‘Upgraded Santa Barbara’ vision for La Bahia luxury hotel, aiming for 2024 opening across from Boardwalk

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If the iconic bell tower on Beach Street across from Main Beach could talk, it would likely have stories that could keep an audience entertained all night. But, these days, it might prefer if the conversation were more about the future.

The nearly century-old tower is the symbol of what locals know as “La Bahia,” which has been everything from a retreat for the well-to-do beach lover to a flophouse apartment building for workers at the neighboring Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But in recent decades, it’s been essentially a white-elephant curiosity for visitors and locals alike, caught in a bureaucratic no-man’s-land and surrendering to decay.

All that is about to change. The Santa Cruz Seaside Company and Ensemble Real Estate Investments — the owners, respectively, of the Beach Boardwalk and the Dream Inn — announced last week that the La Bahia property will be transformed into a luxury hotel estimated to open in late 2024.

Much of the building that was the La Bahia Apartments has already been torn down, leaving behind only the bell tower and a few structures around it on the southeast corner of the property. Construction is ongoing to restore the remaining elements of the old building and create around it a terraced luxury hotel of 155 rooms, along with a couple of new restaurants.

So, what’s the vision? Michael Moskowitzthe co-founder of Ensemble and the company’s managing director, said the new hotel will attempt to “thread the needle” between modern amenities and honoring the site’s history and the city’s unique character.

“While we obviously want it to be something new and shiny, and great for the community and visitors,” said Moskowitz, “we also want it to feel like it’s iconically a part of Santa Cruz. And I’m hoping that within a few years after it opens, it’s associated with Santa Cruz just like the Boardwalk or the wharf or [UC Santa Cruz]. It’s going to be a part of the fabric of the community.”

He called the design “an upgraded Santa Barbara style,” to distinguish it from a more formal “heavy-handed” Spanish Colonial look. “We use ‘Santa Barbara style’ as a launching point, not an end point,” he said.

The hotel might have a new name, although Moskowitz said that nothing has been decided on that question. He said his company likes the name “La Bahia,” but “we’re running our process, and we have not finalized the name.” It’s worth noting that when Ensemble purchased the Dream Inn in 2006, it rebranded that hotel with its original name after it had been renamed the Coast Santa Cruz Hotel by its previous owner.

The new hotel will be a joint partnership between the Seaside Co. and Ensemble, although Ensemble will run and manage the property. As part of the deal, Ensemble is inheriting the design of the hotel established by another developer, which withdrew from the project shortly after the pandemic shutdown. The design has already received city council approval and the required building permits. Ensemble is asking the city for some changes to the plans, mostly on the interiors. But the new hotel will largely represent the design of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects of San Francisco that had already been approved.

“We fully embrace the design that was done,” said Moskowitz. “It’s fairly graceful. The hill slopes up from the beach and the hotel kind of steps up and back, and it’s modest in scale. It feels like it belongs.”

Moskowitz said he envisions two restaurants — one at ground level, with a more informal feel, and another at an upper level that is more “elevated,” in taste, cuisine and ambience. “I think of the ground level as more casual,” I said. “There will be a lot of bar space, a lot of outdoor table space. You can walk up in your board shorts, and you’ll be comfortable.” The upstairs restaurant will be a more formal dinner spot.

The hotel will also have some meeting spaces and a large ballroom that “will have a design and character as opposed to a generic meeting room.” But, he said, it will not be large enough to accommodate conventions. It will also have a hidden, underground parking garage.

Ensemble is positioning the hotel at the high end of the hospitality price scale, more than $300 a night, depending on demand and seasonal effects. “It’s going to be in the luxury category for sure,” he said. “It’s going to be large rooms, very well appointed. So it will be going in the higher room rate.”

A rendering of the La Bahia complex fronting Beach Street.

A rendering of the La Bahia complex fronting Beach Street.

(Via Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects)

Ensemble’s new hotel will be just steps away from its Dream Inn, but the two hotels will maintain different staff. The Dream Inn, reimagined in a kind of midcentury modern template, is aimed at family travelers. The new La Bahia, said Moskowitz, “definitely a notch up in luxury and refinement, but still friendly, not stuffy. We want to come up with a design that is very relaxed and accrues a level of luxury, but is a different offering.”

There are few luxury-style hotels between San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula. The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay is one of the most prominent, but it is branded as a golf and business destination, unlike the new La Bahia. Ensemble also owns and manages the Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley, and although the new Santa Cruz hotel is likely to have little in common with Bernardus, Moskowitz said both conform to the sense of style in their respective towns.

“It’s a smaller property,” said Moskowitz of Bernardus, “and it definitely has a vibe and a story. And I think that clientele would also love to come to the La Bahia property. But they’re going to have a different experience.”

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