BELL GARDENS — It was going to be like Las Vegas, city officials said last year when they described plans for a "swanky" 250-room hotel on Eastern Avenue.
Crowds of gamblers weary after hours of trying their luck at the Bicycle Club casino would walk across the street to relax at an upscale hotel complete with banquet rooms, a health spa and racquetball courts.
But those plans have been abandoned, and the city is now planning a motel such as a TraveLodge, Best Western or Quality Inn on the 11-acre site between Florence and Live Oak avenues.
"We had to be realistic," said City Manager Claude Booker. "The developers did a preliminary feasibility study" this spring in cooperation with the Bicycle Club, "and we discovered the market just wasn't there for this type of hotel."
Competition Too Strong
Last year, a city-paid study by Kotin, Regan & Mouchly Inc. of Los Angeles showed that a luxury hotel would face tough competition from other first-rate hotels in southeast Los Angeles County, but city officials had hoped the hotel would capitalize on the phenomenal success of the casino, which opened in 1984.
"I guess we overestimated the size of the market for a $65-a-night hotel," said Finance Director David Bass, who is coordinating the development of the motel project. "A 250-room hotel of that size and room rate and amenities would have an occupancy rate between 50% and 55%. And that is too low to make it feasible."
The numbers of casino customers and businessmen would not be enough to sustain such a large hotel, Booker said.
"We didn't have enough tourist traffic coming from the Long Beach Freeway," Booker said, explaining that the freeway is used mainly by local commuters rather than by long-distance travelers.
The city is now negotiating with a Riverside developer who has proposed a 120-room motel with a swimming pool, whirpool and restaurant. The project is expected to generate about $123,000 in yearly tax revenue for the city, according to a developer's report.
Affordable but Nice
"We are looking to build something more affordable but very nice for the city and for the people who will stay at the motel," said developer Mary C. Wang of New Continent Realty. "Everyone we talked to seemed to think Bell Gardens needs a nice dance place and restaurant, so we are looking into that too."
Wang said the success of the motel will depend on its ability to draw customers not only from the club but also from nearby industry in Commerce, South Gate, Bell and other cities.
Robert Gilbert, director of operations for the club, said he is optimistic about the new project.
"It was recommended by a study done by the developers that a motel project would work, but not a hotel, and we are behind that now," Gilbert said. "We think it will probably be real successful."
As part of a plan to revitalize the downtown corridor, Booker said the city would also like to build an office building next to the motel and bank that are already there. Although the office building is still in the discussion stage, Booker said the entire site would have a common architectural theme.
Booker said city officials would like to see a downtown that offers a mix of commercial and professional services.
Across from the motel project on the northwest corner of Florence and Eastern avenues, the city is planning to build a 15-acre retail center that would include a major retail store, a supermarket and a string of smaller shops. The center would be the largest commercial development in the city, Booker said.
"This retail center will complement the office building and motel project," he said.
On the northeast corner of Florence and Eastern is the eight-acre Toys-R-Us shopping center completed last year.
All properties in the motel project area have been bought by the city's redevelopment agency except for three parcels on Eastern. Ground breaking for the motel is this fall, city officials said.
Some Merchants Unhappy
Two weeks ago, the city filed eminent-domain proceedings against the three property owners.
Most of the merchants along Eastern have sold to the city and moved, but the few that remain say the city has treated them unfairly.
Larry Wainer, who has owned Centre Jewelry & Loan and the three-bedroom house behind it since 1972, said the city has not offered him a fair price for his property.
He said he is interested in buying property four blocks away but the $204,000 the city offered him is not enough to rebuild his business.
Unless he finds a suitable site, Wainer said, he will be forced to retire.
"Let's face it: I have a prime location here," Wainer said. "I put my life savings into this place, and it took me a long time to get this place to make money. I can't go anywhere decent for that kind of money."