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To the Point

Author: Beth Galleto
September, 2009 Issue

NorthBay biz profiles the majestic Cavallo Point Lodge and Conference Center—once a source of contention, it’s now Sausalito’s pride and joy and one of Marin’s top hidden treasures.

The conflict started in 1998 when the National Park Service began searching for a developer to convert Fort Baker, located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, into a 350-room hotel and conference center. The intensity of the project enraged many local residents.

“This project was at the city limit of Sausalito. Its entrance is Alexander Avenue, with one lane in, one lane out. It could have had a huge impact on Sausalito,” says Amy Belser, former four-term Sausalito mayor (1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008) and a councilwoman for 17 years. “We were very concerned about traffic and emergency services—to say nothing of the pristine environment it was going to trample over.”

Visualizing gridlock from the bridge all the way to Sausalito, the City Council started negotiations with the National Park Service. In May 2001, when no agreement could be reached, Sausalito filed a lawsuit.

Fast forward to 2009. The Cavallo Point Lodge, including 142 rooms, a restaurant, spa and conference center, has been open at Fort Baker for about a year now. “I couldn’t be more delighted with how it turned out,” says Belser.

The development team at Cavallo Point turned hostility into support by finding ways to make the community’s needs make economic sense. How did they do it? They listened to residents and worked within their specifications, satisfied the environmental community by using green building methods and materials, and collaborated with the local business community.

Listen to the residents

Cavallo Point, with its majestic views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, is truly unique. It was named Punta de Caballo by Spanish sailors who observed wild horses there in about 1775; the name metamorphosed to Cavallo Point early in its history.

Artillery garrisons were established in the Civil War era at what later became Fort Baker. Together with Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Presidio and Fort Mason, it became one of the guardians of the Golden Gate. With a view of the Bay’s entry from every angle, together they could have easily picked off any enemy gunboat that dared venture in. The buildings that remain today were originally constructed between 1901 and 1915.

Planning began in 1998 for the transfer of the base from the Defense Department to the National Park Service, which wanted to make use of the site by developing a resort. According to Tom Sargent, principal of Equity Community Builders, LLC (ECB), the Park Service’s consultant team said at least 350 rooms were needed to make a project feasible and attractive to a developer. They issued a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) based on this number.

In 2000, the final U.S. Army units moved out. Two years later, Fort Baker was officially transferred from the Defense Department to the National Park Service, and the 335-acre facility became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. By this time, the city of Sausalito and the Park Service were battling in court.

Sausalito resident Jane Woodman headed a citizens’ committee opposing the plan. She says about 200 residents were involved. They knew the area because they’d walked there and enjoyed the spectacular views and unspoiled nature for years. “When they announced the size of the development, clearly it was too big,” says Woodman.

“We made sure the council knew how we felt. It’s hard to have a conversation where the sides are so lopsided,” he continues. “The city council was kind enough to gather its forces together.”

Belser was mayor in 1998. “I wrote a six-page letter commenting on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and expressing the city’s concerns. This is such a pristine place; to violate it to the degree proposed was not acceptable.”

After several unsatisfactory negotiations, the city sued the Park Service, claiming the project’s EIR was flawed. The ruling from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco was in favor of the Park Service. The Council, refusing to give up the fight, appealed—and prevailed on January 13, 2004.

Belser feels that this decision was an important precedent for other cities. “One of the defenses the Park Service used was that Sausalito—or any city—didn’t have standing to sue the Department of the Interior. It was one of the grounds we originally lost on. However, when we appealed, one of the findings was that, in fact, we did have standing. This is huge for cities all over the country that are fighting offshore drilling and other issues.”

In 2004, a group called the Fort Baker Retreat Group LLC, which had the idea that a smaller project would be completely feasible for the site, was selected as the developer. The project team was made up of ECB, Passport Resorts LLC and Ajax Capital Group LLC, all of San Francisco. Passport Resorts also manages the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Hawaii’s Hotel Hana on Maui, Fiji’s Cousteau Resort and Sonoma County’s Sea Ranch Lodge.

The team submitted a plan comprising 142 hotel rooms. “We couldn’t live with 350 hotel rooms on this property. When I wrote the letter in 1998, I said, ‘We would emphatically request that a small facility of 150 to 200 units be given priority.’ Now at 142, it’s perfect,” says Belser.

“Sausalito had a vision of a smaller project. We came to the property, looked it over and had a similar vision,” says ECB’s Sargent, whose team had experience developing similar-sized projects. “We felt a more intimate project was better. We’d done 14 buildings in the Presidio including the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, which became a home for 60 nonprofits. Our feeling is, if a site’s really good, it’s worth making it work within the values of the Park Service. This site is world class.”

The team’s architects were Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Architectural Resources Group. ECB took the lead in successfully raising $38 million in equity, $49 million in construction loans and $13 million in historic tax credits. They signed a 60-year lease with the Park Service.

Make it green

The first and foremost green policy, says Sargent, was to reuse existing buildings. The developers took 17 large buildings that hadn’t been used for 20 years and rehabilitated them to active use. “They’ll be around for another 100 years,” he says. “They were cleverly, surgically fixed, so you have a sense of the way they were 100 years ago.”

Thirteen of the historic buildings were converted to 68 hotel accommodations ranging from single rooms to two-bedroom suites. One old barracks building became hotel reception, a retail shop and meeting spaces. Another was converted into the Murray Circle restaurant, the Farley Bar, banquet rooms and the kitchen.

