Upper Village parcel could fetch up to $15 million

One of the Upper Village’s foremost properties is for sale in an imminent deal that could very well determine the future of seven Montecito businesses. A private family trust has listed the 57,000-square-foot parcel known as the “Pharmacy” property, 1496-1498 East Valley Road, with the commercial real estate firm, Leider-Hayes, in a closed bidding process that expires on October 25. Local real estate agents predict that the property on the northwestern corner of San Ysidro and East Valley Roads will sell for about $10 million, but could bring in as much as $15 million.

Stephen Leider, a Leider-Hayes partner in charge of selling the property, didn’t disclose how many offers had been submitted, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize the possibility of a purchase. Leider said the effect of a pending sale on the seven businesses – San Ysidro Pharmacy, Montecito Coffee Shop, Coldwell Banker, William Laman, Country House Antiques, S.R. Hogue & Co., and Prudential Real Estate – would be determined by the buyer of the property.

Responses from Upper Village business owners about a possible sale revealed a mix of reservation and optimistic anticipation. At S.R. Hogue & Co., the florist and event designer, employees declined to answer questions out of respect to a confidentiality agreement the store made with Leider-Hayes.

William Laman, owner of the same-name furniture and antique store at 1496 East Valley Road, said he would continue business as usual until a sale is announced. “There are a lot of unknowns right now and we’ll just have to wait it out and see who the new owner is and what they want to do with the property,” Laman said, “whether it’s redevelop it or get new tenants.”

Commercial real estate agents in town said an acquisition of the property would transfer every business’s lease arrangement. This news comes as vindication to store owners who forecast not being affected by a sale.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to stay here as long as possible,” said Jennifer Sanan, who owns Country House Antiques.

At San Ysidro Pharmacy, owner Steve Hoyt was out of town at press time and could not be reached. Melissa McCabe, a pharmacist of two years, said she and Hoyt had briefly discussed the sale of the property, and she didn’t notice any cause for alarm. “I haven’t seen any reason why our jobs would be in peril,” McCabe said.

Given the desirability of land in Montecito and that several commercial properties in Santa Barbara county have been selling for as much as $200 per square foot, a price tag of $10 million or even as much as $15 million isn’t out of the question, according to local real estate agents.

But agents said the property would be worth most to an owner if it promised the opportunity of development. Only 8,460 square feet, or less than 15%, of the parcel is taken up by buildings, with about 70 parking spots spreading over the 1.3 acres of space.

Scott Glenn, a principal at Radius Group, a Santa Barbara commercial real estate brokerage house, said a new owner would likely have to increase lease rates, up to the market rate of around $4 per square foot. Glenn also said a new owner could do nothing with the parcel in the event of a “vanity purchase.”

“Whoever it is going to be buying that property, it’s going to be someone who has deep pockets,” Glenn said. “It’s going to be someone who has development experience, but just moved to Santa Barbara. No one living outside the area would want to deal with the headaches of developing that space.”

Susnar’s Legacy

Current ownership of the Upper Village parcel is held in a trust made up of living relatives of Mero Susnar, a once prominent commercial property owner who died in June.

Susnar purchased the “Pharmacy” property in April of 1982 after mapping out a lucrative career owning a mall and a golf course in New Berlin, Wisconsin and real estate on the posh Worth Avenue, in Palm Beach, Florida. He founded Susnar Realty in the 1950s and in time earned the respect of his colleagues for his upfront and old-fashioned business sense and penchant for making deals on the basis of a firm handshake.

“He was a true gentleman. He always left something for the other guy,” said his daughter, Lana Marmé, one of Susnar’s three children who belong to the trust.

Susnar had planned to build onto his Upper Village property. But community leaders opposed the added density of construction and the removal of precious parking spaces, and the deal stalled in the planning process.

Marmé, who owns the Lana Marmé clothing store in another part of the Upper Village, said she wanted to keep her dad’s property but her brother and sister, the other members of the trust, who live on the East Coast, preferred to sell.

