Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Vic Bakkila chats with World War II veteran David Garland about his living conditions at the Sandpiper Motel in Costa Mesa. Bakkila made an effort to connect Garland with veteran services to improve his living situation. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / May 7, 2013)

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First story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa's troubled motels.

The letter was a desperate plea to the police chief. The owner of a Harbor Boulevard motel admitted his business attracted less-than-reputable guests.

"Under such difficult circumstances, we have no other choice but to rent to second-rate customers," he wrote.

Though a missive like that could have easily been written yesterday, it was penned more than two decades ago by Ming Cheng Chen, owner of the Kon Tiki Motel.

Not much has changed since Chen put his thoughts to paper, hoping police would end their opposition to his proposal to expand — and improve — the property. To be sure, the Kon Tiki has a different name today — the New Harbor Inn — but the same old problems described in that letter persist.

The motel at 2205 Harbor Blvd. is No. 1 for police calls per room among such establishments citywide.

Meanwhile, Costa Mesa's largest motel, the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, lodged more than 1,487 calls for service from 2009 through 2011. In August, the city leveled 490 alleged health-and-safety violations against the 236-room motel and more than $40,000 in fines.

In 2010 alone, emergency responders were dispatched there 552 times. A typical week then saw calls related to unconscious guests, domestic disputes, drugs, intoxication and arrest warrants.

The New Harbor Inn and the Motor Inn are just two of 12 Costa Mesa motels that have recently been identified by city officials as siphoning off disproportionate levels of police resources. In 2011, the motels accounted for 1,677 calls for service — an average of just under five per day.

"They were built for people going to the beach," said Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer. "They're not obsolete financially — they're obsolete functionally."

Righeimer, the City Council and the Planning Commission have made addressing motels a priority. At Tuesday's council meeting, the mayor identified two — the Motor Inn and the Sandpiper Motel, on Newport Boulevard — and directed the commission to examine their operating permits.

Jim Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Planning Commission, cites the Newport Boulevard Specific Plan of 1996, which sought to identify a long-term vision for that thoroughfare after the completion of the 55 Freeway. The plan cites an "undesirable" clientele coming to the boulevard and creating "adverse impacts on neighboring commercial uses and adjacent residential areas."

And though the plan was adopted some 17 years ago, "You change the dates and it reads like it was today," Fitzpatrick said.

Elected and appointed officials haven't made it a secret that they would like motels that cannot comply with more-stringent standards to be sold — hopefully to owners who would change their use.

"This council is not passive," Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said. "You don't take on a problem that doesn't have a solution on the horizon."

Mensinger said he envisions "within 10 years" most of the properties being successfully repurposed as student and senior housing, parks or commercial developments.


Complex issue, elusive solutions

The issue of what to do with the motels is as complex as the chain of poverty that keeps them in business. The inns — many of them built in the middle of the last century —are stop-gap housing for those with few other options. The bargain rooms are preferable to the streets.

Though the motels were built for short stays, throngs of working and homeless families, often with children, live among drug dealers, prostitutes and sometimes-violent criminals because they cannot afford apartment rents and security deposits.