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Local News

Frustrated with Delays, Caruso May Abandon Miramar Redevelopment

Battle escalates over EIR for long-derelict Montecito property as county puts off hearing until July.

The future of the Miramar Hotel has again been thrown into doubt after the property’s third owner in nine years said he was fed up with delays in the approval process. (Lou Fontana photo / Noozhawk)

[Editor’s note: Ian Schrager purchased the Miramar Hotel from the estate of June G. Outhwaite. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.]

Frustrated by delays, the developer who has promised to revamp and reopen the long-closed and dilapidated Miramar Hotel hard by Highway 101 in Montecito, says he is losing patience, and is even hinting that he may walk away.

Los Angles shopping center developer Rick Caruso sent a mass e-mail this week lamenting that his project’s long-scheduled June 10 hearing before the Montecito Planning Commission has been postponed until sometime in mid-July.

Santa Barbara County, which has not scheduled an exact day, delayed the hearing because of a higher-than-expected number of public comments.

“We were originally scheduled to have the project considered in March,” Caruso wrote. “Then, it was delayed until May, then June, and now July. We feel, and hope you agree, that enough is enough.”

Critics of the renovation proposal suggest that Caruso’s letter is a publicity stunt designed to apply pressure on the commission. But supporters fear he will abandon the project, making him the third owner in nine years to leave the unsightly ghost town in place.

Once a thriving beachfront hotel that catered to the famous and middle-class alike, the blue-roofed Miramar opened in the late 1800s but has been closed since 2000. In 1998, Ian Schrager, a co-founder of New York’s Studio 54, purchased the property at 1555 S. Jameson Lane from the estate of June G. Outhwaite, whose family had owned it since 1939. The price: $30 million. But because of financial difficulties, Schrager closed the hotel in 2000, and later sold it to hotel magnate Ty Warner for $40 million. Warner, owner of the nearby Four Seasons Biltmore Resort and San Ysidro Ranch, ultimately decided the rigors of renovating another hotel project in Montecito were too much, and sold it to Caruso for an undisclosed sum a year-and-a-half ago.

Caruso has said he hopes to reopen the Miramar by 2010.

In the last week or so, the county has received about 100 letters pertaining to the project. About 50 people expressed support for the project, and 50 voiced dissent, said county planner Anne Almy.

Supporters are pleased with how the project would replace a 15-acre eyesore that has fallen into disrepair since closing in 2000. They also welcome some of the public amenities it would bring, such as new pathways to the beach and free public parking.

“It would be a travesty for the community if the developer was stymied by the capricious demands of a few,” wrote Montecito residents Jennifer and Paul Brickman in a letter to the county. “This is no time for the county to play games or drag its feet.”

But critics, who include TV writer and producer Brad Hall, husband of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, are contending that a project of this magnitude should require a full Environmental Impact Review to determine how the area would be affected by the development. Hall and Dreyfus live next to the property, and Hall grew up in the neighborhood, where his father, the late Rev. George Hall, was the longtime rector of All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

The Miramar Hotel’s proximity to the beach made it a popular destination for families. (Lou Fontana photo / Noozhawk)

“This is the largest development ever contemplated on the beach in Montecito,” Hall wrote in a letter to the county Planning Department. “Anything less (than a full EIR) sets a frightening prospect for Montecito.”

Meanwhile, the Caruso camp says a full EIR would be costly, time-consuming and an all-around deal breaker. Matt Middlebrook, vice president for Caruso Affiliated, said if the commission decides a full EIR is necessary, Caruso will drop the project.

“We badly want to build this project,” he said. “The people who are calling for an EIR are the people who are in fact looking to kill the project.”

Middlebrook said the EIR is unnecessary because the project already has been thoroughly analyzed since first approved under Schrager in 2000. He added that Caruso has already altered the plans several times in response to community concerns. For instance, the hotel is replacing more than 50 yards of a previously proposed 10-foot-tall sound barrier with landscaping. (Not all of the barrier will be replaced, however.)

Further raising the stakes is the fact that a law firm representing a coterie of opponents seems to be threatening a lawsuit if the full EIR isn’t done.

“It would seem to me that the Montecito community wouldn’t want anybody to shortchange the legal process,” said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney with the firm, Coast Law Group of Encinitas. “That would simply invite a lawsuit.”

Caruso has conducted a partial EIR on the historic nature of the decaying buildings, but Gonzalez said that’s not enough. A letter from the firm to the county said Caruso has already failed to disclose how experts have disagreed on whether the development could lead to flooding.

Gonzalez also seemed to question the sincerity of Caruso’s threat to pull out.

“Mr. Caruso is simply playing more of his public relations game,” he said. “I’ve heard the same threats coming from other developers and other projects, and you never know what to believe.”

Gonzalez, whose firm is representing a group called Citizens for Responsible Development at Miramar Beach, declined to say whether Hall and Dreyfus are part of the group, but did say that the group includes more than just a few people. He said it includes people from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

“Everybody wants that hotel redone,” he added. “Quite frankly, such a jewel deserves to be done right.”

As for Hall, his specific concerns include the size of the project: At least one of the 24 new buildings would be 49 feet tall. He is also concerned about the grading, which he said would change the topography of a site near a floodplain. What’s more, he’s worried about construction noise and the lighting on the tennis courts of the proposed project.

“The tennis courts in the plan are situated in such a way that the lights (and in fact the tennis players themselves) look down directly into our house,” he wrote.

Through a chain-link fence, passers-by have watched the once-bustling Miramar deteriorate for the past nine years. (Lou Fontana photo / Noozhawk)

Critics also include Tim Andreas, the on-site design director of the project that was abandoned under Schrager.

“I have received an e-mail from Caruso Affiliated encouraging me to write in support of their plan and the demolition of all buildings at the Miramar, but my conscience forces me to do the opposite,” he wrote. “The Caruso plan is not in keeping with the cottage-style hotel ambience that has been so strongly fought for in Montecito. It is a large-scale resort, banal in its planning and architecture.”

At least one supporter of the project welcomes the county’s decision to postpone the hearing, but hopes the commission doesn’t decide to go for the full EIR.

Longtime Miramar neighbor and filmmaker Steve Traxler said the county should have all the time it needs to diligently study the project. But in this particular case, Traxler said any reasonable businessman would walk away from a full EIR.

“An EIR is a good process if many of the elements are unknown,” he said. “In this instance they are very specific and have been known by everyone for a very long time.”

Traxler said he’s been told that even without the EIR, it will take 30 years for Caruso’s plan to turn a profit. He added that he believes 98 percent of the Montecito community wants the project to start immediately.

“If (Caruso) can’t do it, then no one is going to do it,” he said. “Then what are the options? It’s not going to magically turn into a park.”

Traxler said Caruso could simply opt to build an exclusive gated community of “20 multimillion-dollar homes” on the property.

“What we don’t need in Montecito, quite frankly, is another gated high-end community,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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