Motor inns along US Route 101 in the Marina and Cow Hollow

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By Simon J. Lau


What is sometimes lost in San Francisco’s history are the stories associated with the roadways and highways that contributed to the layout and salient features of its urban infrastructure. One such example is the history of US Route 101. Otherwise known as the 101, it was one of the original American interstate highways that ran from Southern California through San Francisco up to Oregon. It was completed just before the Great Depression and is still the longest highway in California.

Despite lighter use now as a North-South thoroughfare, the 101 remains a central piece of San Francisco’s infrastructure. Within city limits, the 101 heads north along Van Ness, west through Lombard and the Presidio before exiting through Golden Gate Bridge. The East-West corridor along Lombard, with its close proximity to the idyllic views and waters of the Marina, became scattered with motor inns or motels. As the name suggests, motor inns catered to long-distance motorists. The proliferation of interstate highways, allowed American families to satiate their wanderlust, and motor inns provided the inexpensive lodging for them to lay their heads for a night or two. In many cases, these facilities were compact low-rises two to three stories in height, either in an “I”, “L”, or “U” shape, with rooms connected by outdoor breezeways overlooking a common parking lot. Initially independently owned and owner-operated, motels grew in popularity throughout the post-war era but began to steadily decline by the 1960’s, losing ground to larger operations. These particular establishments have for decades welcomed thousands of visitors to San Francisco’s doorstep and as a nod to their past, continue to provide a bed to sleep on and a place to rest for the weary motorist.

Surprisingly, many of these motels have survived the urbanization that has made way for thousands of residential complexes and luxury condos in the coveted Marina and Cow Hollow Districts. It is only a matter of time before most, if not all, of these motels are replaced with new facilities that reflect the changing demographics and needs of this neighborhood. Before they are lost, I am excited to share this modest archive with you.

Marina Motel

The Marina Motel was built in the 1930’s to “celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge.” It was founded by Henry “Lou” Louis, an entrepreneur and survivor of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. In his early days, Louis dabbled in many industries, including restaurants and car dealerships: He owned a Ford dealership that sold Motel Ts and Model As. At age 68, after a trip to Canada where he discovered his first “auto court,” Louis came out of retirement to build the Marina Motel, the first San Francisco Auto Court. This motel is family owned and is managed by two of Louis’ granddaughters, Heidi and Linda. (Source: Marina Motel)

Star Motel

Contrary to its signage, the Star Motel is now student housing for the Academy of Art University. The Academy of Art owns 40 converted properties in the city. Unfortunately, many of these properties have been illegally converted and as of now (May 2016) the University is locked in heated civil lawsuits filed by the City. In the case of the Star Motel, it has been provided a preliminary approval for these conversations and I suspect the students here will continue the new tradition of hosting the only motel parties in the Marina. (Source: Socket Site)

Super 8

Motel chains such as Super 8 led to the eventual demise of most independent and owner-operated motels. These chains harnessed greater economies of scale arising from marketing, management, and real estate, among other key factors, placing independent motels at a significant cost disadvantage. For instance, chains could operate a stable of motels along major interstates. The mere presence of these locations, the highway signage, and lower per unit ad spend drove down customer acquisition cost across these organizations. As these chains grew, owners could afford to enlist the help of professional management, where such managers could more efficiently and effectively oversee and monitor the highly complex logistics of an interstate hospitality business.

As the lodging industry matured, it was large hotel chains that overshadowed smaller motel operations. These hotel chains were not limited to the two to three story low-rises that were so common for motels. Instead, hotels served many hundreds of guests under one roof, further reducing the average cost per customer. Other factors, such as a mature capital markets infrastructure, favored large hotel chains by providing low cost debt financing and a liquid market to raise equity capital to fund growth.

In an ironic turn of events, a new breed of businesses such as Airbnb have presented a formidable challenger in the form of independent, owner-operated independent establishments to the growing scale and scope of the hotel industry. Airbnb and Airbnb-like businesses permit small enterprises to penetrate the lodging industry by providing entrepreneurial homeowners and tenant a safe and robust platform to monetize the presence of a vacant bedroom, an apartment, or an entire home on an on-demand basis. At its last capital raise in June 2015, Airbnb was valued more than Marriott and Starwood combined. Given these new developments, it will be interesting to see what happens to the hospitality industry in general, and these motels specifically, as they respond to this changing environment.