Coronado’s Villa Capri Hotel is a throwback to another time. The small, 15-room hostelry is nestled between the Glorietta Bay Inn and the Coronado Beach Resort timeshare, with the Hotel Del Coronado located directly across the street. The Villa Capri was opened in 1956 by owner, model, designer and actress Bettye Vaughen, who owned the hotel until her passing in 2016 at the age of 97.
The changing times in the hospitality industry were perhaps inadvertently reflected during a recent media event at the Villa Capri, held during a driving rain storm. Two young women were attempting to scale the steep outdoor concrete steps of the hotel, while toting an over-sized piece of obviously over-loaded luggage. They accomplished their goal, but just barely. Modern for its time, 63 years later it’s time for another concept.
Enter Saj Hansji, Coronado resident, President and Founder of J Street Hospitality and the man with the plan. In association with Delawie Architects of San Diego, Hansji has announced a project to build a new 40-room hotel on the site, located at 1417 Orange Avenue, which will incorporate some of the feel and landmarks of the old Villa Capri, along with design features that will make the new version unique. And yes, an elevator that will assist considerably with over-sized luggage, will be part of the new hotel.
Saj Hansji was born in Anaheim, grew up in Tustin and graduated from Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills. He has one sibling, a sister Ami, who also lives in Coronado. Hansji described his formative years. “My Dad was in the hospitality space and was an engineer by trade. He developed a few hotels in Anaheim in 1976. I was born in one of the hotels and the family still owns it. It’s located in Anaheim by Disneyland. Growing up I cleaned the parking lots, worked the front desk for years, when I was barely able to see over the counter. That was all part of it. It wasn’t cheap labor, instead I look at it from the perspective of learning. The family was well-to-do, but I thought my parents were the managers until I was in high school, not the owners. I didn’t know. I take that as a form of humility.”
Graduation from high school led to undergraduate studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “I think looking back to when I was 18, I had a feeling I wanted to see a different world. I wanted to go to the East Coast,” Hansji said as he explained his almost 2,700-mile eastward trek. “Orange County is very homogenous in climate and the type of construction. I wanted to learn about the weather and what the rest of the world does. Looking back, I’m glad I did it and that l learned a different perspective of the world. Cornell in itself was an awesome experience. I was there Thanksgiving of my freshman year with a sweatshirt, jeans and no jacket. I wasn’t prepared for the Ithaca weather and I didn’t see the sun until March. But I wouldn’t trade the experience.”
Hansji earned a BS in Hotel Administration with a focus on Real Estate and Finance. Consider the preceding sentence to be foreshadowing for his subsequent career path. An internship with Michael Gallegos and the American Property Management Corporation in 2003 was Hansji’s first introduction to the San Diego area, while also allowing him to learn the perspective of working within a large company.
Hansji had J Street Hospitality flourishing since its founding in 2011 and returned to college to attend USC in 2016 to earn his MBA. “It wasn’t from financial or career gains, it was 100 percent a personal thing,” Hansji explained. “It was the right time to commit to take the time off and do it. USC has a satellite campus in Encinitas, and we had class and did case studies Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every other weekend. I made some really good friends and I got really well-connected to the Marshall School of Business at USC and I am a donor to the school.”
The discussion inevitably turned to USC football and after some good-natured kidding on that topic, Hansji admitted to being a Trojan fan since the age of eight, dating back to the Todd Marinovich Era. Grudgingly, I have to admire that depth of loyalty.
Saj and his wife Dimple purchased a home in Coronado four years ago. She is the Founder-Designer of DH Designs Interior Designs located in Little Italy. He said, “I love the ocean, the water and traveling to those places. And we thought, ‘Why don’t we live near the water?’ We didn’t know about Coronado, as most people don’t. After first looking at Bird Rock, we started looking at Coronado, found a townhome being built, called a broker and that was it. We bought the house we live in four years ago, while it was still under construction. What attracted me besides the real estate, was the community that has the upscale, mature and safe feel that most high-end communities have, without the egos. It’s still a humble town, which really attracts me. Money isn’t what makes the town.”
