Renovation proposal would restore historic Sequoia Hotel

in Community/Featured/Headline

Alyn T. Beals realized a dream about 10 years ago when he became one of the owners of a building he’d admired since he was a small boy. Riding in Redwood City’s Fourth of July Parade past the Sequoia Hotel, the child—and future commercial contractor—told the grown-ups in the car that someday he’d like to own the place.

Beals got that wish all right, along with one of the biggest challenges in his 53 years in construction. In late February, the partnership he and his wife Dani Gasparini manage presented the city with a proposal to redevelop the 109-year-old city landmark, currently a single-room-occupancy hotel. They’d keep the exterior, build a supporting structure inside it, and add a basement and four new floors above, plus a restaurant, wine room and rooftop terrace and bar.

All on a 100-by-100-foot square footprint.

“It’s complicated,” Beals says. “It’s almost like building in Manhattan or building in downtown San Francisco. It’s tight quarters.”

That’s just the engineering and construction elements of the project, which will also involve obtaining two critical variances, providing relocation assistance to the hotel’s 17 current residents—and riding the economic waves as corporate life and travel patterns shift in a post-Covid environment.

Whither Corporate Travel?

“Now you can’t fill rooms,” says Beals, who knows whereof he speaks, having built a hotel in Sunnyvale 35 years ago. “So the big challenge is, where’s corporate travel going to be in three years?

“And by the same token (with) the office market in flux, there’s so many questions right now,” he continues. “They’ll be answered as we go through the process.”

He grew up in Redwood City the son of San Francisco 49er Alyn Beals, who had moved the family to town in 1949 and then, along with his wife, got very involved in community life. The football celebrity, who got into real estate, joined the Kiwanis Club and served for decades on the Parks and Recreation Commission. Betty Beals was PTA president at Lincoln School, where “Little Al” attended.

One year, father and son got to ride in the Independence Day Parade in the back seat of an antique Cadillac driven by Bob Frank, a local attorney who owned the hotel. Beals remembers his long-ago real estate epiphany this way: “We went by the Sequoia Hotel, and Bob said, ‘Little Al. This is my hotel.’ And I looked at it and I said something like, ‘Well I’d like to own it someday.’”

CEO of the Beals Martin, Inc. commercial contracting company he co-founded in 1973, Beals for all those years kept inquiring about the Sequoia Hotel. When it became available after Frank’s death, representatives of the family trust offered it to him, according to Gasparini. The couple assembled a group of investor friends for the Sequoia Main LLC. (Mayor Diane Howard and her husband, Steve, at one time were part of the partnership but have sold their interest. Six partners remain, Beals and Gasparini the largest single owners and the managing partners.)

Beals was determined that the property should be restored and redeveloped as a luxury hotel. A first-class hotel, in fact, is how the Sequoia Hotel presented itself when the doors of the grand establishment opened to guests in 1913. Every two rooms had a bath with hot and cold running water, and there were public restrooms on every floor. At least three comfortable parlors offered space for meetings and social events.

The city designated the hotel a historic landmark in 1981, as the only survivor of a grand era “when several impressive hotels graced the area around Main and Broadway.” Impressive it is no more, but the architects have presented concepts designed to regain that long-lost cachet.

Raising the Roof

An additional four stories would rise above the three-story hotel, which currently has 53 rooms. That number would increase to 82 and the total square footage to 71,500. The concept allows for retail on the ground floor, a restaurant and a bar, as well as another bar on an outdoor rooftop terrace. Once again, the hotel would have meeting space.

This story was originally published in the April edition of Climate Magazine.

Two variances to the city’s Downtown Precise Plan rules which apply to historic properties would be needed. One is to raise the height limit (the new hotel would be about 79 feet high) and the other to eliminate a 40-foot setback requirement from the building. Because the hotel is on the corner and the setback counts from both sides, “We would end up with a 10,000-square-foot postage stamp on the top floor,” Gasparini says.

The hotel has no parking now and none would be added. Gasparini says it’s anticipated that weekday business travelers wouldn’t come in their own cars. The partners have leased 25 weekend spaces in the underground garage of a project proposed for the Wells Fargo Bank site across the street.

A basement would have to be dug out to allow for an elevator and for the heating and air conditioning, electrical, sewer and other essential systems. Preserving the red brick exterior—much of which has been painted over—is a priority for Beals and Gasparini, who are experimenting with how to get the paint off but save the brick, a very costly undertaking.

A concrete wall would be poured inside the existing hotel for the basement and the first three floors, and the exterior would become a decorative façade, not supporting the new upper levels. The construction will have to be done by going through an alleyway on the back side of the hotel.

“It’s very difficult because we have to preserve the bricks that are unreinforced,” Beals says. “Unreinforced masonry means there’s no reinforcing seal and there’s just bricks on top of bricks. It’s amazing that it hasn’t fallen down already since 1912.”

Notice to Tenants

There are five retail tenants, including Ralph’s Vacuum & Sewing Center and Gambrel & Co. butchers. All have known since they first rented space of the owners’ intentions, and they’ll get six months’ notice before they have to move, according to Beals.

By law, the owners are required to offer relocation assistance to the residential tenants, some of whom have called the hotel home for 10 years or more. The partners have retained a relocation specialist to help tenants locate options and put plans together. At Gasparini’s request, City Councilmember Diana Reddy, who is a tenant advocate, came to a March 4 meeting and offered the residents her personal help.

Gasparini says the tenants pay $700 to $850 a month and haven’t had a rent increase since the partnership bought the building. A typical room has space for a double bed and chest of drawers, a small closet and an adjacent bathroom. Tenants will likely need to find subsidized housing, which is why it’s important to get on waiting lists now, Gasparini says. A couple of tenants said they would just like to accept a check and go.

“The goal is to understand what their objectives and their goals are and try to devise a plan to help them get there,” she says. “And at the end of the day, we have a financial responsibility to help them get there.”

Depending on what’s required, Gasparini says the owners figure the approvals process could take 18 to 24 months

She too grew up in Redwood City, became the executive director of the YMCA right out of college and is a former mayor. The couple wants to be able to incorporate elements of the city’s history into the hotel, using local chefs and products. The rooftop bar might be named “The Eureka,” after the Eureka Brewery which preceded the Sequoia Hotel on the site.

“Did we buy the property so it might be a Holiday Inn? No,” she says. “We bought the hotel because we wanted to bring something of great value to Redwood City—and we also wanted to honor the design.”

“I want to be proud of it,” Beals adds. “I’ve got a lot personally riding on it. I just feel confident that it’s just what downtown needs—and do it right.”