Three weeks after a study found that more than two thirds of Californians interviewed said not being able to find inexpensive accommodations at the coast makes going there difficult, the California Coastal Commission voted to let Imperial Beach scrap its plans for a hostel at Bikeway Village.
Not being able to run a hostel in I.B. wasn't for lack of trying, coastal commissioners agreed. "After years of recruiting and several meetings with potential operators, it is clear that this specific location is not conducive to the operation of a successful hostel," Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina wrote in a letter to the coastal commission.
Instead of the hostel, the owner has found a local beer brewer who wants to use the space for a restaurant, brewery, and distillery, the letter says.
Bikeway Village is at the south end of San Diego Bay — front-row seats for great birdwatching, views of the South Bay Salt Works and the wildlife in the bay. The 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway runs right up to and past it.
The developer broke ground on the project in January 2016 with the goal of using one of the two old warehouses for a 50-bed hostel with a large community room. The second repurposed warehouse will be home to a bike shop and a cold-brew coffee shop, tentatively expected to open in April. The project also includes bike parking, a fire ring, and plenty of parking for cars.
In January, two researchers from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability released a report with the finding that 62 percent of Californians say getting to the beach and being able to stay isn't easy. "Even more said that the cost of parking, overnight accommodations, and limited public transportation options were problems for them,” according to the study.
Inexpensive places to stay are disappearing from the coast at an ever-accelerating rate — 25,000 inexpensive hotel rooms have been lost since 1989. People told pollsters that they were willing and able to pay up to an average of $117.65 a night. Those numbers are higher than the $78 average reported by the coastal commission.
Bikeway Village tried to bring in a company to operate the hostel, according to Joseph Sheehan of Studio E Architects, which designed the repurposed warehouses. The city and the developer courted a number of groups but couldn't persuade them to take on the day-to-day operation of a hostel.
"The typical hostel visitor is someone traveling on the cheap and using public transportation," Sheehan said. "It didn't fit the intended group."
In recent years, the coastal commission has amassed $24 million paid by developers of posh hotels and resorts — including more than $1 million from the Hotel del Coronado that county supervisor Greg Cox worked to keep out of the general fund for all of the coast and have dedicated to South Bay projects. Just more than $10 million has gone into hostels, campgrounds (including San Onofre's campground), and restoring the Crystal Cove State Beach cottages in Newport Beach.
But there have been few takers willing to create or maintain inexpensive lodging. What money was used went mostly to state and local campgrounds — where 82 percent of the users identify as white people, according to an October report from the coastal commission. (The state population is about 39 percent white.)
"Campgrounds, cabins and hostels are typically lower cost by their nature," the report says. “However, camping can be expensive because of the amount of equipment needed, including tents, sleeping bags and other gear, and RVs, in the case of RV camping. Hostels provide an affordable experience, but not everyone is familiar with or comfortable staying in a shared accommodation like a hostel.”
The coastal commission verified the city's efforts with a letter from Hostelling International and a summary of conversations with ten other regional hostel operators.
"The hostel operators interviewed did not believe that the subject site would provide a suitable location for a hostel because it is too far removed from public transit, airports, shopping and other attractions," coastal commission staff wrote.
Cox, who also serves on the coastal commission, supported the move to change the use from hostel to a restaurant. ”We've been working to create low-cost overnight accommodations that allow all Californians to have access to the coast," he said in a written statement. "While unfortunately it didn't work out in this situation, Bikeway Village will still boost ecotourism in South County, introduce more people to the Bayshore Bikeway and be a signature project."
Meanwhile, tenants in the first Bikeway Village building are polishing up their shops at the soon-to-open stop next to the Bayshore Bikeway, Sheehan said. "Everyone did their best: they worked with the coastal commission and tried to bring in a partner to operate the hostel. It just didn't pencil out for the hostel companies."