Hotelier, Conservationist Reveals Proposal for Key Downtown Property
By Mark Lewis
In New York, the high-profile hotelier Eric Goode is well known for artfully designed boutique hotels that double as nightclubs – the kind of upscale venue that now dominates Manhattan’s nightlife scene.
In Ojai, where he has maintained a part-time home in the East End since 1989, Goode keeps a much lower profile. But that’s about to change. Goode and his local partner, Jonas Svensson, are preparing to come forward with a proposal to bring a boutique hotel to the downtown area, as part of a possible redevelopment of the Ojai Unified School District’s sprawling complex at the corner of Ojai Avenue and North Montgomery Street.
Goode has been considering this project in one form or another since 2008. Now, a recent inquiry from the Ojai Quarterly has prompted him and Svensson to go public with their plans.
“I thought that we should probably throw our hat in the ring and see what happens,” Goode told the OQ.
His timing is propitious. Despite voter approval of the Measure J bond issue last fall, the district still faces serious financial challenges. With overall enrollment down from 4,200 to 2,600 since 1997 and still falling, the district once again is thinking about cashing in the 7.5-acre parcel. (That acreage excludes the skateboard park and the park-and-ride parking lot, which would not be included in any new development.)
Currently, the property houses the administrative offices, Chaparral High School, Chaparral Auditorium, the district’s pre-school and daycare center, its bus depot and various other departments – all of which theoretically could be moved elsewhere if the School Board decides to sell or lease this prime location to a developer.
Given the parcel’s size and its proximity to downtown, the impact on Ojai could be enormous. No decision is imminent, but the mere possibility that this property might eventually be repurposed has prompted the City Council to request a joint meeting with the School Board to talk things over. (Some city officials have suggested that the site’s historic buildings – the former elementary school and the auditorium – should be granted official landmark status, which might complicate the redevelopment process.)
At some point, the entire community will join the conversation, because deciding what to do with this property is tantamount to deciding Ojai’s future direction. The OQ in our fall issue will examine the issue in depth, with a view to sparking a wide-ranging discussion about the various possibilities. But in this issue, we focus on the specific proposals that may provide the starting point for that discussion. All these proposals include a hotel, but only one of them involves a nationally famous hotelier.
ric Goode first lived in Ojai as a boy in the late ‘60s, when his father was a teacher at The Thacher School. Two decades later, in 1989, Goode bought a home here as an occasional refuge from his “bright lights, big city” career as a nightlife entrepreneur in New York and Los Angeles.
“I moved to Ojai because I really loved it as a child,” he said.
In 2005 he established the Behler Chelonian Center, a five-acre East End reptile refuge where the staff breeds endangered tortoises and turtles, in a bid to save them from extinction. But the Behler Center made a point of not publicizing its location, and Goode tended to fly under the radar when he was in Ojai, so relatively few people in town knew who he was or what he was up to. That began to change in January 2012, when the writer William Finnegan highlighted Goode’s Ojai connection in a lengthy New Yorker article about his tortoise conservation efforts.
“Like most people, only more so, Eric Goode operates in several worlds,” Finnegan wrote. “He started out in New York, in the ‘70s, as an artist, constructing vitrines à la Joseph Cornell. Keith Haring curated his first group show. In 1983, Goode and three partners opened Area, the art-house nightclub. Haring painted the skate ramp. Andy Warhol did the T-shirts. David Hockney did the pool. Jean-Michel Basquiat painted the windows. A recent Times story about the heyday of Area included a photograph of a young Goode vamping with a young Madonna. He opened other clubs with other partners. He built and bought trendy hotels — the Maritime, the Bowery, the Jane, Lafayette House — and restaurants, including Time Café, the Bowery Bar, and the Waverly Inn. These chic establishments have made Goode a wealthy man.”
All this made for interesting reading in Ojai, but it did not come as news to Joan Kemper. She already knew Goode, having identified him as a possible ally in winning approval for one of her pet projects, the proposed Ojai Performing Arts Theater.
“I was solicited by Joan Kemper,” Goode said. “She came to New York (in 2008) and she stayed at the Bowery Hotel. And I was impressed with her.”
Kemper’s proposed 450-set theater originally had been intended for the Nordhoff High School campus. By 2008, she had shifted her sights to the school district’s downtown property.
“But she needed some kind of anchor” for the development, Goode said – such as a boutique hotel, his specialty, which would pay the freight.
Kemper introduced Goode to Ojai architect (and former mayor) David Bury, and they developed a plan that included the theater, the hotel and, at the rear of the property, some low-cost housing to be built along Aliso Street. The historic Mission-style school buildings in the front would have been preserved but repurposed.
“Eric Goode and I put this thing together,” Kemper said.
Kemper wanted to buy the property, but the board preferred to lease it. In January 2009, Ojai-based developer E.F. “Ted” Moore submitted his own proposal. Moore did not think a big new theater was financially viable, but he too envisioned a boutique hotel as part of the mix, along with a conference center, a restaurant and a mixture of affordable and market-rate residential apartments. As for the historic buildings, “I would say you retain as much as you can,” he said in a recent interview.