Meantime, Marmé hopes that whoever buys the property does so with the same sense of business savvy and stewardship that contributed to her father’s legacy.

“My dad had great vision for that corner,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be someone who will take the same consideration for the community.”

Montecito Mom Vies to Replenish District Coffers

School Board Candidate Suzanne Cawthon casts herself in anti-Noël mold

Suzanne Cawthon confronts life’s challenges like she would a campground. “Leave the place looking better than when you got there,” she’ll tell you. It’s the kind of catchy motto that she’ll hope to apply if she wins a seat on the Santa Barbara School Board at the November 7 election. So far, her chances look good.

Despite being somewhat of a newcomer to the local political scene, where collecting allies and endorsements greatly influence election outcomes, Cawthon has been a quick study and has quickly made strong impressions. In a short couple months of campaigning, the Montecito resident has built a strong base of support from some of the Santa Barbara political establishment’s biggest leaders. Endorsements of her candidacy have come from four sitting School Board members, including outgoing trustee Lynn Rodriguez. The only member not endorsing her is two-term trustee Bob Noël, whom she’s running against. Other endorsements come from the Teachers Association and the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee.

Cawthon’s swift ascent is one to note, given that only three years ago she was living in Billings, Montana.

Business Background

Suzanne Cawthon grew up in Anaheim and graduated from Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, with a Master’s degree in business administration. She stayed in Texas to carve out a career as a commercial banker, working as assistant vice president for Texas Independent Bank in the late ‘80s. Her resume also speaks of involvement as chairman of several fundraising events in Dallas “for various charitable causes.”

In 1997, she moved to Billings when she and her husband, Alan, purchased the Montana Dodge auto dealership where she served as management consultant and community relations coordinator. Two years after moving, she found herself chair of the School Board of Trustees in Billings for District #8 and a Parent Teacher Association president, tenures that lasted for six years. During that time, she said she parlayed her business acumen into improving school facilities and augmenting classroom resources. She coupled public service with staunch volunteerism, working on the Billings Police Foundation board of directors and serving on the campaign advisory board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Montana.

The Cawthons moved to Montecito in July 2003, bringing their three kids, Clare, Caroline and Bennett, who went to Montecito Union. Since relocating, Cawthon has been San Marcos High School’s PTA president for two years and has served on the Secondary Parent Advisory Council and the Measure V Committee, a board oversight group that examines whether district projects are in line. When she announced her official candidacy in August, Cawthon established herself as someone whose public school finance and real world business experience would lend a valuable perspective to the board, distinct from Dr. Noël, the political scientist, and Nancy Harter, the legal brain.

“It’s essential to have that business background because you understand budget constraints and general accounting practices,” Cawthon said. “The school district is a business. It’s impossible not to see it that way.”

>Hungry to Learn, Solve Problems

While her record with Santa Barbara School Board policy leaves a thin paper trail, Cawthon has spent the last three years playing catch-up with astute interest. “I know all the personalities at the school district,” she said. She compensates her scant local experience with an appetite to learn quickly. During an August interview at the Coast Village Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, when asked what she thought about last year’s termination of the JROTC program, she politely answered that she was “not conversant on that issue.” Last week, she returned for an interview and immediately said the JROTC decision was an unfortunate one, but she claimed that the embattled program’s most fervent backers didn’t do enough to save it when they had the chance.

“She’s a very quick study considering that serving on the school board involves a steep learning curve,” said Lynn Rodriguez, who supports Cawthon for her background in finance and because the two share “similar values about public education.”

On her scale of most urgent problems facing the school district, Cawthon first cites the achievement gap and said parents must be involved more with their kids’ education to bring up grades and test scores. “It has to start at home,” she said. “We need to get that message out.”

She said federal sanctions on schools such as Santa Barbara Junior High were contributing to the widening achievement gap. She tossed in mild criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act for its unfair and unrealistic expectations of schools. “It’s a danger making test scores for all schools because you can’t know the needs of each school,” she said.

