Developer aims to restore historic Byron Hot Springs Hotel

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Robert Cort is the new owner of the Byron Hot Springs Hotel and surrounding property. Court has plans to restore the hotel and build a restaurant and possible event center.

Sitting oddly out of place among the arid rolling hills of rural East Contra Costa County, the Byron Hot Springs Hotel now offers only the vaguest hints of its former glory, but a Bay Area developer is determined to breathe new life into this once-stunning building.

Last year, Robert Cort purchased a 300-acre lot in Byron that includes the hotel. Working with Lance Crannell of the Brentwood-based firm SDG Architects, Cort submitted a preapplication review to county officials in December that proposes restoration of the hotel and the creation of new amenities.

“I figured I could do a brewery or a winery with a restaurant, kind of a farm-to-table restaurant, some event space and a little German beer garden – something not super small but small scale,” Cort said. “I want to do something really nice there with a good chef that would make really good food for not a lot of money, good beer and then maybe some event space for weddings out there. I want to utilize the building that’s existing there – just fix it up. It’s about to fall down. It’s crumbling, literally crumbling.”

The task faced by Cort is considerable. Time, vandals and general neglect have taken a heavy toll on the four-story hotel that dates to 1914. Referred to as “hotel three” after two previous hotels burned to the ground, it is the only building on the grounds that, according to Cort, once featured more than 20 structures. Windows and doors are long gone. All of the interior appointments have been stripped down to the concrete core of the building. Floors and ceilings sag, while fallen bricks from the exterior pile up on the ground. Nearly every surface bears the spray-painted mark of generations of trespassers who saw the building as their personal canvas.

“As architects, we like to say this has pretty good bones,” Crannell said. “Visually, it has good bones. Structurally, we don’t know yet. We’re having a structural engineer assess the building right now to figure out what’s going to happen. We already know that there’s going to be massive infrastructure to repurpose this building because of how it was built and the amount of deterioration in the building.”

As Cort currently envisions the project, two of the four floors will be removed. The first floor could accommodate a restaurant with a brewery or wine-making facilities, while the second floor could house space for weddings, parties or other events. Space would also be allocated as a museum preserving remnants of the area’s long and colorful past. But before any of that can occur, more fundamental issues need to be resolved.

“My two goals are to stabilize the structure so it stops falling down,” Corst said. “That’s number one. Number two is to get appropriate zoning so I can do what I want to do.”

Even considering the complexities involved with the restoration of the hotel, Cort’s biggest challenge may be related to zoning. Much of his parcel is currently zoned as forestry recreation (FR), which allows a broad range of land use. The twist is that Contra Costa County is currently updating its general plan, and the project, known as Envision Contra Costa 2040, is contemplating the elimination of the FR designation.

Will Nelson, principal planner with the Contra Costa County Department of Conservation and Development, explained that if Cort’s project didn’t exist, the county would, in all likelihood, simply rezone the area as an agricultural district, an action that could impact Cort’s intended use of the property. But because the project is in motion, the county might consider a different designation.

“The site is outside the urban limit line, and the general plan calls for agriculture,” said Nelson. “Obviously, it’s one of the most unique sites in the county. It’s a historic building. It has a very interesting history. No one wants to see it deteriorate. At the same time, we do have our land-use regulations, which say that if you’re outside the urban limit line and you have an ag designation, there’s only certain things you can do. An event center isn’t one of them.”

Carol Jensen, Contra Costa County Historic Landmarks Advisory Committee chair, literally wrote the book on the Byron Hot Springs. A supporter of the hotel’s restoration, Jensen points out that the general plan took the unusual step of identifying the property as deserving rehabilitation.

“If you look at the current general plan, there are paragraphs and paragraphs that are specifically identified as Byron Hot Springs, and that the Byron Hot Springs is literally named, unlike anything else in the county, as historically important and should be restored,” explained Jensen. “It’s literally hard-written in the general plan.”

The project has also caught the attention of Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis, who said that over the years she’s been approached by numerous parties interested in developing the site.

“The Byron Hot Springs has been a place of interest for a long time,” she said. “There’s a historic interest in it for all of the roles it’s played here in East County ... I think that this effort is going to complement the effort that we’re making to expand the airport and create good jobs out there.”

And what of the famous hot springs for which the hotel was named? According to reports, all of the springs were capped during the U.S. Army’s use of the property during World War II.

“There are several different types of hot springs,” said Crannell. “They’ve all been capped. There are over a dozen in the area. They are in the process of determining if they’re still valid, if they’ve dried up or if they’ve changed routes, and what the contents of those mineral springs are. Things change at the subterranean level. There’s over a dozen locations on the site where there was an existing spring at some point. There’s probably closer to 20, but what we’ve found so far is over a dozen.”

Having stood for more than 100 years, it’s impossible to know how much longer the Byron Hot Springs Hotel will stand before restoration becomes improbable or impossible. In the meantime, much work remains to be done. Cort is waiting for the county to respond to his preapplication review. Crannell said that any comments will be incorporated into a formal design that will be submitted to the county for approval. And Jensen said that, as the building is an historic structure, any plans will need to be compliant with U.S. Department of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Cort said he is ready to go as soon as he gets a green light.

“The good thing about me as a developer is that I have the funds,” Cort said. “That aspect of fundraising to get this thing done is not an issue in terms of my developing it. Theoretically, if the county approves it or gives me the okay, I could start work out there immediately. I’d have something beautiful out there fairly soon. The biggest obstacle for me is getting the county to say, ‘Ok, go do it.’ That’s literally the only thing stopping this project.”