said.

And other Third Street Mall businessmen said they have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “I haven’t come down on one side or the other yet,” real estate broker Ed Flores said.

‘Generally Positive Thing’

“I think it will bring people down here at night and that will be a good thing provided the kinds of people that frequent the hostel are good people,” he said. “I don’t see it as one of the greatest things that ever happened to the mall, but I see it as a generally positive thing.”

But Ada Kadinger, owner of a manufacturing company on Colorado Avenue several miles from the hostel site, is opposed to the hostel. She has formed the No Hostel in the Central Business Section Committee, which she said has eight members.

“Some people feel the hostel would aid the business section,” she said. “But if they can’t afford a hotel, I am not sure these people will spend money here. If they are going to consider a hostel at all it should be located on the edge of town in an industrial area.”

But Stanton said his organization plans to close escrow on the Rapp Saloon site by the end of this month. The $3.35 million for the project includes the cost of the site and construction of a four-story building.

The Coastal Commission has already approved $730,000 for the proposed hostel, according to Stanton and City Manager John Jalili. That money comes from fees paid by developers of luxury hotels within the commission’s jurisdiction. The fees are used to help pay for low-income housing or lodgings along the coast.

Hopes to Get Fees

American Youth Hostels received the Coastal Commission grants because it is a nonprofit, charitable and educational organization that seeks to provide affordable lodgings for travelers, Stanton said.

Stanton said his organization hopes to get another $500,000 in developer fees through the city of Santa Monica and a $300,000 loan from the Coastal Conservancy. The city also has a program in which developers of luxury properties must subsidize low-income lodging or housing in the city.

The rest of the financing will come from donations and commercial loans.

“The hostel provides dormitory-style accommodations for people, church groups and families,” Stanton said. “We also provide a common kitchen where members can prepare their own meals, and large dining rooms” as well as a lounge and meeting rooms, he said.

American Youth Hostels is a membership organization, he said. Adults pay $20 a year to join, children and senior citizens pay $10. There are about 100,000 hostel members in the United States, he said.

Members also pay about $10 a night to stay at any of 300 hostels nationwide. They can also stay in any of the 5,000 hostels located in 53 countries which have hostel organizations that are members of the International Youth Hostel Federation.

Members cannot stay in a hostel between about 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when it is closed for cleaning. And they also must observe a curfew of anywhere from 11 p.m. to midnight, depending on the day of the week.

Implementing Plan

A California Department of Parks and Recreation plan calls for a chain of hostels along the coast, Stanton said. “Little by little we have been implementing the plan,” he said.

In the Los Angeles area American Youth Hostels have hostels in San Pedro, Huntington Beach, Fullerton and Big Bear. Hostels are also planned for downtown Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Malibu.

The last thing his organization wants is for any hostel to get a bad reputation, Stanton said. “If we took in homeless people or bums, and you have to distinguish between the two, the word would go out that the hostel is not a safe place to stay.

“We avoid this problem by having a membership-only organization and having resident staff members that screen people at the front gate,” he said. “We will provide a list of social service agencies to people who are looking for crisis housing.”

Stanton said the Santa Monica hostel would partially surround the Rapp Saloon. “But the new building will not actually touch the saloon,” he said. “We want to preserve the integrity of the saloon.”

The Rapp Saloon, a 900-square-foot brick building, was built by William Rapp in 1875, said Louise Gabriel of the Historical Society. It was a saloon until 1888 when it became Santa Monica’s city hall. It was later used as a kindergarten and a building for the Salvation Army.

From 1911 to 1914 it was part of Vitograph Studios, one of the first movie studios in the Los Angeles area, Gabriel said. Since 1914 the building has either been used for storage or has stood empty.

The building was threatened with demolition when the previous owner decided to sell it last year. At that point the city looked into moving the building to another site at an estimated cost of $120,000 to $200,000, Jalili said. Then about nine months ago American Youth Hostels expressed an interest in the property and the building.

Best Use

Gabriel, the president of the Historical Society, said her organization could “make the best use of the building.”

Although the society has rented quarters in the Third Street Mall, “we feel the city should be responsible for moving the saloon and restoring it and the society would maintain it,” she said. “We would like this historic building to be kept for the city and the society to use as a repository for the city’s history and a resource center to share all the memorabilia we have been collecting for 11 years.”

Gabriel said the city should negotiate with American Youth Hostels to turn the building over to the society.

And she said that although American Youth Hostels’ purchase of the building is almost completed, the society will not give up the fight.

“Our plan is to reach every segment of the community, asking them for their support in our efforts to save the building for the reasons I mentioned, as a repository for the city’s history.”

And to that end, Gabriel said the society has already collected more than 700 signatures on a petition.

But Stanton said he wants to keep the building for the hostel and to preserve the historical integrity of the saloon. “Historic buildings should not be moved from their original site if there is no compelling reason,” he said. “I understand that when the building was threatened the city wanted to move the structure but it is no longer threatened.”

This is not the first historic building entrusted to American Youth Hostels, said Ken Geser, a development coordinator for Youth Hostels. “We have 21 hostels that are designated landmarks. Some of them are pre-Revolutionary War era.”

But Gabriel maintains that her group will eventually wrestle the Rapp Saloon from American Youth Hostels, which she refers to as “a developer.”

“We have no negative thoughts,” she said of the society’s board of directors. “Our board is working 100% for our plan. We are still maintaining hope.”