Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hats off to the Miramar

We are fortunate to live in a place where professionals and caring residents volunteer (or are paid a pittance) for often ‘thankless’ service on various boards and commissions. Having served on a couple myself, I have witnessed first hand the occasional influence that one insistent member can have on the interpretation or importance of various codes or guidelines.

I have also witnessed the obvious, though rare intersection of personal bias, professional preference and ego sometimes elicited when committee members feel threatened or challenged by presenting applicants.
Regrettably, after repeatedly watching the Montecito Planning Commission in their grilling of the Caruso project, I was reminded of the worst, rather than the best, service to a community. I refer to the ‘Caruso’ project, rather than the ‘Miramar’ project because it was obvious to me, at least, that this review process had taken on meaning for some commissioners far beyond an objective analysis of findings.
First, having less than 30 persons wishing to speak ‘against’ the plan, and over 110 who signed in wishing to speak in favor of it, the commissioners’ definition of fairness, was to have equal numbers speak first ‘for,’ then ‘against’ until all those ‘against’ had presented. The chair then asked for the remaining comments to be ‘consolidated,’ which by anyone’s estimation, was less than democratic or representational of the overwhelming support of the Miramar project in the Montecito community.
After Mr. Caruso showed a professionally produced, but moving video about the Miramar, spontaneous applause rang out through the chamber. Chastising the effusive crowd like a classroom of kindergartners, the audience was threatened with being removed if further displays of support were uttered.
I’d venture to guess that not all, but some, of the Montecito Planning Commission members walked in on the 16th looking for any reason to thwart the project from its approval. In the South, we would suggest in a most genteel fashion that someone has their “panties in a wad” over this project.
Whether it was professional jealousy, outside influence, or insufficient time for thorough review, it was clear from the ‘get-go’ that Caruso was not going to be given the green light. Not since the classic scene in “Gone With the Wind” (where Rhett tells Scarlett “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”) has such defiance been displayed regarding a project 17 months and over $50 million in the making. Well, maybe with the exception of the equally torturous and absurd process of the beachfront steps and Coral Casino approval for Ty Warner at the Biltmore.
Maybe this crew just doesn’t like well-heeled developers from outside our little enclave. On the other hand, perhaps the commissioners honestly believe there is some dark, ulterior motive to the width of Mr. Caruso’s hallways, or the size of the locker rooms in the basement. Forget the reality that neither the professional county Planning Department staff nor the Montecito Association has found reasons to reject the Caruso plans. Forget that the total number of rooms has decreased, and that no real issues exist to require a full Environmental Impact Review.
Truth is, for all the chest beating about preserving the quaint feel of what was once the Miramar; by today’s standards, the hotel would never, ever have been approved. I can just imagine the Montecito Commissioners reviewing the original design, often referred to as a “community treasure.”
“Do you actually expect us to approve these BLUE rooftops on your cottages? And what about the pitch of the roofline in the main building? Why, it’s far higher than code permits, to say nothing of the obvious problems with run-off due to the amount of concrete pad and walkway. And, oh, my God, you can’t have all of this parking above ground? And, one more thing: we don’t approve neon signs in Montecito, especially when visible from your neighbors across the highway!”
Representing the prior owner of the Miramar, Greg Rice of the Ty Warner Hotel group confidently acclaimed in April of 2005, “we hope to accelerate this process.” What was a questionably attractive hotel which expanded from its original single guesthouse to its first 29 cottages in 1910, is now a graffiti magnet, mold ridden, rat infested health hazard.
I’d like to remind the Commissioners, this isn’t about Rick Caruso. This also isn’t about you. It isn’t about Moses and the 100 year flood, or Hollywood interlopers now infesting the once non-pretentious town of Montecito.
This is about objectively assessing the plans before you in order to determine their compliance with existing building codes. This is about listening ‘for’ reasons to enable a property which has been used as a hotel since 1877 to once again offer a place to stay, play and enjoy our Central Coast hospitality.
The majority of community residents, the Montecito Association, as well as the county staff have determined with clarity and consistency that this is a project long overdue. We don’t need obstructionists, we need action.
As my granddaddy was fond of saying, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”


City Professional said...

As someone who has served on boards or commissions, I'm surprised that you aren't aware that it is the responsibility of the chair of any commission to discourage cheering, clapping, shouting etc. from the audience.

This kind of behavior from audience members, while perhaps understandable, is not appropriate in a hearing format. Some people can feel intimidated by these displays and the intent of these hearings is to hear from everyone.

