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Photograph by Will Mosher
Writing on the Wall: Two imminent hearings are likely to push the Rispin Mansion closer to transformation into a luxury hotel.

Hotel Capitola

The curse of the Rispin Mansion is about to be lifted.

By Steve Hahn

Ron Beardslee is standing on the terrace of the 80-year-old Rispin Mansion in Capitola, inspecting the graffiti-covered Greek and Roman architectural designs that have made the building an official historic landmark. He sighs as he thinks back on the 12 years and over $2 million he has spent to restore the former glory of this rundown but storied behemoth, and that's before even starting construction.

"When I saw this building I violated the developer's first rule, which is to never fall in love with your project," says Beardslee, who worked on hospital and housing developments before moving to Capitola. "You always have to be able to walk away from a development if it gets too tough, but something struck a chord with me here, and I realized this was my slot. It's a very dangerous thing economically, but I still feel that love."

Beardslee is hoping to transform this massive concrete structure into a 25-room luxury hotel with a spa, an outdoor wedding pavilion and two outdoor gardens. He also plans to build two additional villas next to the existing building. Beardslee believes it would be a fitting use for this hulking two-story mansion, which has served as a getaway spot for San Francisco's moneyed elite, then as cloister for a reclusive order of nuns and as home to a commune of goat-raising hippies. He has promised to restore the historic elements, all while transforming the dilapidated building, which now mainly serves as a hangout for transients, into an economic staple for the city that will bring wealthy visitors and their tax dollars to Capitola. Supporting the project is his partner Dan Floyd, the San Jose-based development firm Barry Swenson and the Capitola City Council. Project proponents are quickly approaching their goal, but a few minor legal and regulatory obstacles remain.

These hurdles have been thrown in Beardslee's path by a group of at least 12 Capitola residents calling themselves Save the Habitat, or "the Rispin Dozen." This group has expressed a number of concerns over the years about the environmental consequences of clearing brush near Soquel Creek and cutting down trees that provide temporary habitat to the monarch butterflies in autumn.

Tom Mader, who owns a house along the creek, acts as president of Save the Habitat. He has engaged the city and Beardslee in a number of lawsuits, the most recent of which will be heard in Santa Cruz Superior Court on Thursday, June 19. His concerns encompass larger issues than just the plans for the Rispin. For Mader, it all goes back to a set of city ordinances created in 1987 to protect the wildlife corridor along Soquel Creek. The ordinances established requirements for setbacks and put conditions on cutting down trees or clearing vegetation. Mader believes the spirit of these rules has been violated over the years, with the Rispin being only the latest example of this trend.

Specifically, Mader is concerned that conservation easements agreed to by Save the Habitat in 2005 have now been changed without the consultation of his group. The new plans, released in 2007, would move some walking paths, a small section of the two villas and a sewer line into part of the conservation easement. It would require the removal of 18 oak, eucalyptus and acacia trees, whereas only three trees were supposed to be removed under the 2005 agreement, according to Save the Habitat attorney Bill Parkin.

"We're not saying don't go forward with the proposal; we're saying we had a deal," says Parkin. "There was a settlement in 2005 to resolve a number of lawsuits that resulted in these conservation easements and conditions of approval being put in place. A deal is a deal. The city is basically reneging on the deal."

Parkin has also appealed the plans to the Coastal Commission, which will hear the matter on June 13. Coastal Commission staff is recommending the appeal be denied. That means that unless the Superior Court makes a different finding or the case gets caught up in the appeals process, Rispin will soon be getting its face-lift.

For his part, Beardslee brushes off the environmental concerns, noting that there will still be a dedicated monarch butterfly habitat and a sewer line that will treat runoff leaking into the creek.

Glory Days
If the court hearing and commission decision both go Beardslee's way, he hopes to finally start renovation in early July. It will be a welcome announcement for most of the city. The building has been officially vacant since the nuns left in 1959. Since then, it has mostly been a hangout for vagrants and a thorn in the side of police.

In its current condition, with litter scattered everywhere, moss growing along the walls and graffiti scrawled on every surface, it's hard to imagine how illustrious the building once was. The builder, Henry Rispin, planned to make the mansion the center of Capitola, which he envisioned as an elaborate resort town, complete with its own airport and massive homes for wealthy San Francisco business owners. Then came the Great Depression, and with it, the collapse of Rispin's dreams and fortune.

After years of neglect, the city bought the property in 1986 for $1.3 million. The city hoped to preserve it after a developer released plans to tear down the building and construct a 13-unit townhouse development. City leaders had intended to convert the mansion into a library or community center, but in 1996 decided it would make more economic sense to convert it into a small hotel. Officials have even agreed to put $3 million in Redevelopment funds toward the restoration of the mansion, hoping to eventually make that money back in the taxes from the hotel and the increased tourist traffic to Capitola.

Beardslee has been doggedly following his dream over the years, despite the legal and financial challenges he's faced over the long 12-year road. He's relieved to finally be so close to the finish line.

"This has become my life work," he says. "It isn't just about economics. You can really feel it here. I mean, how many places are like this?"

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