During our interview, I suggested to Hansji that he had one of the least revealing Linked-In pages ever. He laughed and took it as a compliment. But slowly an impressive personal and professional resume started to evolve. From a business perspective, Hansji and J Street Hospitality have plenty of experience to transform the 7,000 square foot Villa Capri space into an upscale hotel that Coronado residents and visitors alike will enjoy. In seven years, J Street, along with Delawie Architects, have completed 10 hotel projects in San Francisco and San Diego. Some of the San Diego hotel projects have included the Residence Inn, the Courtyard, the Moxy, and Hotel Z, all located on Sixth Avenue.
One revealing thought on Linked-In Hansji included about his firm said, “J Street focuses their efforts on urban locations in high barrier to entry markets.” Hansji explained the concept from his perspective. “The harder, the more complicated, the more difficult the deal, the more it attracts me. Some of the stuff I have gotten into is pretty mind-blowing. I look back and think, ‘Why on earth did I get into that?’ It’s all about the effort you want to provide. The more variable effort you put forward, the more value you create. The assessment and the risk others would take is a key driver for us. Early in my career, I took more calculated risk and assumed a higher risk profile. I’ve become a little more guarded, but the risk is still there.”
In addition to the Villa Capri, J Street Hospitality has hotel projects currently underway at Sixth and G in San Diego, Ninth and Island in San Diego, and in the Transbay District of San Francisco.
Which brings us back to the Villa Capri and how the property came to his attention. “It was a family generational transaction we got involved with, that was fair to all parties.”
Hansji discussed the exterior design features of the Villa Capri. “The exterior design is not consistent with most buildings in Coronado. At my direction, we steered away from the homogenous feel most buildings have, not in a bad way, to stand out. We look like the Del and the Glorietta Bay Inn, but not really and we have our own identity. Our goal is to make everything stand out. Like the Japanese garden it used to be. We want to have a relatively clean palate. The rooftop bar has a Villa Capri feel to it, in Italian modern. The rooms are Zen, tranquil and quiet. There are some design influences from hotels in Tokyo.”
Among the major changes to the location are getting incoming cars to the property immediately off of Orange Avenue/State Route 75 into a turn-in area in front. In addition, a turntable for cars in the basement parking area will head cars face-out into traffic when they leave the hotel, as opposed to having them back out onto Orange Avenue. “Parking was a big thing,” Hansji said, perhaps as a form of understatement. The hotel will have 21 underground parking spots and one ADA accessible parking spot, which complies with the city’s code.
As for the overall design, Hanji added, “And it took us almost a year to get the design right. We went through 15 iterations and we were at 75 percent getting it right. To get the other 25 percent, we went above and beyond the comments the Design Review Commission made. We made the space functional and useful. The Courtyard (another J Street project) is 14 stories tall on 5,000 square feet. We are doing 22 stories on 4,000 square feet in San Francisco. Small spaces are just, to me, a little more of a puzzle. Frank Ternasky from Delawie has done every one of our projects.”
Another feature of note for the new Villa Capri is the rooftop bar, which Hansji described. “The bar was designed for easy access for members of the community and visitors alike. I think it will provide the No. 1 local spot for rooftop gatherings. We don’t have any space in Coronado to have a bite to eat, drink and stare at the water from an elevated perspective. You will be able to see the Bay and Mexico. That doesn’t exist now. If you have a family coming to town, the Villa Capri will be a really nice place to stay. It’s an alternative place for members of the community and all of our rooms will be 260 square feet.”
Hanji and J Street acquired the property in October 2017 and from demolition of the existing building to the opening of the new Villa Capri will be approximately 18 months. In between Hansji, Ternasky and their cadre of support personnel will appear before Design Review, which they passed with flying colors; then Historic Resources for a review of the two iconic neon signs that currently adorn the hotel and will be part of the new Villa Capri; the Planning Commission; and finally the City Council for a variance for the city’s four-floor building height limit. Current plans call for the Villa Capri to be four stories tall and 40 feet in height, while city code limits buildings to three stories and 40 feet.
Hansji said as we concluded, “I am rarely involved in projects that I have emotion attached to and I have that with the Villa Capri. I am personally vested in seeing this project being done the right way. It could provide a very different experience for everyone. It’s will be a great destination and I think a cool, good place to hang out. It’s going to elevate the public’s experience and the Coronado community deserves it.”