Back in the 1940s, when I was in seventh grade, I took a class in home economics. Once a week, my classmates and I would divide into groups of about five. Each group would cook something. Then we’d eat it.
Every student would have a specific group task. One day my group was making spoonbread. My task was to stir the batter. Suddenly, the gum I’d been chewing fell out of my mouth and into the batter. Since I was decorous back then, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened. So I just kept quiet and passed the bowl containing the batter (and the gum) to the next student. S/he didn’t notice the gum when pouring the batter into the baking pan and placing it in the oven.
After the spoonbread was baked, another student removed it from the oven and dished up some for each of us. Our group was the only group that had marbled spoonbread.
This created a stir. The teacher came to our group to see why we were not eating our spoonbread. She marveled, saying she’d never seen such a thing before. By now, there was no way in the world I was going to tell anyone what had happened, so I just kept quiet.
I think a similar thing happened in Pacific Grove during 2016 in connection with the April election regarding whether to rezone the American Tin Cannery site to allow hotel use. Voters were told by the mayor and others that if the 4.88-acre site was rezoned to allow hotel use, the purportedly prestigious development group Domaine Hospitality Partners LLC, of which Gen. Wesley Clark was a partner, would construct a world-class, LEED-platinum certified hotel there. An economic analysis projected that such a hotel would increase Pacific Grove city revenue by $3 million to $4 million annually, and the classy Domaine website showed world class hotels that Domaine Hospitality Partners purportedly had developed. The vote on April 19 was 3,016 yes and 2,111 no.
One of the selling points for voting yes was that venture, Project Bella, would not financially burden Pacific Grove since Domaine was going to pay the processing costs. Two months before the election, on Feb. 17, the City Council had approved a reimbursement agreement with Domaine Hospitality Partners LLC. However, that agreement didn’t get signed until June. In the meantime, the city incurred substantial Bella-related expenses on Domaine’s behalf. But the City would be reimbursed for everything, right?
Here’s where the chewing gum analogy applies. The February reimbursement agreement is for Domaine to cover the city’s “additional costs associated with the acceleration of City’s Local Coastal Program entitlement process,” whereas the June agreement omits any mention of Coastal Program acceleration costs. In May, the Council approved paying a consultant $101,056 for such costs, but in September the city manager said the city has no agreement with Domaine to cover such costs. Domaine will reimburse the City for everything, right?
Another example is that the February version of the reimbursement agreement was with Domaine Hospitality Partners LLC, whereas the June agreement is with Domaine Pacific Grove LLC. That switch hasn’t been explained either.
There is a discomforting Bloomberg News article about Gen. Clark lending his name to some sketchy companies. Additionally, Domaine’s classy website has been edited to delete some of its earlier claims, and a former representative of Domaine alleges Domaine is more than six months overdue paying $150,000 to its contractors.
Now, here’s where the keeping-a-secret analogy applies. As far as I can tell from listening to videos of council discussions about Project Bella and reading accompanying agenda reports, neither staff nor the council has disclosed the discrepancies between the reimbursement agreement approved in February and the reimbursement agreement executed in June.
And here’s the culprit analogy. Just as I never confessed to how the spoonbread became marbled, Domaine may be silently preparing to drop its gum into the batter. By this I mean that Domaine now has a much more valuable lease on the American Tin Cannery site than the lease before the site became zoned for hotel use. The lease is with the Cannery Row Co., owner of the American Tin Cannery, and is for a term of 99 years.
Suppose Domaine transfers that lease to a less desirable hotel developer, pockets the increase in value, and waves goodbye to Pacific Grove? The city would be obligated to approve any hotel meeting applicable standards. Thus, Pacific Grove could wind up with a low-revenue-producing, ordinary hotel on the site of the former cannery, which is not what city officials and Domaine said would result from passing Measure X.
Am I concerned? You bet. I love Pacific Grove. I think the city staff needs to look into these matters, tell the public what’s going on and guard against that lease being transferred. Then, if facts so warrant, city officials should say, “Dear Voters, we goofed. Let’s have another election to eliminate hotel uses from the American Tin Cannery site.”
Jane Haines is a land-use activist and retired lawyer.