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Half Moon Bay May Rebuild Beloved Market at Full Speed

Though the exclusive enclave frequently opposes development, there is universal desire to replace store destroyed by fire.

May 23, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Saddened residents of this quaint seaside city 28 miles south of San Francisco on Thursday strolled by the blackened carcass of the country store and downtown landmark that was destroyed by fire the night before.

By lunch, the charred debris left by the six-alarm blaze at Cunha's Country Store was still smoking. And down the street, at Original Johnny's, a down-home diner popular with local residents, plans to rebuild the structure in record time were already underway.

"Next Tuesday, we are going to start rebuilding the store," Joe Cotchett, a Burlingame-based trial attorney and preservationist with extensive property holdings in Half Moon Bay's downtown, said after meeting with store owner Bev Cunha Ashcraft.

"We'll finish it in six months," Cotchett said, possibly in time for the town's annual Pumpkin Fair, which draws 300,000 visitors annually. "And it's going to look exactly as it did when it was originally built in the 1890s."

That a 16,000-square-foot, two-story building can be designed, approved and built in less than six months in a city notorious for its fiercely slow-growth attitudes may seem unlikely. But it would be difficult to find anyone who lives in Half Moon Bay who is not mourning the loss of the store.

At least two environmentalists on the five-member City Council, which oversees downtown planning, said they were ready to push reconstruction as quickly as possible.

"I can't imagine anyone who will stand in the way of rebuilding Cunha's," said Councilwoman Toni Taylor. "When it comes to building issues, this is often a contentious city. But when the time comes that something is needed, we come together. This is one of those times. I'm with him 100%."

Mayor Dennis Coleman said: "I don't expect there to be any controversy."

Half Moon Bay is, in many ways, one of the few remaining enclaves of the old Bay Area. Its western architecture, dramatic ocean and mountain views, and laid-back lifestyle made the onetime Portuguese fishing village into a weekend hideaway for the other side of the mountains -- in San Francisco and its suburbs.

The dot-com era changed that, and the town of 12,000 became a popular home for the well-heeled technology set. As Silicon Valley moved in, housing prices soared, with many homes going for more than $1 million. Tourist trinket shops and elegant art galleries opened. Many restaurants went nouveau. And a glitzy Ritz-Carlton hotel and golf resort was built nearby.

Cunha's Country Store was a throwback to the old Half Moon Bay, a place of bohemian bonhomie, when a shopper could buy groceries and try on a new pair of boots, all under one roof.

"I would not go shopping for food anywhere else," said Lisa Allen, a management training consultant who was taking the day off to distribute leaflets raising money for Cunha's 20 jobless employees. "Cunha was Half Moon Bay."

Cunha also sold Half Moon Bay. Jams and sauces produced locally were prominently featured in window displays. And the artichokes, Brussels sprouts and pumpkins grown in nearby farms were always plentiful. Upstairs, the feel was much more old-time general store, with rural apparel, cowboy hats and boots catering to locals and visitors.

"This was the heart and soul of this whole area," said Penny Gilly, who shopped at Cunha's for 50 years, and attended high school down the street. "We used to stop by every day after school to get candy, and I still came by all the time."

Before the Cunha family bought the building and opened the market in 1923, the site housed the only saloon in town and an informal town hall, where political rallies and weekend dances were held. It was also one of the most popular speak-easies in the Bay Area during Prohibition.

Cotchett says it will cost $3 million to rebuild the store. He has partnered with Ashcraft in one other venture -- Half Moon Bay Winery -- with a chardonnay that hit the store's shelves last week.

"When I told Bev that I was going to rebuild the store, her tears of sadness turned to tears of joy," said Cotchett, a well-known litigator who is handling a class-action suit against Enron Corp. on behalf of investors who say they have been defrauded.

"No one deserves this more. She is loved in this community."

Authorities said they suspect the blaze may have been caused by an acetylene torch left by workers who were repairing an adjacent warehouse. An investigation is continuing.

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