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Commission: Event center a good idea but needs more study


Published: January 11, 2012

THE CITY sorely lacks venues for events serving 100 to 200 people, according to business owners, hoteliers and members of the public who spoke to the Carmel Planning Commission Wednesday. They encouraged commissioners to support a proposal to turn the old bank building at Dolores and Seventh into such a center.

Their arguments hit home, with the commission voting 3-0 to recommend the city council consider a proposal by owner Jeffrey Peterson to use the two buildings on the 16,000-square-foot property for meetings, conferences, wedding receptions, cooking demonstrations, classes, and some retail-oriented events. Peterson, managing partner of the LLC that bought the property in August 2011 after a proposal by John Mandurrago to turn it into condos was rejected, also plans to enlarge the bathrooms and construct a full commercial kitchen inside, but the exterior of the modern-style structure won’t change. The occupancy is 200 people.

“The purpose of this meeting is to review the proposed use at a conceptual level and provide direction to the applicant,” associate planner Marc Wiener said in his report for the commission. “The commission should determine whether the proposal is consistent with the general plan and permitted by the zoning code.”

Fred Kern, who developed the concept with Kristy Downing, presented the concept to the commission Jan. 9, describing a setup in which clients would rent the space to throw their events. He said attorney Tony Lombardo, designer Claudio Ortiz and National Parking and Valet owner Steve Summers are involved as well.

Kern, a resident, said he attended many of the hearings about Mandurrago’s proposed demolition of the building. The city deemed the structure “architecturally significant,” and ultimately told him he couldn’t.

“I was neither for nor against, but now that the decision has been made to save the building, we’re trying to find an adaptive reuse,” that would raise enough money to cover the costs of owning and operating it, he said. “We spent a lot of time talking to people in town, and one of the things that kept coming up was weddings being limited to 50 or 60 guests.”

“We are not hosting events, we are renting the space to people who are hosting events,” he explained, adding that clients would be required to use the center’s valet services — which would be operated by Summers using the parking garage at the Carmel Plaza — and employ vendors that are licensed to do business in town.

The space, which would also be available to nonprofits  for free once a month, would help support downtown businesses and draw more people to the area, according to Kern. “People come here from all over the world. If they want to have that special event during Concours, we don’t have the space, at the present time, in town to do it.”

Parade of backers

Jim Griffith, operations manager for the Plaza, said the proposal is “an excellent reuse of the facility,” and he advised commissioners that more than half of the parking garage’s 106 spaces are often open and would be available for valet parking.

Denny LeVett, owner of the Lamp Lighter, Forest Lodge, Cypress Inn and other hotel properties in town, said the proposed event center would be “ideal,” as it’s located downtown.

“I don’t think I know of anywhere in Carmel other than La Playa that has the room,” he said. “Please vote in favor.”

His daughter, Amanda LeVett, said the hotels host about a dozen weddings a year but turn many more away due to space limitations.

A woman who works at Comerica Bank across the street said she initially worried about parking but was mollified after talking to Kern at an open house on the property Friday.

“Dolores between Seventh and Eighth is like a little ghost town,” she said. “We need to get something in there that will help our town, and I think this is a good project.”

Judie Profeta, owner of Forge in the Forest and a realtor, said the restaurant can handle up to 100 people for weddings, but no more.

“And as an agent, we often have events with our agents and families and have nowhere to go in town,” she added.

Restaurateur Rich Pepe commented that he has seen the building across the street from his Little Napoli and Vino Napoli occupied by two banks and two furniture stores, with intermittent vacancies. He also sits on a committee created by the mayor to encourage events in town and said hosting gatherings there is a great solution.

“This is the perfect size,” he said. “Sunset Center is too big, putting events on in the streets isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and Devendorf Park has limitations.”

Carmel Residents Association President Barbara Livingston agreed with Wiener’s conclusion the proposal would need to undergo some review under the California Environmental Quality Act for “light, glare, noise, traffic and parking,” she said. “And until those studies come in, you can’t foresee what kind of impacts this use will have.”

But, she said, “I love the idea of this building being used.”

Lisa Bennett, representing the Hospice Foundation, said her nonprofit would be grateful to hold donor parties there, and Carmel High School parent Vicki Odello said Padre parents often have to go to Monterey to find space large enough.

“It would be wonderful and make about 700 local Carmel High School families very happy to have a choice here in town,” she said.

“This is a good example of adaptive reuse,” commissioner Michael LePage commented, adding that Pepe’s observation about the area being a “black hole” rang true. “That’s really evident when you drive by. It would be nice to see some activity.”

Commissioner Don Goodhue said he was originally skeptical but was convinced by Downing’s arguments at the open house that the center would complement the hotels.

As for the building itself, he said, “Love it or hate it, it’s an icon and an excellent example of its period.”

Commissioner Keith Paterson commented the concept is “something that’s probably long overdue in the city; it merits our support.”

LePage made a motion that the commission recommend the city council consider the application, assuming the applicants address the issues and undertake the necessary environmental review. He also concurred that the designation as “community center” under the zoning code would be correct, and that allowing offsite parking would be acceptable, since the existing parking lot on the property is limited and way too small for its occupancy.

“That opens the door to the solution that the applicant has proposed,” he said, and the commissioners agreed 3-0.