The city’s largest hotel along the waterfront, The Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (previously known as the Fess Parker Red Lion, then the Fess Parker Doubletree), is proposing a new extension with an additional 80 rooms, though the project planners’ first go-round at the Historic Landmarks Commission indicates a long battle before the design earns approval from city leadership.
In what was technically a “pre-application consultation,” the project’s principal architect, Clay Aurell of AB Design Studio, presented an early concept of the new wing — which would be located at the northwest corner of the resort, in the place of an eight-room structure and tennis courts — to receive comments from commissioners before officially submitting a project application.
The hotel, which already spans 24 acres and includes 335 guest rooms and 25 suites, was built in 1986 after a long and hard-fought battle between Fess Parker and the city, with both sides eventually agreeing to the development under certain conditions laid out in the city’s Specific Plan.
“It was a battle for the original project,” said Commissioner Ed Lenvik. “When this hotel was originally designed, it struggled through a lot of stuff with the city and Planning Commission. Were there no conditions placed on the project that dealt with the architecture, the setbacks, the building heights? Were there no conditions that roll over to today that we should be aware of?”
City staff explained that although the plan did lay out specifics as far as building heights and setbacks, there were no explicit directions as to how many rooms the hotel could have, or where exactly new structures could be expanded or built. As far as zoning guidelines and the few specifics laid out in the original plan, the new proposal meets the requirements as designed.
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The new design, however, didn’t win over many of the commissioners. Although it was an early concept review, the notoriously nitpicky Historic Landmarks Commission left plenty of comments on the proposed design, which aims to add a 48,400-square-foot addition across the hotel’s westernmost edge on the corner of Cabrillo and Calle Cesar Chavez. The addition would be three stories of guest rooms, a new private swimming pool, spa, outdoor fire pit, lounge area, and bar. The new wing and its separate pool area would be intended for “a different demographic,” Aurell said, “so we’re trying to give it a little bit of a difference in architecture from what it is today.”
That new look — with several protrusions, awnings, and archways spread across an otherwise unbroken 300-foot-long structure — was much too “jarring, busy, and exciting” to match the resort’s relaxed oceanfront feel, according to Commissioner Lenvik.
“There is a simpleness and a romance to the existing buildings that you don’t have in your architecture,” he said. The original hotel’s natural rhythm, switching between structures and open spaces to create a harmonious and inviting resort, were not reflected in the new design. Other commissioners worried that the new wing would become the centerpiece of the hotel and draw away from the original intention of its architects and city planners.
“You need to find a way to get back to the simplicity that’s in the original design of the buildings,” Lenvik said.
The project’s planners will now have the opportunity to address the commissioners’ comments before submitting an official application, after which it is expected the project will start a lengthy review process.