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Community Engagement: Hotel Sebastopol


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Curiosity and sincere conversation with the community elevate our designs

 
 
by Brett Randall Jones, AIA, LEED AP, and Julie de Jesus, AIA, LEED AP, IIDA

These days, developers proposing to build boutique hotels often face challenges from locals concerned about losing the character of their town or city. We have found that our experience with community outreach for our affordable housing work has been a real help with the sometimes-contentious process of building hotels.

The key—with both affordable housing and boutique hotels—is to start working with the community as early as possible. Listen to the public’s needs and concerns carefully and incorporate them into the design and programming. Not only does this help create a building that the community can be excited for, but it also makes the project better because you are getting information and ideas from the people who know the place best.

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Green and red dots indicate positive and negative responses, respectively. Participants offered their own ideas via Sticky notes. Image: David Baker Architects

h2hotel opened in Healdsburg in 2010. Image: Bruce Damonte

The one that started it all: Hotel Healdsburg opened in downtown Healdsburg in 2001. Image: Cesar Rubio

We first had a chance to try this out with the three hotels we designed in Healdsburg, California—Hotel Healdsburg, h2hotel, and Harmon Guest House. Locals felt as if they had lost control of the city as wine-based tourism grew. They didn’t want more hotels, especially built by big chains.

However, our client, Piazza Hospitality, is based in Healdsburg and is very involved in the local community. We spent a lot of time engaging with the people of Healdsburg as we designed the hotels, so we avoided the pushback that other proposed hotels experienced.

Harmon Guest House--h2hotel's sister inn--opened in Healdsburg in summer 2018. Image: David Baker Architects

More recently, we had a chance to really test our community-based approach for a new hotel 20 miles south of Healdsburg in Sebastopol, where Piazza Hospitality doesn’t have a home advantage.

Unlike Healdsburg, Sebastopol still has strong roots as a farm town with a lot of active farmland. Other than the Barlow—a retail, arts, and restaurant district on the city’s east side that opened in 2013 in a former apple processing plant (the fruit, not the computers!)—most of the downtown shops are oriented toward serving locals. Sebastopol had just gone through a heated battle over a proposed new CVS Pharmacy in the downtown, which resulted in litigation. The lawsuit was settled, and the pharmacy opened in early 2017, but bad feelings lingered.

We started the conversation with Sebastopol residents early—even before Piazza Hospitality purchased the site. We held three different community meetings over nine months. At the first one, we just listened. We asked townspeople what they wanted for the downtown and how they wanted their town to change. Of course, some residents didn’t want any change at all. But many of them gave us wonderful ideas that we considered in our design.

 

At the second meeting, we came with a few roughly sketched plans as well as images of various hotels and spaces. We asked people to put green dot stickers on images they liked and red dots on the ones they didn’t. After a brief presentation about the hotel’s program, we gave out Post-It notes for people to add their ideas and thoughts. We were amazed at the level of engagement—people were very responsive. At the third community meeting, we got feedback on a more defined design that incorporated some of the great ideas from our previous meetings.

Image: David Baker Architects

Sharing images of similar projects and potential features is a good way to get a conversation started. Image: David Baker Architects

After the community meetings, we opted into optional preliminary hearings with the Planning Commission and Design Review Board to engage with the board commissioners as well. We later took our proposal to the Planning Commission and Design Review Board for approval, and then attended a City Council meeting, because an opponent filed an appeal. By the time we got to the end of the process, however, we didn’t have to defend our ideas because a lot of the residents we had met along the way were advocating for us and the hotel. In the end, we didn’t have to convince city officials of our good intentions because, for the most part, the townspeople had grown to trust us and our process and had essentially become part of the team.

Hotel Sebastopol. as seen at the corner of McKinley and Brown streets. Image: David Baker Architects

So what was it that the residents wanted? Residents hoped for something on the site that would enhance the community. Someone suggested a reasonably priced hostel for when friends or family visited from out of town. People liked this idea a lot. We had never heard of a hostel inside a hotel, but Piazza decided to give it a try. So within the hotel, we designed a separate hostel with about two dozen bunks and its own community spaces. People also asked for co-working spaces, so we’re turning the lobby into a place where locals can set up their laptops and work communally.

Sebastopol has a strong art community, too. As the Barlow and other new tenants have come into town, a number of local artists and fabricators have been squeezed out by rising rents. We made room on the ground floor for artist/maker spaces, available to locals for low rents.

We wanted Hotel Sebastopol to feel like it’s always been there. The site had long been the home to a hardware and tractor supply store—right across from the city’s main plaza, which is a source of pride for the town. We drew on the town’s architectural vernacular, both its long agricultural history and its bohemian vibe, bringing in lots of natural materials and textures and using local materials whenever we could.

 

Hotel Sebastopol Plaza. Image: David Baker Architects

Instead of the hotel being walled off from the city, it will instead open outward toward a large landscaped courtyard that is open to the public. The restaurant, bar, lobby, and community rooms will spill out onto this courtyard. These hotel guest spaces will benefit from an activated open space and the city will gain a new public park.

Hotel Sebastopol courtyard aerial. Image: David Baker Architects

We commissioned a large artwork by artist Ned Kahn, whose studio is in Sebastopol. He worked with a local arts commission to create a memorial to migrant farm workers, which is currently in the works.

Engaging in a long community process may be an additional expense for the client. But this kind of interactive process can make it much more likely that the proposed development will be welcomed and supported by its neighbors. And the result is a building that is of and for its place. We hope that when Hotel Sebastopol opens in 2020 that it will be a source of pride for residents, because they helped make it.

 

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Brett Randall Jones is an Associate at David Baker Architects, and the Project Architect for Hotel Sebastopol. You can reach him at brettjones@dbarchitect.com.


Julie de Jesus is an Associate at David Baker Architects and leads DBA_Inside, our interior architecture studio. You can reach her at juliedejesus@dbarchitect.com.

h2hotel opened in Healdsburg in 2010. Image: Bruce Damonte

Just off the square, h2hotel offers bikes for guests to explore the town. Image: Bruce Damonte

Harmon Guest House--h2hotel's sister inn--opened in Healdsburg in summer 2018. Image: David Baker Architects

The one that started it all: Hotel Healdsburg opened in downtown Healdsburg in 2001. Image: Cesar Rubio

Green and red dots indicate positive and negative responses, respectively. Participants offered their own ideas via Sticky notes. Image: David Baker Architects

The site is right across from Sebastopol's main plaza, which is a source of pride for the town. Image: David Baker Architects

Sharing images of similar projects and potential features is a good way to get a conversation started. Image: David Baker Architects

Image: David Baker Architects

Hotel Sebastopol. as seen at the corner of McKinley and Brown streets. Image: David Baker Architects

Hotel Sebastopol Plaza. Image: David Baker Architects

Hotel Sebastopol courtyard aerial. Image: David Baker Architects

Hotel Sebastopol, bird's-eye view from the south. Image: David Baker Architects