The Continuing Saga of the Miramar

In late 1998, when the Outhwaite family heirs sold the Miramar to Ian Schrager many Montecito residents thought then that the funky, venerable, family-oriented Miramar (along with its “Beach & Tennis Club”) had been “saved.” Schrager’s plans called for re-orienting the down-at-the-heels resort away from Highway 101 and towards the ocean, where its orientation had been from the late 1800s right up until the 1950s, when automobiles replaced the coastal railroad as a preferred means of transportation. Included in the new design were three tennis courts, two pools, an oceanfront oyster bar & grill, a 50-foot-wide wooden promenade down to the sea, a new conference center, renovated beach cottages, and acres of new landscaping. But, after shifting dozens of cottages and tearing up some six acres of pavement, construction ground to a halt. Then came the stock market collapse of 2000, followed by the madness of 9/11/2001 and suddenly business travelers seemed unwilling to pay extra to stay at Schrager’s brand of “boutique” hotels. The apparent cash-flow shortage stretched out the construction hiatus until the Miramar was on the market again.

In early 2005, hotelier and Beanie Babies creator Ty Warner purchased the Miramar. He already owned the Biltmore & Coral Casino, the Montecito Country Club, and San Ysidro Ranch. He was also building his estate on what is now called “Warner’s Bluff,” at least by the editors of this paper. The Miramar looked like a natural purchase for him, and it was. The property completed a nonpareil high-end commercial-property crescent befitting a billionaire.

It’s been less than two years and although new plans have been drawn for the Miramar, nothing has been submitted for approval. Warner has run into roadblocks with every one of his projects. First, it was the quasi-official disdain he received for spending $500,000 of his own money to repair and re-invigorate Channel Drive. Before he and his crew resurfaced the roadway, built and installed the split-rail fencing and planted hundreds of plants and flowers, the turn at the western end of Channel Drive above Butterfly Beach had been a no-man’s land of broken and crumbling pavement cut off from the eroding cliffs by 8-foot-high deteriorating fencing. It was an unsightly mess, unworthy and unrepresentative of its dramatic surroundings. Today it is one of Montecito’s treasured public venues, thanks to Warner. Rather than praise or even simply grudging admiration, he received complaints: too many bougainvillea plants, the landscaping lacked “native” flora, some asked who would tend the plants and suggested Ty pony up additional funds for future upkeep.

At the nearby Coral Casino, a small group of militant obstructionists bit at Warner’s heels as he tried to step through the county planning process to renovate the crumbling Coral Casino. Before he even got to submit his plans, the famous lighthouse tower nearly fell to the ground; termites, dry rot, and mildew had weakened the structure so much that it had begun to tilt, noticeably. Coral Casino was hurriedly closed on a Friday evening and needed repairs made, during which its signature lights were re-discovered. Renovations are underway, but the Warner crew has been ordered to save and sort every piece of lumber and material of the old structure in case the opposition wins in court, requiring the building to be put back the way it was.

There have been other affronts, but that’s the backdrop to the latest salvo in the continuing battle between the Montecito Association and the Warner group. Over the weekend, we received a letter from Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts Executive Vice President Greg Rice dated November 22, 2006. It was responding to a letter from Montecito Association President Bob Collector, sent to Association members, that Warner read as another “attack.”

Rice’s letter stated:

“After much soul searching on the review history of our projects and the delay tactics that have been repeatedly applied, we feel that there are a few Montecito decision makers that will not change the way they treat Mr. Warner or his proposals to improve local properties.

“We truly feel with this tangible bias against Mr. Warner’s projects in Montecito, it would be better for us to step aside and let somebody else complete the renovation of the Miramar. Therefore, we are going to sell the property in the belief that Montecito’s decision making groups will not have a bias against another owner.”

The letter went on to cite “skyrocketing costs due to the arbitrary ‘conditions of approval’ placed” on their projects.

Now, we have speculated over the past few months that the Miramar was already on the market and that there were two local groups interested in the property, so Collector’s letter may or may not have been the catalyst, but there is no doubt that Warner has been worn down by the difficulty of doing business in Montecito.

We hope, however, that he doesn’t find a buyer, at least not right away. He is still the right person to tackle the Miramar project, and as we have stated in the past, if he were willing to reconstruct the Miramar using the plans that the Schrager team put together, he could begin tomorrow morning.

We hope too that Warner and the Montecito Association can find a way to work together for the betterment of Montecito and to the benefit of all.