School District Superintendent Hank Bangser told the OQ that signing a long-term lease with Moore would have delivered $1 million to the district upfront and $400,000 per year thereafter. But the Great Recession was raging, real estate prices were plummeting, and it did not seem like a good time for the district to cut a deal with anyone. So the school board took no action.
Meanwhile, Kemper’s theater project was languishing on the vine. Goode said that he and Bury “pressed on independently” to craft a similar plan that omitted the theater. “He did quite a bit of work on it,” Goode said. “I helped fund it.”
The idea was to create a low-profile project in the “rustic Spanish” vernacular “that we thought was contextual with Ojai,” Goode said. There would be a new bookstore (Goode was a fan of Local Hero, which had recently vanished from the Arcade); a new restaurant facing on to Ojai Avenue; and plenty of open space – enough to host the Farmer’s Market if its organizers could be persuaded to move it from its current location.
“Then David died (in 2011) and I just let it sit there,” Goode said. “Even before he passed, I sort of stopped the process.”
Also in 2011, Bangser convened an advisory committee to consider whether the district had any surplus property that could be disposed of. The committee’s recommendation, delivered in March 2012, was that the district should sell or lease its downtown property. But this would be a very complicated process. Among other things, the district must first determine how much it would cost to move all of the site’s current functions to other locations.
Kemper said that she approached the district in 2013 to discuss an updated theater plan.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “They don’t have any vision. It hasn’t gotten off the ground.”
By that point, Eric Goode had renewed his interest in the site, in collaboration with a new partner – his friend Jonas Svensson, a Swedish investor and entrepreneur who moved to Ojai with his family in 2010.
Svensson said that as supporters of the Ojai Valley Defense Fund, he and Goode want to keep the strategically vital school district site out of the hands of an outside developer, to prevent bad things from happening.
“I want to change Ojai as little as possible,” Svensson said, but developing the property “will change Ojai one way or another,” so it’s important to do it right: “If you do that wrong, it’s irreparable damage to the city.”
Svensson said that his and Goode’s concept is similar to the one Bury drew up before his death. They have not yet hired an architect, he said, but the hotel — provisionally dubbed “The Chaparral” — would have 50 to 75 rooms, priced at $200 to $250 per night. Svensson said that putting up a hotel rather than apartments would generate more tax revenue for the city, and would also create “at least 150 jobs.”
Svensson and Goode said that some of the hotel profits could support a new foundation that could help pay for community projects that otherwise wouldn’t get funded.
“This is a way to give back to Ojai without having it come out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” Goode said.
ith real estate prices now on the rise, and with several new members elected last fall, the school board revisited the issue in an April meeting. They expressed provisional support for the possibility of leasing (rather than selling) the site, but offered many caveats.
“There are many challenges that would have to be met by the developer that would create a comfort level for the entire board,” Bangser said in an interview. “It’s a fairly high standard to meet. It’s doable, but it would take a very creative proposal.”
Board President Thayne Whipple thinks that the odds are against the site being redeveloped, especially now that the City Council is expressing interest in landmarking the historic buildings. Whipple said developers might feel that there are too many potential restrictions associated with the site.
“We haven’t had a lot of offers,” Whipple told the OQ. “I don’t know that there would be a lot of people interested.”
Nevertheless, Ted Moore remains intrigued by the site’s possibilities.
“I was interested and still am interested in developing it,” he said.
He’s not alone. Joan Kemper still wants to build that performing arts theater. And now Eric Goode and Jonas Svensson have decided to insert themselves into the conversation.
“We are ready to meet with officials,” Svensson said.
The proposals that have surfaced so far have certain elements in common: a boutique hotel, a restaurant, and an emphasis on being thematically and physically open to the community, rather than being a sealed-off campus that’s intended mostly for tourists. All would retain the site’s historic buildings (or most of them) and adapt them for new uses.
“Maybe we can work together,” Moore said.
s a hotelier, Goode remains a major player in New York. Last year, he and his partners opened the Ludlow on the Lower East Side, the latest addition to their collection of hyper-designed hostelries. But Goode said he hopes to eventually spend most of his time in Ojai, and not because he wants to turn it into a miniature Manhattan.
“I did not move to Ojai just to do business in Ojai,” he said.
Yet, paradoxically, he said, it may be that building a hotel here — the right sort of hotel, in the right sort of development — could help keep Ojai viable as the bucolic, slow-paced, semi-isolated oasis that attracted Goode in the first place.
“We are trying to create something that would fit on that site and be compatible,” he said. “It would be a joy to do something there that I think would be good for everyone in Ojai.”
Editor’s Note: If the School Board ever does decide to sell or (more likely) lease the property, the district and its chosen developer would face a daunting gauntlet of logistical, regulatory and political obstacles. But first comes the vision: What would be the best use of this site, seven-and -a-half acres of prime real estate in the heart of downtown Ojai? Much is at stake, not just for the district but for the entire valley. This is the time for the community to weigh in.
In our next issue, the Ojai Quarterly will explore some of the key issues and solicit a wide range of opinions as to what, if anything, should be done with this historic and highly strategic site. The answer likely will shape Ojai’s future, for good or ill.