Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A New Year May Bring New Life for Ukiah’s Historic Palace Hotel

Exploring the rooftop of Ukiah’s Palace Hotel are members of an architectural preservation team from Page & Turnbull in San Francisco: Clare Flynn, Elisa Skaggs, and Carolyn Kiernat. [Photo provided by Minal Shankar]

Noted San Francisco architects and engineers who specialize in recycling historic buildings into new uses are drafing restoration plans for Ukiah’s storied Palace Hotel.

They are climbing onto the rooftop to see spectacular views of the Ukiah Valley and descending into dark corners where few people have been in recent years. Laser scans are being used to determine how it all works. In short, a team of historic preservation experts is probing the past, and contemplating possibilities for the future.

In January, this team expects to launch a preliminary review and permitting process to rehabilitate the venerable Palace with Ukiah city officials and the state Historic Preservation Office. The goal is for construction to begin in 2024.

It is the most significant effort in 50 years to rescue the dilapidated Palace.

New owner Minal Shankar said in an interview this week she believes “the moment” has arrived for the Palace.

“I am prepared to take this on, and so are the preservation and design experts working with me,” said Shankar.

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The Palace is actually a collection of three brick and concrete structures constructed between 1891 and 1929. The original brick portion of the Palace is located on the northwest corner of State and Smith streets.

Shankar said she is investing in a year-long effort to complete a workable plan and win regulatory approval from local, state, and federal agencies. The approvals are needed to secure historic preservation tax credits to help underwrite costs of reviving the forlorn Palace into a vibrant visitor and retail center.

“This is a very special project, difficult, and complicated but one that can be done based on our preliminary engineering, architectural and design assessments,” said Shankar.

Shankar said the team she has assembled is top rated, experienced, and convinced of the Palace possibilities.

Entrepreneur Minal Shankar in an old stairwell at the Palace Hotel, a landmark she has purchased and plans to renovate. [Photo provided by Minal Shankar]

The lead architect on the Palace project is Tommy Haddock, co-founder with Alex Spatzier of ALTO Architecture in San Francisco. Haddock holds a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University, and he is an adjunct studio lecturer at the University of California Berkeley.

Carolyn Kiernat, a 25-year principal with Page & Turnbull in San Francisco, is the historic preservation architect collaborating with Haddock on the Palace project. Page & Turnbull has a long list of restoration credentials including the Ferry Building in SF, the Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, the Carson Block building in Eureka, and most recently the Hotel Tioga in Merced, a landmark downtown building on the scale of the Palace.

Shankar said she and the team are currently vetting structural engineering firms and general contractors in hopes of beginning construction on the Palace in 2024.

“I think people are going to be really impressed with the caliber of this team, currently and as it grows,” said Shankar.

Shankar is a successful online financier who is a newcomer to the Ukiah Valley. In 2020, she bought a home overlooking Lake Mendocino after a random search across Northern California so she could be close to her parents in San Francisco and continue her professional career working remotely. 

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Shankar is an engaging 30-something success story in the online banking world, a global citizen born in India, educated in the U.S., and introduced into the world of money management by her financier father. By the time she arrived in Mendocino County, Shankar had already made her professional mark in online banking services in Canada, and as a financial analyst for firms in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. 

In 2021 Shankar was honored by the Canadian Lenders Association for being a woman “Leader in Lending” for her role in founding and becoming CEO of Easly, a Toronto-based firm that in a few short years secured $77 million in research and development funding for startups.

Shankar is a graduate of Harvey Mudd College at Claremont, one of the nation’s premier engineering, science, and mathematics universities, and the prestigious Stern School of Business at New York University.

Shankar, after months of toying with the idea of using historic preservation tax credits to renovate the Palace, decided last April to enter into escrow to buy the Ukiah landmark, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

“I’m so grateful that someone had that foresight because it’s what is making this project possible now,” said Shankar. 

Shankar said besides collaborating with the architects and engineers to restore what is essentially three buildings that make up the Palace, she also is searching for partners for a planned boutique hotel operation.

“This is such a special building, I want to make sure its uniqueness is preserved, and it doesn’t turn into a generic hotel you could stay at just about anywhere,” she said.

Historic photograph of the Palace Hotel from the City of Ukiah Website

Historically, the Palace is a 60,000-square-foot structure that had 90 rooms plus a bar, restaurant, ballroom, barbershop, and a few retail stores.

A successful similar restoration effort of the Hotel Tioga in Merced, overseen by Page & Turnbull, cost in the range of $15 million, according to city officials there.

Lead architect Haddock said he and partner Alex Spatzier spent the past summer doing due diligence, feasibility, and conceptual designs for the Palace project.

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“We have had numerous on-site visits, and we have brought in engineers and laser equipment to assess in detail the condition of the Palace, and how we can restore it seismically during a renovation process,” said Haddock.

