Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Commission takes long look at Miramar plan


Since Rick Caruso became the latest suitor of the decaying Miramar Hotel 17 months ago, dozens of meetings large and small have been held to discuss the merits of resurrecting the waterfront resort. But none, at least in front of the public eye, were as big as yesterday’s 10 and a half hour Montecito Planning Commission meeting, where Caruso’s ambitious plans for the resort were combed over by Montecito planners before a packed board room.

Though Caruso expressed his desire to get a decision from the commission last night, citing the roughly $1.5 million he spends each month for the building site to sit unused, he didn’t get it. Another hearing to discuss the Miramar is scheduled for Aug. 6.
What Caruso did get was an up-close look at the Santa Barbara County planning process, specifically the Montecito planning process, which has prompted former Miramar owners such as Ian Schrager, a New York City hotelier, and Ty Warner, local businessman and Beanie Babies inventor, to abandon their dreams for the storied hotel and place a "for sale" sign in the window.
Caruso, who is perhaps best known for his shopping centers such as The Grove in Los Angeles and The Promenade in Westlake, said he didn’t expect the process to be easy.
“If it was easy, everyone would have done it,” Caruso said after the meeting. “If it was easy, Ty Warner would have done it. But I’m confident we’ll get through it.”
When Caruso bought the property, he said he intended to breeze through the planning process by using plans approved by the county in 2000 when Schrager owned the hotel.
However, Caruso ended up amending the plans to the point that they warranted additional appearances before planning agencies.
During yesterday’s meeting, the commission questioned many of the new elements to Caruso’s plans. And while the commission could eventually end up denying the project, county Planning and Development staff has recommended the project be approved.
One of the main differences between the Caruso and Schrager plans discussed by the commission is a 123,171-square-foot increase in net floor area with Caruso’s project.
Further compounding the concern around the increase in square footage was confusion on behalf of the commission as to how the numbers were calculated.
Commission Chair Bob Bierig said there were discrepancies with how the project’s plans exempted certain areas of the hotel, such as hallways, in the calculations. As Caruso employees scrambled to clarify, Bierig and other commissioners began digging into the project.
“I’m concerned that we’re being asked to approve something where the calculations may not add up to numbers that conform with our community plan,” Bierig said. “I’m concerned that massive amounts of this building are being treated as non-building.”
A clear answer about whether or not certain areas of the hotel were exempted from the total square footage count is expected at the next meeting. But Caruso said the important thing to keep in mind is that while square footage has increased, the total “intensity” of use for the hotel has either remained the same or decreased when compared to the Schrager plan.
As an example, the total number of hotel rooms decreased from 213 under Schrager to 204 with Caruso. The 258 seats in the restaurant and 600 seats throughout the property remained the same.
At issue for several people who gave testimony during public comment is the lack of an environmental impact report for the project, which if constructed will be one of the largest in Montecito history with 33 individual structures. The existing structures, which have sat vacant for the past eight years, would be completely demolished.
In the place of an EIR is a negative declaration of impacts, which in effect states that no immitigable impacts exist that would require the project to undergo full-blown environmental review. According to the staff report, the lone significant impact that cannot be avoided is of a historical nature and deals with destruction of the existing hotel, which was built in the 1930s.
Naomi Kovacs, executive director of Citizens Planning Association, said her group is not opposed to restoring the Miramar, but objects to it not receiving full environmental review.
“This is not about slowing down the process or killing the process, it’s about making sure the project built on this site is the least impactful,” she said. “We’re going to have to live with this project for many years and we’re going to have to live with the precedent it sets.”
Commissioner Michael Phillips also cited concerns about the lack of an EIR. Phillips wondered how legally defensible the project will be if an EIR isn’t completed.
“I’m concerned that if this is a strained view of [the California Environmental Quality Act] the county may well be doing Mr. Caruso a disservice …” he said, adding that he believes it’s likely the project would be appealed before the Board of Supervisors if and when it is approved by the commission.
County legal counsel Ed Yates ensured Phillips that because Caruso’s plans do not propose a “substantial increase” of impact to the site, the environmental review conducted for the Schrager approval will suffice. Yates also said such environmental exceptions, while not common, aren’t out of the question.
Many who live near the hotel along the waterfront worry that flooding could occur in the Oak Creek floodplain, which a significant portion of the hotel will be constructed upon.
Tom Fayram, deputy director for the county’s water resources division, said this shouldn’t present a problem for the neighbors or the creek.
There has also been much said about the amount of water needed for a hotel of the Miramar’s size in an area already facing steep shortages.
Montecito Water District General Manager Tom Mosby told the commission that a letter he sent to county officials earlier this month stating the Miramar would require about 117 acre feet of water per year didn’t necessarily mean the hotel would use that amount. In fact, he said it will likely use a lot less and he vowed to honor a “will serve” letter sent to Caruso, which essentially guarantees the water district will provide water. One of the conditions of Caruso building the hotel is that he refrain from tapping into ground water.
This was one of the issues that prompted Caruso to approach the podium unannounced and ask the commission what they expect him to do with a hotel with no water.
Caruso wondered if he can’t use the water beneath his property and can’t get any from the water district, “Am I just supposed to let the property sit there?”
“There is no issue with water supply,” he said. “The general manager was here, he made that clear. I want to be the poster child for being a good user of water and that is my goal.”


Anonymous said...

Environmental impact report?! What, to determine how many fewer weeds and rats will be on this property after it is turned into a stunning jewel?

I've lived in Montecito for 20 years and it never ceases to amaze me how certain (same) individuals here have become self-appointed gatekeepers for everything and anything involving planning and land use. This "Grand Poobah Syndrome" is rampant here. These people have become carcicatures. Obstructive caricatures.

Build the new Miramar. Build it now.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Caruso, but you're missing the point regarding water service. If there isn't 117 acre feet available, which is the amount upon which you've relied in crafting/designing your project, you're going to have to go back and start over. In other words, figure out what the project looks like with less buildings, less fountains, less high water use landscaping, and study THAT project in an EIR. Only then can you claim CEQA compliance. Enough PR spin. Follow the law.

Anonymous said...

The Miramar was our families destinations of choice for many vacations. It sure is sad to see it in the state it's in. You would think in this day and age the proper EIR's and water rights could be worked out. I guess there is always someone in the crowd you just can't please no matter what. If Mr.Warner with his influence in the Santa Barbara community couldn't do it, who can ?