A standing-room only crowd of more than 200 Fountain Valley residents packed the Council Chambers on Tuesday evening to make a final plea to the City Council. They implored council members to halt the Civic Center Specific Plan project, which would bring a 124-room, four-story Ayres Hotel, 88 residential homes and 2,300 square feet of retail/storage space to an 8.62 acre parcel at Brookhurst St. and Slater Ave., where the former SafeCo building is located.
Twenty-two citizens, mostly from the neighborhood to the south and southeast of the proposed site, spoke passionately at the public hearing. There were long-time residents like Doris Flynn, who has lived there since 1969, and Tom Slauss, a 35-year resident on Los Alamos St. There was a work-from-home father, the queen of Fountain Valley real estate, a pair of librarians and even a member of the Fountain Valley Historical Society.
But despite their outpouring of emotion and disbelief, the City Council moved quickly and decisively. After a few cursory questions, they unanimously approved the plan by the Costa Mesa-based Olson Company and Ayres Hotel that has undergone more than 25 revisions in 18 months. The vote was 4-0 with Mayor Pro Tem Mark McCurdy abstaining because he lives within 500 feet of the zoning area.
“The fact that we have had nothing to replace SafeCo for a number of years, and we continue to have this empty property lying around, and the fact that Ayres and Olson have come to us with this information, I think we can work with them,” said Councilman Larry Crandall. “I am very supportive of this. I hope the residents understand the process and learn to like this as I did with the Orange Coast (Memorial Medical Center) project.”
Council member Steve Nagel also said he was tired of seeing the former SafeCo site dormant for the last seven years and pointed to the potential economic development that a new hotel could bring to Fountain Valley.
“I get comments all the time from area residents wanting to know what’s going to happen with the SafeCo building. I think we have something that we will be able to be proud of,” Nagel said. “We have a sports park … with a lot of youth teams coming to this city, and we will have a location in this city along with the other hotels in town that they will be able to stay in this town, spend their money in this town at our businesses.”
And Mayor John Collins said that traffic seemed to be the community’s biggest concern, but that if the SafeCo and Coastline Community College buildings were occupied today, they would generate 1,988 more vehicle trips that the proposed project.
“I think the analysis could be off a little bit, but that is still double what the master plan said and what the project has shown today,” Collins said. “Traffic is larger and larger in our city as things happen, but the traffic of that density will be less,” because vehicles are not arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. “I think it’s a good project and it’s back far enough so people won’t be looking in your pool or backyard.”
The Olson Company has met with the community 17 times, seven times in large groups and other times in smaller groups, to listen to residents and come up with a master plan that would adequately addresses most of their concerns, including increasing traffic and lack of parking. Olson Senior Vice President John Reekstin said the final plan, which was downsized from 100 residential homes, makes better sense for the community.
“I think it fulfills a lot of goals,” Reekstin said. “The hotel will be beneficial to the city and I think from a land-planning perspective it’s a logical use of the land at a very busy intersection. I know that will fill a niche in the community.”
Don Ayres, vice president of operations for Ayres Hotel, said he was pleased with the council’s swift vote but also understood the concerns of the community. In fact, he said after attending a few of the recent city planning hearings he began to question whether hotel No. 21 in the chain would be a good idea for the Fountain Valley community.
“I think whenever you’re doing a project like this you are going back and forth,” Ayres said. “But you think more that it’s going to happen than not. We are confident now that working beside The Olson Company, which is an outstanding company with their work ethic and integrity, it's going to be a good partnership. Fountain Valley will be proud that they have an Ayres Hotel, and we’re proud to be part of the community.”
The only tense moment during the 2½-hour hearing came when Councilman Crandall, the first to speak after the public's comments, was booed resoundingly by the crowd after saying, “I don’t think the residents fully understand how much work has gone into this project.” Crandall sarcastically thanked the crowd, adding that the outburst was “very offensive to me,” and “that just solidifies some of the other things I’d like to do.”
The Olson Company plans to begin demolition of the existing buildings by the early part of May, and then start grading activities, with the start of vertical construction beginning sometime this summer. The 27 single-family, two-story homes and 61 two-story and three-story townhomes will take at least a couple years to be completed.
Reekstin said the residential homes will be known as, “Solano Walk.”
Jana Beekman, project manager for Ayres, said the four-story, 124-room hotel will take 12-16 months to be completed once the SafeCo building has been demolished.
“We are very excited and happy to be coming to Fountain Valley,” Beekman said. “The Ayres know how to build hotels and what works well in a community. We are excited to move forward and hopefully start construction this summer.”