11 January 2009

La Vida Mineral Springs Resort: 1997

An earlier post on this blog covered a 1985 Los Angeles Times article about La Vida (at left, in much better days,) which was still, it appeared then, a viable business. Three years later, however, a fire roared through the resort and destroyed a considerable portion of it, basically leaving only the restaurant untouched and in operation.

An article, though, in the 22 July 1997 issue of the Times by Esther Schrader appeared presenting hope of a renaissance for the resort. The piece began by stating:

It has been years since the warm waters of La Vida Hot [Mineral] Springs bubbled up unfettered from an underground source. The gracious old hotel where generations of weekend escapees from Los Angeles once lounged is boarded up and crumbling.

But, it went on, there was a proposal submitted earlier that month by a Japanese businessman, Tadayao Hata, to rebuild La Vida with

a slightly larger hotel, a new pool to add to the two that sit dry at the springs, graceful wooden bridges across a gurgling creek and a new clientele seeking what the old patrons did--peace, calm and soft warm water.

In addition to giving some history, which has been covered in several postings on this blog, Schrader also mentioned that

La Vida's first life as a hot springs resort came to an end with the 1988 fire, which ended then-owner Leo Hayashi's short-lived dream of a renaissance at the dilapidated oasis. Hayashi bought the resort in 1974 and had spoken for years of rebuilding the hotel. But money was tight, and by the time the blaze ripped through the uninsured place, only a few dozen people regularly frequented the pools of La Vida. These days the old bridge across the creek leading to the hotel tilts into the steam choked with undergrowth. Cornstalks [actually, the highly invasive and flammable arundo] are growing high on the banks. The faded hotel is pocked with broken windows and trash.

Returning to Hata, the article noted that the owner of a large spa in Japan

plans to pump $3 million to $5 million into rejuvenating the hot springs and cafe. Under his plan, the 12-room hotel would grow slightly, to 15 rooms, with a new parking lot serving it, and the spa would offer massages, facials and other beauty treatments along with the baths.

Notably, although Hayashi sold the resort to Hata, he was, in 1997, still managing the site and noted that, with the new plan, "we're hoping to attract Japanese tourists, you know." Hayashi went on to suggest that, though "the bar is kind of a fun place to go now if you want something a little different, a little campy," the new goal was to develop a "really nice resort for the so-called baby boomers." Moreover, though the motorcycle enthusiasts who largely patronized the restaurant were considered welcomed under the new plan, Brea's community development director was quoted as saying "you got to put a helmet on to go there these days. I don't know if helmets and hot springs are the best combination." Hayashi's comment that the goal was to have a "nice" place for boomers to go to also seemed in direct contrast to the clientele then using the cafe.

Anyway, although Brea was supportive of the Hata plans and the community development director stated "we'd like to see the place come back. It's part of Brea history," he also acknowledged that "they'd need to do an awful lot of work to bring it back."

When Hayashi sold to Hata in the late 1980s, the real estate bubble in southern California was just about to burst and, in 1997 when this article appeared, there was only the slightest hint of a recovery before a new recession hit in 2001. About this time, the cafe closed and was razed, leading to a continuing deterioration of the site, which was almost unrecognizable as anything but pure abandoned property. Even when the real estate market "recovered", what followed was another bubble, built almost exclusively on skyrocketing equity artifically supported by "creative" mortgages. For a few years before the Triangle Complex Fire in November, a banner hung precariously on the misshapen chain link fence that lined Carbon Canyon Road advertising the place for sale.

Ironically, a biker interviewed for the article noted that the appeal of La Vida was "for the solitude . . . a lot of us come here just for that reason, to get away from too many people. It's always been a really great place for people to get away from city life." Actually, after the mid-1980s, that was no longer nearly as true as it once was. The massive building boom in the Inland Empire, the use of Carbon Canyon Road as an alternate route to the 60 and 91 Freeways for westbound commuters, and, yes, the future threat of 367 new homes in the Canyon, make La Vida increasingly less remote. It should be added that the groundshaking, window rattling roar of many motorcyclists (and, to be fair, plenty of cars and trucks) rumbling and roaring through the Canyon renders that comment about "solitude" patently absurd a great deal of the time!

At any rate, it is really hard to imagine what a developer would do with La Vida. Could the site be redeveloped as a restaurant? Would enough people go there to make it profitable? Could a revived spa really work given just how much of an investment it would take to build almost completely from scratch? Would worsening traffic conditions and infrastructure demands preclude commercial uses of the site? Moreover, a rezoning to residential use would seem to be infeasible.

One could, however, easily imagine the site as a park. A cleaned up site could have picnic tables, walking trails, a new bridge across a cleaned-up Carbon [Canyon] Creek, and other passive-use amenities. Moreover, since the community development director in 1997 noted that the site was "a part of Brea history," La Vida could be designated a city historic landmark and interpretive signs could be installed discussing the history of the site from native American uses of the springs to the modern resort. Security, however, would be a problem, especially against graffiti and vandalism, and it would not be hard to imagine the site as a haven for drug dealing and use and other illicit activities without a regular police presence. Finally, even in its unkempt and degraded state, the owner would obviously want "top dollar" for the site and it is difficult to see Brea having the interest, ability, or will to buy the property. As it is, in this economy, nothing will happen there for some time to come.

Still, it'd be nice to think that there would be a viable future for the site, other than as a weed-choked relic.

The above photo is of La Vida, ca. 1960s, and is from the Carbon Canyon Collection.

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