From the Past to the Future

Three new project proposals were recently added to the city’s Development Projects list. Over the past week or two I’ve spent time looking at  all three project submissions in depth; now it is time to review them. One is a significant redo of the historic Sequoia Hotel, at the corner of Main Street and Broadway. The next is a new ten-story office building (with some ground-floor retail) proposed for the block adjacent to Courthouse Square largely occupied today by a single-story, free-standing Chase Bank building. Lastly, yet another small (eight-unit) townhouse development is being proposed — this one on Woodside Road. I had originally planned to write about all three this week, but after writing about the planned reworking of the Sequoia Hotel, I discovered that I’d gone on long enough. Accordingly, expect to read about the other two projects in a future post.

I fell in love with the Sequoia Hotel building the first time I saw it, and I’ve had a strong affection for it ever since. I’m not sure just what it is about the building that tugs at my heart; likely it is the hotel’s main entrance, at the corner of Main Street and Broadway:

I love the ornate entrance, the curved glass, and how the corner of the building is one large cylinder. I also love the many smaller artistic touches; in particular, the panel above the entrance that proudly shows off when construction on this historic building began: 1912. While the sides of the building are not nearly as interesting, I do like how the building integrates ground-floor retail spaces into the building on both the Broadway and Main Street sides. Here is the side of the building facing Broadway, for instance:

For a hotel, the Sequoia Hotel is not a terribly large building. It’s only three stories tall, with all of the hotel rooms being located on the upper two floors. In order to squeeze in that many rooms, all of which need windows, the upper two floors are actually arranged in a “U” shape, with the opening of the “U” facing away from Main Street. It’s a bit hard to see this from the ground, but by standing in the public parking lot located behind the hotel, you can just get a glimpse:

One arm of the “U” is easy to see here. The other is to the left, and is just peeking out above the orange-painted next-door building (which is currently unoccupied; most recently, it was home to the Courthouse 2021 restaurant).

Construction on the Sequoia Hotel began in 1912, and was completed in March 1913. At the time, it filled a need for a high-end hotel in downtown Redwood City. More than $100,000 (in 1912 dollars) was spent to construct this “elegantly and expensively decorated and furnished” hotel. Standards have changed since 1912: back then the hotel was proud to feature a bath with hot and cold water per every two rooms. In addition to the hotel’s presumably tiny bedrooms, the two upper floors also included a total of three parlors that could be used for business and social meetings, plus public restrooms. As for the hotel’s ground floor, it originally featured a dining room and public restaurant which were directly connected to the hotel’s lobby.

The Sequoia Hotel has been through a lot over the years. Today, it is not a traditional hotel but is instead home to a number of low-income residents. Some of the hotel’s retail spaces are seeing good use, although two on the Main Street side are currently boarded up. While the hotel is not sitting idle, clearly it has a great deal of potential.

When I think about the Sequoia Hotel, the following things come to mind:

  • It is located on one of (some would say “the”) prime corners in downtown Redwood City.
  • Our revitalization has greatly increased the foot traffic on Redwood City’s downtown sidewalks. The block of Broadway upon which the Sequoia Hotel sits is particularly busy.
  • Over the past ten years or so a number of large office buildings have been added to Redwood City’s downtown, buildings that are within an easy walk of the Sequoia Hotel. Those office buildings are filled with companies that surely bring the occasional business traveler to the city.
  • Redwood City’s downtown has only one hotel: the Euro Hotel, which could be considered more of a hostel than a hotel. While fine for the casual traveler, I suspect that most business travelers would choose to stay elsewhere.

Together, these points add up to the need to convert today’s Sequoia Hotel into a hotel of the sort that can attract both modern business travelers and tourists alike.

Having said that, a 60-room hotel that sports small rooms without private baths just isn’t going to cut it. Clearly, major changes are going to have to be made. As much as I hate to admit it, as-is the building is simply too small to house the number of modern-day hotel rooms that would be needed in order for the hotel to be economically viable. And so, we come to the current proposal.

