New lobby, pools, dining venues and renovated rooms reinvigorate the once fading Mission Valley landmark that began life in the 1950s
For more than six decades, the Town and Country hotel has been a familiar fixture in Mission Valley as it evolved from a motor inn set amid farmland to ranch-style bungalows to 60s-era highrises to a quasi tropical/country garden retreat.
And finally to the point where the fading, family-owned resort was very much in need of a long-overdue makeover.
That transformation — all $70 million of it — is now making its debut this month, but it’s less a reinvention than a return to the hotel’s mid-century roots with a Palm Springs vibe that would make the ‘50s-era Rat Pack feel right at home.
From the vividly colored mid-century modern furnishings to the touches of stone on the curved, low-rise lobby facade to the towering palm trees — 100 of them had to be relocated — this back-to-the-future redevelopment is meant to be an homage of sorts to the original 46-room motel built in 1953 by businessman Charles Brown.
There are plenty of modern touches, to be sure, like the hotel’s new signature indoor-outdoor restaurant Arlo and poolside sports bar Lapper, a four-story “Twister” water slide, a yet-to-open penthouse fitness facility, and luxury outdoor cabanas.
“Returning to its roots is exactly what we say, and we think that’s exactly what we’ve done,” said resort Managing Director April Shute.
“As you walk into the lobby, you see that mid-century modern feel everywhere you look. This hotel is iconic, and what a lot of people tell us is it feels like a touch of Palm Springs in San Diego.”
Gone are the once distinctive arbors, gazebos and large tiki hut; Kelly’s Steakhouse with the piano bar; and Trellises restaurant. Also removed were 279 hotel rooms, which were a part of the hotel’s aging one- and two-story bungalow buildings that had fallen into disrepair and were torn down, making way not only for a new lobby and restaurants but also hundreds of luxury apartments now under construction on the edges of the property.
The resort’s former nondescript lobby and porte-cochere entrance were also razed, replaced with a much more central, 7,500-square-foot reception area and lounge that includes a large bar, plenty of oversized armchairs and expansive views of the pool deck beyond.
The Town and Country’s longstanding convention center remains, as do its two hotel towers — the Regency and Palm — but with entirely remodeled guestrooms and cosmetic upgrades to the facades, including a 90-foot orange and teal mural reminiscent of folk art-inspired textile designs of the 1950s.
“Our original lobby was small and built in the 50s, so it was designed more for a motel, not to accommodate the robust conference space we had,” said Todd Majcher, senior vice president with Lowe Enterprises, which partnered with co-owner Atlas Hotels on the 40-acre redevelopment project. “So we always struggled with being able to do big turns where we have 500 people checking out and 800 checking in. The new facilities allow for that when the group business returns.”
A pandemic intrudes
Clearly, the global spread of the novel coronavirus was never in anyone’s thoughts when the ambitious restoration plans for the Town and Country were first conceived six years ago. While it contributed to a few construction delays, the hotel remained open during the renovation, and its management believes it can weather the current downturn as it awaits a green light from the state for meetings, not likely before the end of the year.
“Obviously, we did not plan for a pandemic. But we remain optimistic over the next 12 months the hotel industry will recover,” said Majcher. “We have a very robust (drive) market we can draw from and great amenities that create a very unique leisure experience. We have a good plan in place to weather the pandemic, which is putting heads in beds. We’re well suited to doing that because we have a brand new product that people will want to stay in, so we’ll get through it by having people come and enjoy the new Town and Country.”
Where normally hotels across the county would be approaching an 80 percent or more occupancy rate for the summer season, Shute expects the Town and Country to average 50 to 55 percent through September. Promotional nightly rates of $129 and $149 are currently being offered in hopes of drawing even more guests.
Early on, the renovated resort was supposed to be completed in time for a 2018 debut, but the entitlement process for the project got bogged down in negotiations with organized labor, which behind the scenes was pressing for an agreement to safeguard existing hotel jobs and not stand in the way of unionizing workers. That pact ultimately was consummated, clearing the way for the renovation — and City Council approval — to move forward.