The porches on the buildings, torn down in the 1930s and 1940s, were rebuilt according to historic drawings and pictures. Interior features were rehabilitated where possible. For example, the builders reused the original pressed tin ceilings, which had been covered for decades with lead paint. To remove this hazard, each tile was taken down, marked for location, and put into a plastic bag. When the bags were frozen, “wiggling” the tiles caused the paint to fall off into the plastic bags. Sargent says that the dark brown tiles are now back to their original color, covered only with a sealant

Care was taken when landscaping the hillsides to use drought-tolerant native plants, grown from seeds collected locally by the Park Service. “We grew 58,000 plants in little test tubes. These plants are attuned to living in the soil and weather patterns we have here,” says Sargent.

New buildings, 13 two-story lodging units with a total of 74 guest rooms, plus a new spa building, were constructed in the footprints of buildings that were torn down. The new lodgings were built with thin film solar panels on all roofs, water heating on demand and low offgassing glues, paints and carpets. Green building materials, such as denim insulation, bamboo and recycled redwood, and low-energy glass were used.

The recycling ethic can be seen throughout the complex. You won’t find a plastic water bottle in any room, including the spa. Guests consume filtered water from pitchers or water dispensers.

U.S. Green Building Council LEED gold certification is pending for the entire complex. “The team did a fantastic job,” says Sargent.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Oonagh Kavanagh, CEO of the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce, says Cavallo Point has been good at participating in community events such as the chamber’s annual Concierge Tour and its “buy local” campaign. “We don’t see [traffic] gridlock; we haven’t had any adverse effects. They’re obviously bringing extra tourists to town. It’s going to help stores and restaurants. The better they do, the better we all do,” Kavanagh concludes.

Dominie Lenz, the resort’s general manager, will be seated on the chamber’s board of directors this year. Lenz has 20 years of experience managing hotels in locations such as Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon. “Working with the city is important, because this is a historic and cultural site that’s been part of the community for many years. I want strong participation with the city and community. It’s a very positive relationship now,” she says.

Some issues remain to be solved. The resort’s original plans included a shuttle to reduce traffic to and from Sausalito. The lodge does offer a daily shuttle for its guests, but a public shuttle is still being planned. “That’s everyone’s goal, without a doubt,” says Lenz. “We’re working with several different partners to develop it.”

Parking is another issue. The original plans didn’t allow parking along the circular parade route, but currently restaurant patrons can park there. Lenz says they’re working on options for managing parking.

Room rates vary seasonally, according to Lenz, and generally range from $290 to $750 per night. Asked to name comparable hotels, she mentions the Sonoma Mission Inn and the Carneros Inn in Napa. “But they’re so different, it’s hard to compare,” she says.

The struggling economy may be one reason the hotel hasn’t noticeably added to traffic at Sausalito’s entrance. “It’s a brand new business in this economy,” says Lenz. “We have strong weekends, holidays and special events. We still have availability midweek,” she admits.

Her goal is to position Cavallo Point “as one of the most amazing destinations out there.”

Ahwahnee by the bay

The interior of the Murray Circle restaurant at Cavallo Point features relaxing shades of brown and pale green. When we visit, it’s morning, and a round table is laden with gleaming, old-fashioned tea and coffee urns, fruit and pastries. Table settings include earthy stoneware plates from Sausalito’s own Heath Ceramics. Classical violin music and bird songs greet the ears.

Cavallo Point is San Francisco Bay’s first national park lodge, and it was designed with Yosemite’s famed Ahwahnee Hotel in mind. “It’s available for everybody. There’s great hiking, hundreds of miles of trails in the Marin Headlands and the Marin Municipal Water District watershed. The North Bay doesn’t have anything else like this,” says Sargent.

He explains how the restaurant—which today appears always to have been a lodge in a park—was transformed from a shabby army barracks recreation room. “Over the years, the men beat the place up. The bathrooms were downstairs—very unpleasant. The challenge for us was to take what was designed for army enlisted men and turn it into a world landmark.”

The plan was to keep the sense of history in this extraordinary location and give it a fresh look, he explains. They accomplished this by keeping what architectural details they could, such as the wainscoting, railings and tin ceilings.

Murray Circle received a Michelin star only three months after its 2008 opening. This placed it in a rare group of 25 Bay Area restaurants, including such gourmet meccas as Yountville’s Bistro Jeanty and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

The walls in the dining room are decorated with 52 original prints by photographer Imogen Cunningham (best known for her black and white portrait and plant images), on loan from the Imogen Cunningham Trust. Sargent explains the lodge has a special art program: With more than 750 locations for art throughout and a budget of only $300,000, they had to find an innovative way to provide enough quality artwork. They put together a loan program, including works from 20 nationally known photographers, each of whom loaned 20 original photographs to hang in the rooms. A set of 20 books showing the work of each artist can be purchased in the retail shop.

In cooperation with the Park Service and the Golden Gate National Conservancy, the team established the Institute at the Golden Gate to host local, regional and international meetings and seminars on environmental issues. The lodge allows access to 10 percent of its rooms at a discounted rate for these meetings.

Other features include a cooking school and a luxurious spa and tea bar. The spa, decorated with modern sculptures and ceramics, offers an outdoor Jacuzzi and amazing views. And for those who like to travel with Fido, the lodge is dog-friendly.

Adjacent to the restaurant is the Farley Bar, named after the cartoon character drawn by the late Phil Frank, a Sausalito resident and local historian. The walls here are decorated with Frank’s drawings. “This is one of the friendliest bars in the Bay Area, with great bartenders,” says Sargent, adding that the disturbing noise of a blender will never be heard in this bar, because everything is done the old fashioned way—by hand.

This tribute to Phil Frank means a lot to Sausalito, says Belser. “It’s a tip of the hat to local atmosphere and a much revered Sausalitan (who was also an honorary Park Ranger). They didn’t have to do that. It’s a very comfortable thing.”

That’s the kind of community support any developer would be happy to receive.



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