Two of the hotel’s principal owners — Alyn Beals (of the contracting firm Beals Martin & Associates) and Dani Gasparini (former Redwood City mayor and City Council member, former Sequoia Hospital director, and former Pen Voice TV host) — have proposed restoring the building’s historic facade (and completely reworking the building’s interior, it seems), and then adding three full stories plus a rooftop bar to the structure. The resulting “boutique” hotel would have 80+ rooms on levels 2-6, the aforementioned rooftop bar, and a restaurant, lobby, and one retail space on the ground floor. The building’s basement would also feature a fitness center, a couple of meeting rooms, and a number of spaces dedicated to the running of the hotel. The resulting hotel would look something like this:

Right off the bat, my initial reaction is a negative one: to my eye the added floors look tacked on, and not a proper part of the historic building. Although they clearly mirror the basic shape and materials used in the historic lower three floors, there seems to have been no attempt made to blend the old and the new by matching the original windows and surrounds. Nor is there any echoing of the large cornice, brackets, and egg-and-dart band that mark the current top of the building, and that would separate the historic portion from the addition in the new design.

Having said all that, the view presented in the rendering is not one that most people would actually see. For one thing, as is clear from my first two photographs showing the current building, there are a number of trees growing alongside the building (primarily on the Broadway side, which is shown in the rendering) that would somewhat obscure a pedestrian’s view of the building’s upper floors. Then, as is shown in the rendering, the upper floors are set back eight feet from the lower three. This would make the upper floors a bit less visible, especially from the sidewalk immediately adjacent to the building. So in reality, what most people would see would be those first three historic floors, restored to their original glory.

The second thing that you’ll likely notice is that the new version of the building is not white, as it largely is today. When the Sequoia Hotel was originally constructed, the brick facade was left natural. The white paint (if indeed it is paint) was added some years later, and only to the Broadway and Main Street facades. That white paint would be stripped away during the building’s renovation.

Before moving on to the hotel’s interior, I should note that this is just a first iteration on the design: it has yet to be reviewed by either the city’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee or its Architectural Advisory Committee. Both bodies will have a chance to weigh in on the design before the Planning Commission or City Council ever get a chance to consider it. Thus, the design that finally gains approval (if the project makes it all the way through the lengthy process) may or may not look like the rendering shown above.

As for the inside, if you compare the rendering with the photograph I included that shows the Broadway side of the hotel, you’ll see that the retail spaces that are there today would be eliminated in favor of a restaurant. That restaurant would of course maintain the historic facade that defines today’s retail spaces, but would have an all-new interior layout. And exterior seating, if the rendering is at all accurate. As for the Main Street facade, today there are a number of retail spaces on that side as well. In the new incarnation of the hotel, the plan is to make most of that side the hotel’s working entrance. Hotel guests would be dropped off and picked up along Main Street. They would then proceed through a new set of entrance doors, located roughly where Gambrel & Co. is located today, to find themselves at the reception desk. Of course, guests could also enter and exit the hotel through the corner doorway that is today’s main entrance; in the new design that doorway would open on a round foyer that would double as the hotel’s bar.

In the very center of the hotel, on the ground floor, there would be a large meeting room/event space configured so that it can be divided into two smaller rooms if needed. The remainder of the ground floor would consist of elevators, restrooms, and hotel offices.

The hotel’s second floor would contain 17 rooms. One of those rooms — the one on the corner, above the hotel’s corner entrance — would be a large suite with round walls — a so-called “turret room.” All of the rooms on this floor would be arrayed along the outer perimeter of the building. Running through the center of the building, from the roof down through the second floor, there would be a large light well. That light well would terminate just above the ground-floor meeting room: “a stained‐glass dome will cap the meeting and event space on the ground level, providing that space with color filtered light while serving as a visually striking center piece from the floors above.”

The third floor is laid out much like the second, again with a large “turret room” suite on the corner looking out over the intersection of Main Street and Broadway. Here, though, the light well comes into play: the third floor has two additional guest rooms (for a total of 19) that only look out into the central light well.