One of the first things done this past summer was a series of Locus Laser Scans to produce a 3D scan of the entire Palace Hotel building so the team of preservation architects, designers, and engineers “could better understand the layers of history and how each of the Palace’s distinct structural systems work together.”

With what they have learned so far, preservation architect Kiernat agrees it will be ‘full steam ahead’ in the New Year to plan the Palace’s revitalization. 

In January, Keirnat, Haddock, and other team members will present their first draft of restoration plans for the Palace to the state Historic Preservation Office. It is an important first step in an expected year-long effort to win regulatory approval from local, state, and federal.

“Our hopes are high. We believe we can transform the Palace from its current state into a viable commercial business center,” said Shankar.

In the 1970s the Palace enjoyed a brief revival after restaurateur Pat Kuleto, who later went onto fame in SF, and crew did a cosmetic overhaul. It was short-lived, and the Palace was eventually shuttered. A Marin County real estate investor bought it at a foreclosure auction but failed in her bid over the years to repair and restore the Palace to viable use.

The Palace has languished ever since, becoming a community eyesore and the center of a debate among civic and business leaders about its fate.

It is the Palace’s original corner brick structure that is structurally on the edge. Even Shankar has acknowledged that portion is one step away from being too far gone.

Yet after a year of fact-finding, inspections, engineering consultations, and design work, Shankar and her project team say they have determined the landmark can be rescued by literally building a block inside the walls.

They believe the Palace can be transformed into a viable boutique hotel, and a street-level retail complex housing specialty shops, a bar, and restaurant, and other public areas including a glass-covered courtyard that is currently hidden.

“We are very excited about revitalizing the Palace as a place that serves both visitors and the local community alike,” said architect Haddock. 

Haddock said the Palace needs new life, and not a return to some wispy notion of its grand but faded past.

“There’s an important balance to strike between keeping the core elements of the Palace as a hotel and town center while allowing it to evolve to meet the contemporary needs of the community of Ukiah and visitors alike.”

Architect Kiernat said she is seeing the Palace even in its current dilapidated condition as a “really special project.”

Kiernat cited the Hotel Tioga project in Merced, where once the local community realized what was going to happen ‘got behind the project in full force.”

“These kinds of projects have the power to transform downtowns,” said Kiernat. 

Ukiah’s recently completed a $7 million streetscape and infrastructure improvement project in the downtown area, and an increasingly vibrant restaurant and small retail shop scene helps.

“This is the moment for the Palace. I believe Minal Shankar is the kind of person needed to galvanize what is needed. It is expensive. It takes time. But it can happen,” said Kiernat.

Shannon Riley, Ukiah’s assistant city manager, said the city feels ‘incredibly fortunate that there is a buyer who appreciates and wants to honor the significance of the Palace’s history to the community.”

The Palace is so much more than just a hotel to many residents, said Riley.

“It’s the place where grandparents got engaged, or their uncle had his first job, the after-work gathering place, stories of Black Bart, and a million other things,” said Riley.

Riley said a rejuvenated Palace “will be where the city’s past and future merge.”

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  1. If Ukiah manages to not boondoogle this project and allow the courthouse to be redeveloped into residential housing within the next couple of years, the downtown could be transformed into something marvelous.

  2. At least this plan starts with a positive direction, we shall see what actually happens.
    The question of what moving the courthouse away will actually do to the commercial flow in the area is still supposition. And the wobbly state of the larger economy is going to be a factor in any future success.
    Good luck.

    • The question really is does she plan on spending those financial gains earned through a storied multimillion dollar bonus career in a town who she has no connection with, the tax credit presumption should give it away as a stated goal not a bonus upon completion. As for the surrounding area filled with offices and businesses that depend upon the courthouse and it’s activity to stay afloat the possible vacuum of vacancy in the surrounding district in a street front lease that may not be a resent refit or restoration at much lower prices will make or brake long term outlook. As for the future of the courthouse site it’s grandeur is what defines the architectural design of the surrounding buildings and Ukiah with it’s stamped pavement and city logo that only lasted a short 2 years has a lower success rate and less enthusiasm amongst it’s employees and residents than the county as a whole with grand schemes that quagmire with each new fiscal year. If someone were to take the the courthouse and repurpose the now hard to find materials and the original pre 1906 earthquake architecture and build an actual grand hotel than that area would truly be a destination with the post office and it lobby making a grand dining room and it’s basement befitting a gourmet kitchen the downtown would be a true sight. This comes from a dyed in the wool Willits resident that sees not only it’s community build a hospital but also provide the city and fire with the ability to expand and pay city workers who also take pride in their city often putting private resources and personal time to complete projects and stay within the means given to the town as a whole.

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