It's also not strictly a democratic process. The Commission needs to make decisions regardless of whether or not they believe that more people feel one way than another. They have been appointed to interpret the code, not to count votes.

While I frequently disagree with the Commissioners, I believe your criticism of Commissioner Beirig is unwarranted.

Anonymous said...

The project is being examined the same way any other project in the coastal zone should be, and should have full CEQA compliance. The Planning Dept members are trying to do their jobs to uphold public law while the developer is spending money schmoozing the Montecito money bags (which apparently is working) and ignoring environmental and code requirements that were put in place by all state voters and the local electorate (not just Montecitans have a voice in the matter, contrary to popular belief). That's how CEQA works. If someone says an EIR is necessary, then it is. And if the developer doesn't want to do it, then that's his own problem. Could have saved some money from all the golf course lunches and wine parties and done a real environmental study instead. This is just another example of the wealthy coming together to escape the law. For shame.

Anonymous said...

You've got to be kidding me. Did Caruso write this one too? Enough with the personal attacks on so called "obstructionists." If Caruso didn't demand variances from the Montecito Community Plan, he'd soar right through (with perhaps the exception of water supply issues). Don't let your own wadded up panties over Caruso and his grand LA vision get in the way of community demands for legal compliance. If majority ruled, we'd probably still have slavery. There're reasons we have laws.

Anonymous said...

For someone who ran for office you seem very ill informed as to the land use development process and CEQA law. This hearing was not about approving "building permits,” as you stated in your column, but about land use conformance, of which you seem to have little understanding.

This is the FIRST time the MPC has officially reviewed the Miramar and been able to comment. They had 50 pounds and four binders worth of documents to sift through, so I certainly would hope they’d have questions or they would not be doing their jobs! The 18-month delay was caused by Caruso's tardiness or complete lack of providing the necessary documentation. His indecision about what plan he wanted to have the commission review caused an additional three-month delay.

Did you consider the commissioners were quite acquainted with the diffusion of “basement” and “corridors”, but were asking rhetorical questions trying to politely note their disbelief that their inept staff missed those important exclusions required by law in the FAR calculations?

Did you not know, Ms. Redd, that a second hearing was publicly announced on June 18 and Caruso agreed to it, even forcing it to be pushed back to August 6 to accommodate his vacation? Perhaps between stuffing scone in Montecito mouths and driving his Spinning Bull-dozer through town, he forgot to tell you the real specifics about his project, including the fact he knew there would be no decision on July 16. As the Daily Sound’s editorial writer I would have hoped you might have tried to gather a few facts on your own rather than just be Matt Middlebrook’s lazy PR lap dog.

In spite of your un-factual diatribe, Ms. Redd, the MPC is sworn to protect you and me. They need to be sure this project is safe, functional and fits within Montecito’s fragile residential neighborhood and its limited local resources and infrastructure.

A planning commission hearing is not about what Slick-Rick wants it’s about the law. The project on the table does NOT fit into local zoning and planning laws, and all the clapping and fussing in the world will not make this bulky, boxy, over-the-top project compatible with Montecito!

Katherine Wertheim said...

Wow, are these comments ugly and personal!

I would love to see the Miramar re-open. I suspect that you're right, Dr. Redd, and that there are other reasons why this is being held up. I hate this kind of NIMBYism.

I also love the Daily Sound for posting articles like this; it's the kind of information I want and I can't get it elsewhere.

Kathy Wertheim

Spike said...


Like all headline-readers, you’ve absorbed the spin. And it’s great spin. Expensive spin, written by a PR firm that made a Power-Point presentation to the developer in late 2006. Yes, 2006, because an estimate of our community's likelihood of responding well to a PR campaign would have been a critical consideration in this developer’s decision to buy our old hotel.

The PR firm would have presented objectives and then a strategy designed to make you write the things you’ve now written about this project. (At one of those badly catered coffee parties, though, I thought I heard Caruso’s Government Relations guy say he wants no credit for your poetry.) No doubt, the PR folks then parsed the demographic and psychographic segments of our small community; presented a series of messages that would appeal to each group; and outlined a plan for reaching those groups, finally stopping only when Rick said, “Get me the guy who owns The Montecito Journal.”

I don’t remember seeing you at the Montecito Planning Commission hearing last week, where it seemed clear that our commissioners knew very well that this isn’t about Rick Caruso. I was surprised, then pleased, then groaningly empathetic as it became clear that the commissioners understood the gravity of the situation—tremendous gravity due to the size of the project, its importance to the community, its precedent-setting potential, and its location in one of the most environmentally sensitive pockets of land and sea in the County of Santa Barbara…maybe even in the State of California. The commissioners seemed aware of it all: the relentless PR campaign that worked its fingers into the lives and the living rooms of friends and neighbors, using charm, lies, slander and shameless pandering to make us forget that this community is united in its desire to see a new hotel on the Miramar property. Like the worst politicians, these people used a demonizing strategy to divide our community.