Narrowing the achievement gap, she said, also requires schools to learn from schools that have succeeded. “You have to look at a model that works and copy it,” she said. “You don’t look at a failing school and borrow from them.”

Her models for success include education tracking programs such as GATE and Honors, which she says adequately place students together in classrooms based on skill and need. It’s a philosophical position that tells many Montecito parents she shares their values.

“There’s such encouragement at the secondary level about diversity that results in lowering the bar for high achievers while trying to raise the lowest bar,” said Diane Pannkuk, a former Montecito Union PTA president. “But Suzy’s not about that. She wants to keep the bar high for everyone.”

Another important issue for Cawthon is improvement of school facilities, by making campuses handicap-accessible and by making areas like the cafeteria at San Marcos High School, “places where educators want to be. We’re in a wonderful, resourceful community and our schools don’t reflect that.”

When it comes to raising teacher salaries, Cawthon said she supports “adequately compensating employees,” even if that means affording them with workforce housing. She believes the county’s high real estate values are driving away valuable teachers who use the school district as a launch point for their careers. “We need to make working here a palatable career choice for our workforce,” she said.

Referring to the school district’s two properties, Hidden Valley and Tatum, and the controversial debate over putting “affordable” teacher housing on them, Cawthon said the parcels should be used to maximize profits for the district. She’d be in favor of workforce housing for faculty in downtown Santa Barbara, an area she thinks teachers would prefer.

With Tatum and Hidden Valley, she said: “You take these properties and you say, ‘how do we turn these into revenues?’” She offered to put the parcels in a capital lease program, renting them out at market rate to secure the district a constant stream of income.

Cawthon’s stance on the properties is wedded to her broader approach to expanding district resources. Calling the Public Education Foundation an “under-performing source of revenue,” she said the district “needs more endowment” from companies and private donors. “This is about the transformation of a non-earning asset into an earning asset,” she said.

‘Anti-Noël’ Choice

While Cawthon’s critics complains about her lack of local experience, they also worry about her capacity to stay on the job while she’s raising three kids. After all, taking care of her family was chief among the reasons Lynn Rodriguez cited in foregoing the next election. “If I were to ask [Cawthon] anything, it would be, does she have the time to spend being a school board member?” said Rosanne Crawford, one of her opponents in the race. “How will you handle the needs of parents’ kids if you have children of your own? There’s only so much time in one day.”

But at 45, Cawthon said she’s “retired,” and brings the correct dosage of “time, energy, dedication and flexibility” to get the job done. Besides, she said, Crawford is raising a kid of her own, 16-year-old Vanessa, a junior at Santa Barbara High School.

In the opening month of her candidacy, Cawthon appeared reluctant to take hardline positions on divisive issues. For example, when asked about the school board’s fight in April when Dr. Noël accused other members of violating closed-door meeting laws, Cawthon stayed neutral. “The Brown Act is something you don’t want to mess with when you’re a steward of public funds and the public trust,” she said.

But lately, she appears to have grown out of that reluctance and blossomed into a new candidate: the “anti-Noël” choice. She criticizes the incumbent for being too aggressive with fellow trustees in meetings and for wasting district time with unnecessary questions. She said Noël complains about district problems but doesn’t spend the full time addressing them, pointing to a column he published last month in the Montecito Journal about the district’s financial crisis.

“If the district is facing these kinds of problems, what does that say about his tenure?” Cawthon said.

Meanwhile, Montecito observers are keenly aware that Dr. Noël and Cawthon have much in common, like the desire to be independent thinkers and the determination to confront tough issues.

“Suzie probably doesn’t realize it,” Diane Pannkuk said, “but she and Bob Noël would work very well on a board together.”

Westmont Re-design Garners Warm Response

As Westmont College this month finds itself again in hearing chambers to show the Montecito Planning Commission its new construction designs, it will be doing so with more backing than school officials are accustomed to receiving. With a full day of discussions slated on October 16 and again on October 18, several observers and decision makers have embraced the redesign as a step in the right direction.

