Friday, January 3, 2014

Needles to Demolish Route 66’s Overland Motel

Abandoned Overland Motel in Needles along Route 66 in December 2013. (ZachNews)
By Ruth Musser-Lopez
San Bernardino Sentinel

Less than one month after meeting with a new government and grassroots Route 66 (RT66) coalition formed to manage and protect the historic RT66 corridor in the wake of its resurgence as a world class visitor attraction, the six-member Needles City Council voted to take action towards demolishing one of the route’s newer assets: the classic 1960s era Overland Motel at 710-712 West Broadway/Route 66 in Needles.

Dwarfing other motels during the 1960s and early 70s, the glitzy Overland represented increasing traffic along Route 66 and a respectable climax of the “mother road.” However, after Interstate 40 was built, traffic patterns in Needles changed with larger hotels being constructed at freeway exit ramps drawing over-nighters away from the downtown corridor. Some twenty years after the Overland was constructed it was already struggling. The restaurant closed in the early 1980s. Laughlin and its hotel-casinos just 35 minutes away also posed competition for Needles area lodging facilities and restaurants.

The 44-room, two-story motel with a lobby and large central parking area once sported a restaurant and swimming pool that could be seen while driving along the main street in downtown Needles. Currently it is being marketed as a Route 66 attraction 35 minutes from Laughlin, where potential “theme rooms would create another ‘destination’ for the reported 30 million Route 66 travelers last year.” It is advertised and listed for $89,000 by Caleene Williams, the broker and listing agent. The asked for amount likely does not include the cost of back taxes owed and probably does not reflect the cost of litigation which the city of Needles has brought against Keith Enterprises, the assumed current owner, in case number CIVNS 1100085.

The reality of the historic preservation issue that the motel represents is that cost to the owner currently outweighs benefit to the owner. Generally it can be said that the cost burden of preserving historic structures along Route 66 is now on the back of just the property owners instead of spread over the entirety of those potentially benefiting from the maintenance and continued establishment of the entire package of assets and resources along RT66’s corridor. The question remains: How many heritage structures can be demolished before Route 66 looses its character and charm?

Overland Motel during better days.

After a little over an hour of deliberation behind closed doors, the Needles City Council, meeting in executive session on December 10, 2013 at a regular council meeting voted on “Whether to purchase property through San Bernardino County tax sale and price and terms – Negotiating Parties: County of San Bernardino through tax sale.” The agenda item did not mention demolition of the motel.

On the open session agenda, action was scheduled to be taken to authorize the purchase of the property identified as Assessor’s Parcel No. 0186-106-26-0000 (Overland Motel) via Chapter 8 Tax Sale. No further background, fiscal impact, timeline or environmental review was provided in the background information packet and no mention was made of demolishing the motel.

However, according to local internet blogger, Zach Lopez in his “ZachNews Service,” city attorney John Pinkney reported unanimous votes in executive session on both authorizing the city manager and staff to initiate a Chapter 8 tax purchase of the property and authorizing legal council to obtain a court order permitting the property “receiver” to demolish the historic motel structure

According to the county website, the next San Bernardino County tax sale is tentatively scheduled for May 2014.

ZachNews Service expressed the sentiment, “After years of sitting abandoned, collecting dust and trash, and a hangout place for vandals [to] do drugs inside, the old and abandoned Overland Hotel may be next to becoming demolished…This was good news to those in the community who have been sick and tired of seeing nothing done onto this property and being an eyesore to those driving into Downtown Needles, California to follow the historic and world famous Route 66 highway…Overall, many hope that those abandoned homes and properties get cleaned up or knocked down so to keep the community safe and clean.” Eleven local Facebook readers gave that review a thumbs up. This, however, is not necessarily the sentiment of the wider Route 66 community who has yet to weigh in on the subject.

With “ghost” structures considered to represent imagery assets, the pitch to demolish crumbling service stops on Route 66 is contrary to the dialogue of stalwart Route 66 coalition members who are determined to develop a “Corridor Management Plan” (CMP) for the “Mother Road.” The CMP currently being developed has been made possible by a $103,000 grant for the project acquired from the Federal Highway Administration in 2012 at the behest of James Kemp, California state director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). An 80/20 matching grant in services from the California Route 66 Association supplements that funding. This CMP would not just be used as a management tool but also as the first step toward designating Route 66 as a National Scenic Byway in need of preservation and federal funding to implement the management plan.

The coalition including representatives and stakeholders from the California Route 66 Association, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), county of San Bernardino, the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, chambers of commerce, Caltrans, various tour-ism bureaus, local businesses, museums, grassroots organizations and other Route 66 advocates were aboard the bus tour of Route 66 through Needles on December 4, 2013.

The evening before, on December 3, 2013, at Juicy’s Restaurant in Needles, the coalition had met with members of the Needles City Council - Jim Lopez and Linda Kidd, its mayor Edward T. Paget and his wife Jan, the city manager Rick Daniels, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, Sue Godnick, and a representative of the Needles Downtown Business Alliance, Jan Jernigan, as well members of the Needles public at large, Robert and Lana Shaw, Linda Fitzpatrick and myself, who were informed of the possibility of funding that may soon be available to rescue declining historic properties along the historic site’s linear corridor should a National Scenic Byway designation be approved.

While passing through the Needles historic district of Route 66, the bus tour participants of the coalition viewed numerous structures also considered important to the Scenic Byways designation, including: the El Garces Harvey House and train depot, the Claypool building and the many historic motels, storefronts and residences along its course which are yet to be inventoried and described for the management plan.

Monitoring, putting deterioration in check, reversing the decay, restoring, retooling, resurrecting, rehabilitating abandoned and deteriorating historic properties and “ghost” structures along the corridor between Needles and Barstow was said to be an important goal of many of the Route 66 coalition participants. Demolishing was not.

During 2013, the city of Needles destroyed, approved the destruction of, or turned their eyes while two other important historic structures along the portion of RT66 through Needles were razed: the historic green castle that once housed the Needles Dairy creamery (see Glimpse 9-13-13) and “Mansker’s” two story railroad tie cabin (see Sentinel’s Glimpse 7-12-13). This demolition is billed as an effort to “clean up blight.” The homeless retreat to vacant, unprotected structures in Needles from time to time.

The consequence of the countrywide economic downturn is the need for affordable or publicly assisted temporary housing in Needles. The Overland Motel represents a structure that could potentially be retooled for government housing for the temporarily homeless or reinvented as a private assisted living facility as has been discussed for years. Some residents of Needles believe it wasteful and inhumane to destroy the stock of extant housing without a plan for replacement, particularly when there are so many people in need.

Edward Mejia, a groundskeeper at a church across the street from the motel, related his experience with the homeless in Needles. “There’s no place for the homeless here. They’re sleeping wherever they can in this cold of winter. Why is no one giving them direction as to where to go? They are being harassed at night by the police without direction as to what to do. We are supposed to be Christ like. It’s ridiculous.”