Talk of the Downtowner: McKenny addresses his recent appointment, long-delayed project

When 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass appointed contractor and builder Kevin McKenny to the county Planning Commission this week, talk turned to his Downtowner motel in Eureka.

Bass said her decision was based on McKenny's extensive community service, which outweighs his delayed renovation of the run-down Eureka motel, but if progress isn't made, she will ask him to step down.

"I would hope that people can focus on the wealth of experience Kevin brings to the commission, with the understanding that he has work to do in other areas," Bass said.

McKenny has a long history of public service in Humboldt, working on several county and Eureka boards, including 26 years on the Humboldt Community Service District board of directors and three terms on the county Local Agency Formation Commission.

"I'm very familiar with being on boards and commissions," McKenny said. "I would like to think that when I'm on a commission, I am there for the people. Historically, that's the way it's been."

Along with his government experience, McKenny has nearly 40 years of building and construction experience in the county and a master's degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley.

McKenny said his renovation and rehabilitation project at the Downtowner has had difficulty getting off the ground. After acquiring the motel, located on F and Eighth streets in Eureka, in late 2005, McKenny said he has had trouble getting his design review application through the review process in the city's planning division.

Eureka's Chief Building Official Brian Gerving said the project has gone through "various designs" over the years. After meeting with McKenny on Friday, Gerving said that the project is starting to gain some headway.

"Now he's got a much more complete project, knows the direction he intends to go, and is really close to making that happen from a permit standpoint," Gerving said.

As the trash, graffiti, and weeds around the disheveled motel have built up through the years, so has the frustration of neighboring residents and city officials.

Eureka Councilwoman Linda Atkins said it is a good sign that McKenny has "put in plans and is on the way to starting the project," but she has "not seen he wants to do anything to improve the property" any time soon.

"He has gotten pressure on this before, and when it was lifted off him, he left the neighborhood in a terrible state," Atkins said. "Maybe he'll go around and trim some weeds and sweep up some trash, but only because he wants to stay on the Planning Commission."

Councilwoman Melinda Ciarabellini said the motel and McKenny's appointment are "two separate issues," but said the council expects progress to be made by the "end of this fiscal year."

"Our council has determined the project as something that is a top priority, and want to see some action and progress made there soon," she said.

During Tuesday's supervisors' meeting, Bass said she is "very aware of the issues with the Downtowner," and is in the process of forming a neighborhood advisory group to address the problem. The group would allow the motel's neighboring residents to share their frustrations, as well as allow McKenny to provide details on the project and its timeline.

The group would also provide the opportunity for neighbors "to share their ideas of what measures might be taken to help minimize negative impacts" as the project moves along, she said.

"While it is important for people to be able to share frustrations, it is equally as important to provide potential solutions that would improve the situation, and the neighbors are going to have the best sense of what those measures might be," Bass wrote in an email. "I believe their input is vitally important, and long overdue."

Bass said she has spoken with McKenny about the issue several times, and is expecting progress to be made in the near future.

"If no action is taken to improve the conditions within six months, I will request that Kevin step down," she wrote.

McKenny said he will make a "renewed effort" to clean up the landscaping around the property, and the permits being reviewed by the city are going through "much better right now."

"I have heard loud and clear that people are upset about it," McKenny said. "I apologize to the neighbors for that. The neighbors have every right to be upset."

With this project, McKenny said he hopes to transform the run-down building into a "bungalow, lodge-style" hotel, and is also looking to "flag a hotel franchise" to operate it.

"On that block, there is a tremendous amount of architectural style that represents different time periods of Eureka architecture," McKenny said. "We hope to add to that with the style we've created with this building."

Planning Commission Chairman Robert Morris said he is "happy to have him on the county planning commission."

"He brings a great deal of experience and awareness of the community," Morris said.

The Eureka builder joins the commission during its extensive review of the Conservation and Open Space Element of the county's General Plan. The entire element was sent back to the commission by the board of supervisors on Jan. 13. McKenny said it is important for the commission to take into account the history behind the element's current form.

"We need to keep that picture in mind, when we think about making any changes," McKenny said. "Above that, we have to really be cognizant of all the people involved, and the time that was spent getting us to this place."

Should any changes be made, McKenny said he will take both the conservational intent of the element, as well as its practicality for potential development projects, into consideration.

"There are certain words that are chosen that will cause projects to slow down and have a difficult time getting through," McKenny said. "I would like to put an eye toward seeing those things, and make it so that while all of the intent of the language is there, the ability to get a project through the process is there as well."

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on