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Opening of new hotel in Empire Building pushed back

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The ground floor of the historic Empire Building overlooking Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square remains a cavernous live construction zone, with bare light bulbs illuminating concrete pillars and open trenches running the length of the unfinished floor. A gap in a second-story wall draws in a draft while presenting a unique view of the square below.

The ambitious remodel of the iconic 110-year-old beaux-arts building into a boutique hotel is moving into its second year, with rows of scaffolding, stacks of construction supplies and bustling workers spread throughout the site. The building’s interior walls are framed up, but months of work lie ahead before the now-delayed opening, tentatively set for May of next year.

“The challenges have been vexing,” said veteran developer Hugh Futrell, who is leading the project along with San Francisco-based Greystone Hotels. It was originally set to open late this year.

The $18 million, 71-room hotel is the most high-profile construction job going in downtown, where Futrell is a major player now looking to put his stamp on the reunified public square — a long-planned project he prodded the city into undertaking before acquiring the historic building in mid-2016 for $2.2 million.

But his lofty plans for the hotel have been bogged down by a number of structural issues, including an inadequate metal elevator core that called for retrofitting, several weak interior walls that demanded rebar for strength, and columns whose size didn’t match original building plans, Futrell said this week in an interview following a tour of the site.

Development officials this week revealed the name of the luxury accommodations: Hotel E, a clipped nod to the name of the stately building erected two years after the massive 1906 earthquake. It had been a bank and a college, and for most its recent history housed the law firm of Geary, Shea, O’Donnell, Grattan & Mitchell.

A tour of the property on Monday showed off the work behind forging its next chapter, including the initial 39 rooms set to open next spring above a ground-floor lobby, conference space and wine bar meant to draw in foot traffic.

“Soft” was the word Greystone’s general manager, Vern Lakusta, and sales director Debi Dobley settled on when asked to describe the planned interior decor, including a color palette that will feature light yellow and gray. Dobley and Lakusta envision the hotel’s entry room as a place for visitors to enjoy a drink and take in the city.

“You walk in there, you’re going to feel like you’re walking into someone’s home, and that’s what we want,” Lakusta said. “We don’t want the feeling of walking into a dorm or a lobby.”

Developers have kept the exterior of the building largely intact to preserve the Empire Building’s heritage. Inside, it’s is a different story. Tile floors on the upper floors were among the existing designs that were scrapped. The 1908 building also will be updated with new technology, including digital tablets in each room, and mobile check-in service for guests.

The hope is that business customers snap up most weekday nights for retreats, while Wine Country tourists book a larger share on weekends, Dobley said. Daily rates are currently expected to start in the low-$300s and will be adjusted accordingly, Lakusta said.

The second phase of the hotel will be added in the neighboring commercial building at 19 Old Courthouse Square, set to include 30 rooms, plus two rooftop suites, a cafe and a small health club. The ground floor of that building is set to feature a Perry’s restaurant.

The two buildings will be connected by a walkway toward the back of a dividing courtyard created by the demolition of a narrow two-story building that once stood in space.

Futrell said he envisioned that the second phase of the project would be completed by late next year.

By then, he’s expecting to be underway with several other large construction projects in downtown.

Next door to Futrell’s Humboldt Apartments on Seventh Street, he plans to build the Art House, a four-story housing complex featuring an art gallery, 21 residential units and 15 extended-stay suites. The site is now a patch of dirt surrounded by fencing, but Futrell hopes to have the project finished by November 2019.

Also in the pipeline: a 107-unit, 100-foot-tall apartment building at 888 Fourth St. There, Futrell wants to “create the most attractive project on the market” with a pool, rec room, fitness center and secured parking. Rents on 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units would run from $2,000 to $3,200, he said.

“When completed, it would be undoubtedly the highest-value rental project in Santa Rosa,” he said. “And it has to be, because it’s going to be pretty expensive to build.”

That site also has faced delays, stemming from a need for additional structural study and market uncertainty posed by local and state moves to impose rent control. With voters rejecting both those moves, Futrell said he feels comfortable moving forward.

The city is confronting a severe housing crisis made worse by last year’s fires, and Futrell acknowledges his projects will address only a small part of that shortfall.

“We’ll never build enough housing to make housing affordable for as many people as we would want it to be,” he said, citing environmental and political concerns. “It’s never going to happen.”

Also still to come is a residential project at 10 E St., a property zoned for 10-story building, one Futrell said would fill out the range of housing and commercial space he hopes to add in downtown.

“I’m trying to have a mix of incomes: affordable units and market-rates, rental units and for-sale units,” he said. “I think that the downtown really belongs to everybody, so we want development that serves everybody. That’s important.”