Rebirth at the Hotel Petaluma

It's been a year since dozens of Hotel Petaluma residents, followed by the popular Taps brewpub, vacated the property while its new owner worked on turning it into a functioning hotel again.

Emotions ran high while the change was underway, with some people angrily denouncing new owner Terence Andrews and his family. Andrews had raised rents and instituted a smoking ban – and by his own account, the smoking ban was the bigger factor in driving them out.

But today, those residents have been successfully relocated, Taps has a new spot on the river and Andrews and his family are coming along in their plans to make the hotel a premier downtown Petaluma destination.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the community," said Andrews' daughter, Jessica Andrews, who runs the hotel's marketing efforts. She pointed to a recent Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting, a low vacancy rate and, one month ago, a rock 'n' roll wedding with the couple getting hitched at the Phoenix Theatre across the street, then holding their reception in the hotel's ornate ballroom.

Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, or PPSC – which took the lead in relocating the more than 100 "single room occupancy" tenants at Hotel Petaluma – said some people vilified Terence Andrews during last year's move-out process.

"Of course no one likes to be removed from their housing, and there was a lot of raw nerves," she said Tuesday. But Terence Andrews was responsive to public concerns, she said, and was within his rights to change the use of the hotel.

Today, she said, the family is doing good things and should be embraced: "They actually are part of the community now."

As for the hotel's former occupants, they also are doing well, Hempel said. Some had been staying there short-term, others long-term, and some simply crashed there. The rooms – rented for as little as $200 a month – were described as small, dingy and rank with cigarette smoke.

One former tenant, Patrick Bohler, wrote: "We called the top floor the Dying Floor. Seemed one person died there every month." Bohler later moved to Arizona.

The level of squalor was debatable, but according to Hempel, "Many people that were staying at the hotel were actually not what we would consider low-income." Rather, she said, the residents represented a diverse group of people making various "lifestyle choices."

Their situations were diverse, she said, with some collecting benefits and others holding regular jobs. At least one elderly person there was receiving Meals on Wheels assistance, she said.

For relocation, some only needed convincing that normal apartment living was right for them – or to be reunited with family members who could offer help. Hempel said PPSC worked to "bring siblings together that hadn't talked in years. And forced them to have that conversation, that they had to look out for each other."

Only two or three of the residents were believed to have chosen permanent homelessness after leaving Hotel Petaluma, Hempel said.

Mike Johnson, CEO of Petaluma-based Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), confirmed that estimate, and praised PPSC for its work in relocating the residents.

"When all was said and done, the way this whole thing went down is a great testament to the way the safety net should work," he said.

A few months after the residents were gone, talk turned to Taps being next to go. Things came to a head in early September, after a problem with the aging kitchen equipment forced Taps' owner Eric LaFranchi to announce he was no longer able to serve hot food – and accusing Andrews of not cooperating. LaFranchi did not return several calls seeking comment this week.

By now, for Taps, it is presumably water under the bridge – in this case the bridge leading over the Petaluma River to their new front door at 54 E. Washington St., in the River Plaza Shopping Center.

That's just a few hundred feet from the historic hotel, located across the river at 106 Washington St., where Taps had rented bar space for four years.

Built in 1923, the five-story, 104-room structure was purchased by the Andrews in 2012 after the former owner lost it in foreclosure. At the time of the purchase there were four business tenants on the ground floor: a tattoo parlor, a nail salon, a record store and Taps.

Along with Taps, the record store is gone, although the other two businesses remain. Jessica Andrews said the family is working on opening a caf?in the open storefront on the corner.

Besides weddings, the classic ground-floor spaces – an austere, den-like "fireplace room" connects the ballroom and lobby – are now being used for conferences and other events.

"Our ballroom lends itself to being a traditional dance space," Jessica Andrews said.

Upstairs, she used an old-fashioned metal key to open one of the available rooms, which contained an antique bed and other furniture. The owners intend to preserve much of Hotel Petaluma's 1920s charm, she said.

Hempel said last year's exodus there underscored a major weakness in the local housing market.

"The biggest picture that was highlighted by losing the SRO (single resident occupancy) … was it highlighted the fact that we as a community have not addressed the lack of housing," Hempel said. "Not just affordable housing, but there is a huge housing demand in this community." She called for a "bigger conversation about housing, and how we as a community address this issue together."

(Contact Don Frances at argus@arguscourier.com)