Where was it first written that a common enemy makes the best friends? The Art of War? And when did the word “neighbor” become an insult?

The commissioners seemed to understand that more than any other project ever dropped into the lap of any Santa Barbara or Montecito Planning Commission, this one is up to them. They’ve been handed the hot potato—and they know damned well that it is about them. It’s about their legal and ethical responsibility to make sure that this developer follows the rules. You said it: it’s about objectively assessing the plans in front of them in order to determine their compliance with existing building codes. And that’s exactly what they were trying to do—in spite of unprecedented pressure from every direction to rubberstamp a staff recommendation unlike anything they’d ever seen before. Loretta, the numbers don’t add up. The report is filled with errors; most of the backup studies are old or they don’t exist. And a full environmental review has never been done on this property. As Chairman Bierig said in understandable frustration, “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. I’m concerned that massive amounts of this building are being treated as non-building.”

He didn’t say small discrepancies. He said “massive.” He said there were discrepancies in the ways with which the calculations on the plans in front of him, plans “recommended” by county staff, had exempted certain areas of the hotel. Massive areas.

To these and other serious concerns raised by the Chairman of our Planning Commission, the developer responded with a line that reeked of its PR source. Caruso actually said to the Chairman that “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.”

What the hell does that mean? Was he trying to convince the Commissioner that they should sign off on massive structures that violate the regulations? Did he mean that his hotel would be less intense than Schrager’s would have been? Less intense?

Couple of things: It sounds to me like the developer was saying that although he and his engineers and architects—and, by extension, our own county employees – had fudged (read: lied) to disguise the massive size of the structures on the plan, and although they had been caught publicly trying to wing one past the very commission they now faced, all should be forgiven (signed off on) because this (massive) hotel and retail complex would be less intense than an eight year old hotel plan that has nothing in common with this proposal except for location? Was that what the developer was saying?

Was the shopping-center developer and owner who boasts about having more visitors annually than Disneyland—the same man who delights in a chandelier that required cranes to hang it two stories above the Disneyland-like street in his latest shopping center—was this same developer implying that Chairman Bierig shouldn’t worry his pretty little head because the plan with the bogus calculations would be less intense than the single-story cottage-style renovation of the old Miramar Hotel that is being used as the basis for the permitting process for this one?

Come on. We’re being snookered.

But people in our community are starting to wake up. With time, conversation among friends and careful reading of more than headlines and those press releases tweaked to look like reportage, the spell is starting to wear off.

Loretta, start doing your homework. You don’t want to be the last one in town to throw off the pixie dust. What an embarrassing time that would be.

sbbulldog said...

My email to Salud

Please register my objection to modifying and adopting a previously approved plan for the Miramar project. I cannot understand how such a large and important development can be allowed to proceed without the safeguards and requirements that would be typical of any coastal project.

The potential problems are numerous. The height alone, the lack of a COMPLETE EIR alone, the speed of process and apparent acquiescence of you, Mr. Carbajal, and some Planning staff, are more than enough reason to carefully modify the plan to fit our community standards. Why bother having a community plan if it is violated? We residents, owners, and voters are NOT in agreement with the existing modification requests and will not stand by silently. Why are we being left out of the decision making process and why are rules and procedures being abrogated in order to fit this massive exploitation of our neighborhood to the needs of any commercial venture?

I'd very much like to see a plan that fits the site, is respectful of the process, provides adequate (REALISTIC) parking, and doesn't endanger the sensitive seaside environment. I am NOT opposed to the rebuilding of a cherished community asset, the Miramar. What I object to is the distortion of a business from a local treasure into an overbuilt, hulking, eyesore. EVERY architect I know has criticized the design. If only this were an aesthetic issue, and not an overuse of a valuable site it would still be a travesty. But it's not, as proposed it is a lasting scar on our human environment.

I'm truly appalled by the handling of this process by the County. I applaud the bravery of staff that has tried to resist the pressure to "go with the flow". Those who take a measured, impartial review will be able to draw meaningful and lawful conclusions. Others will plant the seeds of distrust, disgust, and further delay in bringing a valuable plan into fruition.

Please join together with the community, the one's who have taken the time to actually examine the plan, to save this site for the great hotel it deserves.