“It’s a campus that’s a lot more friendly and inviting,” said Marsha Zilles, a member of the Montecito Board Architectural Review who once described the college’s first construction proposal as a “Costco-esque nightmare.”

In September, Westmont’s newly hired architects, David VanHoy and Ken Radtkey, presented the public with a Master Plan that still adds approximately 350,000 square feet but which they claim is less monolithic and imposing than the previous design. The new blueprints come equipped with environmentally conscious touches like building roofs garnished with plants and more dispersed building layout. The improvements were applauded by nearby residents as a sign that the college is sensitive to the wishes of neighbors.

“The new architects did a great job. We got a lot more than we expected and we were very encouraged,” said Jeff Shelton, president of the Mountain Drive Community, a 120-household organization that represents a large swath of Westmont’s neighborhood at large.

The Mountain Drive Community, which had previously cited concerns about how construction would impact their residential way of life, voted to support the re-design recently. But Shelton said he and other members would follow future proceedings closely, adamant about the college controlling the amount and intensity of its work.

“We want to stay in the game,” Shelton said. “We don’t want to be greedy, but we just want to make sure that the impacts are mitigated.”

The re-design also received encouraging marks from the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, whose chair, Tony Spann, said he was pleased with the lowered height, bulk and separation of buildings.

“It’s definitely going in the right direction,” Spann said.

However, Spann said he was “still on the fence” regarding a few components of the project, among them the amount of construction and the size of the new chapel. His concern reflects that of the Montecito Association, which among all the groups to support the re-design gave the most tepid determination.

The Association’s Land Use Committee approved the design in concept but attached to that decision a litany of conditions. One of those was modifying the height of the proposed chapel to 35 feet to conform with Montecito Community Plan guidelines. The chapel, whose roof bows slightly like a plucked guitar string, has a maximum height of 49 feet.

Other conditions of approval included a restriction on the existing number of students, set forth in a deed restriction, restrictions on special events and cap levels on traffic. “Westmont has given its word that uses will be kept at certain levels,” said Susan Keller, the Land Use Committee chair. “These conditions are a way to keep them to their word.”

Carbajal Sends His Diplomat

Before the Biltmore Seawall appeal reaches a County Board of Supervisors hearing, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal is making sure he exhausts every bit of diplomatic capital. Carbajal has dispatched Michael Cooney, a County Planning Commissioner who represents the First District, to engage in discussions with Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts representatives and perhaps even seek a potential compromise.

”We’re trying to see if there’s any common ground in light of the concerns expressed during the appeal process,” Carbajal said.

In August, Warner challenged a Montecito Planning Commission approval of his $2-million repair plans for the seawall and steps in front of his Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel. His representatives said the approval imposed unfair conditions, namely that a sliver of brickwork be removed from the design.

Since only the Board of Supervisors can reverse the commission’s vote, Cooney can be a facilitator in the discussions to flesh out all points of contention. Still, Cooney said on the phone last week that, “to say we’re not going to the Board of Supervisors is just not possible.”

Greg Rice, Warner’s executive vice president of development, said this case needs to be heard by the board. “We consider this a watershed moment for our cause,” said Rice, who asserted that while this debate may be trivial, it speaks to the “constant erosion of our rights.”

Veterinarian Files Appeal

Bonnie Franklin, the veterinarian whose application for a home-based animal treatment practice was turned down last month by the Montecito Planning Commission, has appealed that panel’s decision. Franklin, whose clinic request stoked an outbreak of opposition in her neighborhood on Greenworth Place, will take her case to the County Board of Supervisors. It will be at least one month before the five-member board takes up the matter in chambers.

For about one year, Franklin, whose primary residence is in Santa Ynez, has been trying to develop a concierge veterinary clinic at her mother’s home. A residence practice, she claims, would allow her to watch her ill mother and mind her work.

Neighbors are against her proposal, arguing that an animal clinic is incompatible with the conventions of a modest residential neighborhood. County planners and the Montecito Association have supported neighbors in their opposition.