Floors four through six have a layout similar to the third floor, although because these floors are set back eight feet from the lower three, and because some of the rooms on these floors are larger in size, each of these floors contains only 15 rooms. Nine of the rooms on the fourth floor take particular advantage of the setback: they have outdoor decks facing out either towards Broadway or towards Main Street (or both, in the case of the fourth-floor corner suite). But any of the hotel guests — and, I hope, members of the public — can enjoy an elevated outdoor experience by heading for the hotel’s rooftop, where they’ll discover a large indoor bar, two large outdoor terraces (one fronting on Broadway, and one fronting on Main Street) and a suite that can presumably be reserved for private entertaining.

Although I personally am not thrilled with aspects of the proposed hotel’s exterior, from a functional standpoint there is a lot to like about it. Especially given its location, it seems to me that we could badly use such a hotel. But in order to get it, we’re going to have to make some accommodations. For one, this project would essentially add a seven-story building (81 feet tall) to the corner of Main Street and Broadway. None of the buildings in the immediate area are anywhere near as tall. For comparison, the building currently under construction at 851 Main Street tops out at 69 feet (that’s the top of the screening around the rooftop HAVC equipment; the building itself is only 59 feet tall). For another, I’ve written nearly two thousand words so far about this hotel, and have yet to use the word “parking.” The current hotel has no on-site parking, and the new incarnation won’t, either. It appears that the project principals have arranged for 25 off-site parking spaces (perhaps leased from the city in the Main Street lot, or in the nearby Marshall Street garage?), but that’s it. Whether 25 off-site parking spaces is enough for an 83-room hotel, well, we’ll have to see what the Environmental Impact Report says about that. Finally, the hotel currently houses a number of low-income residents; residents who clearly won’t have a place in the new version of this hotel. I for one would like to learn what arrangements are being made to help the current residents find a new place to live.

Downtown has come a long way since I moved to Redwood City some 30-odd years ago. Back then it was a place that few wanted to spend any time. Until the pandemic, our downtown was a hopping place. Things have understandably been quiet over the last year, but I’m starting to see real signs of life once again. This project is probably a year or so away from gaining approval (assuming it is approved), with another year needed to break ground and probably two years needed for construction. Thus, we’re probably looking at 2025 or so before a reworked Sequoia Hotel would open its doors. By then, I would hope that the pandemic would be a distant memory, and that our downtown would once again be teeming with life. If so, a hotel would be a very welcome addition. Whether or not it is this hotel, or some other variant of it, or a different hotel altogether, we’ll have to wait and see.

8 thoughts on “From the Past to the Future

  1. If I missed this in your article I apologize, but to my knowledge Mayor Diane Howard is also part owner of the Sequoia Hotel? Also what will happen to the current low-income tenants?

    • Mayor Howard sold her interest in the Sequoia Hotel a year or so ago. As for the current tenants of the hotel, I have not heard what is to become of them. I’m assuming that that will be part of the discussion around this project

  2. This was a really interesting piece Greg, even for someone who doesn’t live anywhere near RC. I appreciate your research because it puts the proposal in proper context and justifies many of the design elements. I’m glad to see the upper floors will be set back and difficult to see from ground level. I’m glad to read the doors will not open for another four years, to allow time for critical issues to be addressed (i.e. parking). In the end, I think the city gets the best of both worlds: something of a preservation of what used to be, and a much-needed hotel/restaurant/bar to draw both guests and locals to the downtown area. I look forward to your future updates on this project.

  3. Yep, I am with you!! This modernization of the exterior just doesn’t seem the best! I LOVE the idea of refurbishing the historic part and moving it into the modern world inside! Too much glass on the exterior!
    I, too, worry about more gentrification of our town and those that can afford to live here being shoved out 😦
    With regards to parking, let the Hotel build another layer of parking on the Marshall St parking and dedicate spaces to the Sequoia Hotel!!
    PLEASE keep the Historic Redwood City resembling Redwood City’s historic charm!

  4. I too love the Sequoia Hotel building and don’t want to see the exterior modernized in any way. Doing so would lose tarnish soul of historic Broadway. Also, residents of the apartment building at 830 Main rely on the public parking lot directly it and the hotel because there are not sufficient parking spots for each resident to have one slot in the apartment parking structure. Pre-pandemic, it was near impossible to find a spot at peak times and if the hotels takes 25 spots for their clients, seniors are going to lose out.

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