In addition to creating a more appealing and up-to-date resort for its leisure and business guests, the hotel’s leadership team is hoping that the new dining and drinking venues will attract locals as well, especially as Mission Valley experiences continued housing and office growth. Arlo, which under non-pandemic conditions can seat 175 inside and 130 outside, is helmed by chef Josh Mouzakes, whose previous culinary stints at Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, The French Laundry, and Hotel del Coronado will help bring more elevated cuisine to Mission Valley.
Lapper, a poolside sports bar and restaurant, is housed in one of the original Town and Country structures and will open in early September. MRKT, an all-day gourmet market, features wine, beer and a number of grab-and-go offerings, including wood-fired pizza. A 15-foot-long rotating replica of an historic neon diver will grace the top of the Lapper building.
A river runs through it
As part of its City Council approval, the project called for restoration of nearly 12 acres of degraded San Diego River corridor meandering through the resort. The restoration, completed about a year ago, first involved removing all of the invasive plant species, including about 60 large eucalyptus trees, as well as arundo and palms. Planted in their place were roughly 40 new native plant species, among them California sage brush, mulefat, California walnut, monkey flower, cottonwood, black willow and coast live oak, Majcher said.
The restoration effort also includes a 3.3-acre river park that on the north side of the river is intended to be a place to sit and wait for the trolley or bus, while on the south side it serves as a connection to the hotel and the future residential units. The park, which will be completed by the end of the month, will include seating and a new pedestrian bridge traversing the river.
At the time the project was approved by the council more than two years ago, San Diego River Park Foundation President Rob Hutsel hailed the planned restoration as an important milestone for the community, noting at the time that it would be the first new green space in Mission Valley in 17 years.
Majcher, walking the grounds this week as final construction and planting nears the end, said he was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
“We will maintain this park in perpetuity and we can do that at a higher level quality than the city would,” Majcher said. “It’s incredible how much all this has come back, the cottonwood trees were really struggling at first. It’s really surpassed my expectations.”
From the beginning, the new, improved Town and Country included plans for hundreds of new housing units on four parcels on the eastern and southern fringes of the resort property. Developing what will be 840 apartment units is Vancouver, Wash.-based Holland Partner Group, which purchased 10 acres of the resort property for $82 million.
The first 170 of the studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units should be ready by February of next year and are expected to rent for between $2,500 and $4,500 a month, said George Elum, development director for the Holland Partner Group. The $450 million project will include a fitness center, conference rooms for working remotely, a clubhouse and game room.
Three of the four buildings are under construction, with the final building, located in the rear of the resort by the river park, expected to start construction by May of next year.
The new apartments come at a time when Mission Valley is poised to grow even more, with a number of housing projects either under construction or planned for the coming years. The recently approved sale of the Mission Valley stadium site to San Diego State University clears the way for the eventual development of as many as 4,600 housing units. Elum said he believes the time is right for new housing.
“There’s been a huge housing shortage in Southern California, which is why home prices and rents have skyrocketed over the years,” he said. “And now you’ll have this resort destination and the SDSU project, and Puesto just opened a restaurant in Mission Valley.”
At one time, there were hopes that as part of the approval of the hotel renovation project, there would be a commitment by Lowe to include affordable housing on site. While the developer did not agree to that despite pressure from the local labor unions, it told the City Council it would consider seeking funds from the $8 million in affordable housing fees it’s required to pay to the San Diego Housing Commission in order to build some low-cost housing on the Mission Valley site.
Holland, though, is not planning to incorporate any standalone affordable housing on the site, saying that the economics of it wouldn’t pencil out.
“Rather than taking those funds to build a fully 100 percent affordable housing project on site, you can get more units by leveraging those funds to put the units outside of an existing project.”
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