Caruso Presents Preliminary Miramar Plans

Capacity Crowd Showers Developer with Praise

In a broad-brush presentation that tapped into the audience’s collective nostalgic conscience, Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso on Tuesday unveiled another glimpse of his vision for the Miramar Hotel. Before an audience at El Montecito Church that numbered nearly 250, the new owner of the fabled Miramar property detailed his “blank slate” approach to a renovation he said would advance rapidly through the entitlement process and would lead to a hotel reopening in two years.

“If we can pull this off, with your help, we’re going to build something that you can be proud of and that you will enjoy going to,” Caruso told the audience.

So far, Caruso’s Miramar seems to follow a project model that former owner Ian Schrager got approved back in 2000, falling short of the ambitious, multi-hundred-million-dollar rehabilitation that past hotel owner Ty Warner had in mind.

Caruso’s proposal calls for about 166,000 square feet of entire floor area, more than 20,000 square feet larger than Schrager’s version but still “within the envelope in terms of development on the property.” The Los Angeles developer wants to reduce the number of hotel rooms from 213 to 210 while expanding the size of each room and the amount of natural space. This includes main facilities such as a new restaurant/bar of about 10,000 square feet, a “function space” or banquet hall (13,865 square feet) and a lobby, spa and fitness center (17,385).

The design at this point implies the new hotel will be built like a compound, with the majority of the cottages facing inward with plenty of vegetation serving as a buffer to noise from the highway to the north and the train tracks to the south. Guests will enter via a brick driveway off South Jameson Lane that leads to a valet parking drop-off site at the reception building. The grounds will have close to 500 parking spaces, both in over-ground and subterranean facilities. Entrance to the hotel will also be possible by foot at the southwestern end of the property and at the northwestern part via a cut-through at All Saints by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. It’s a message that hotel amenities will be available to area-wide residents and not just out-of-town visitors.

“We want the public to come to the property,” Caruso said. “We’re not looking to close it off or gate it off. We want to be open and welcoming.”

Caruso said he planned on restoring the Beach & Tennis Club with a mission to expand the membership from its current 140 members.

“We have been inundated with requests for membership and we’re going to honor original memberships,” he said.

Responding to persistent worries about whether the hotel operation would be financially possible, Caruso again assured the public he could easily pull it off. By reducing the number of hotel rooms, expanding the size of each room and maintaining an upscale model that doesn’t quite reach Four Seasons standards, he said he’d have no problem turning a profit.

“The problem with the Schrager plan, and with what Warner was doing, was that they were maintaining the key number,” he said. “You can’t get a decent room rate when you have a room the size of a bathroom.”

In several ways, Caruso’s Miramar looks like a tribute to the hotel’s post-World War II heyday, back when owner Paul Gawzner bought the property out of auction and transformed the grounds into a thriving landmark.

He’ll return the float and raft, add cabanas, reinstate the beach boardwalk using the same look and dimensions and set up parasols on the sands all to promote the relax-and-have-fun beach atmosphere that reigned supreme during the Miramar’s greatest era.

A lot of the look and feel of the Miramar, Caruso said, will be greatly influenced by his visit to the One & Only Ocean Club, in the Bahamas, a resort he characterized as “comfortable,” but “elegant.”

“That’s the sort of place we want you to have,” Caruso said. “We want you to be comfortable in a swim suit and sandy feet. We also want you to be comfortable in a sports coat.”

Since he bought the hotel more than two months ago, Caruso has been collecting Miramar memories to gain a historical perspective of the property. In past public presentations, he has been adamant that it is impossible to usher in the hotel’s new era without honoring its rich past. This has proven to be a big hit among residents and it was again on Tuesday when audience members continuously expressed their praise and approval through applause and post-presentation comments.

“This is a dream come true,” said Lee Luria, a 52-year Montecito resident.

Caruso’s nearly hour-long talk was organized, articulate and evenly tempoed, customary of the “Slick Rick” nickname he has earned in short time from some local observers. It’s just another indication of Caruso’s increasing popularity in a town where development projects often attract fickle and tenuous support. But so far the developer’s trajectory suggests he’ll have an easy path to approval.

Montecito Planning Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker, who will most likely be hearing his project, praised Caruso for “doing his homework” on the property, though she said she’d keep observing his project with a “discerning eye.”

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said his office was “doing everything we can to streamline the process.” But Carbajal tempered his words with more cautious language when he said “we’d be doing the same for anyone else at this juncture.”

If Caruso stays close to the Schrager project footprint, County planners said the project wouldn’t face a long entitlement project. Julie Harris, the County planner who is anticipated to be handling the case, said on Monday it all “depends on the complexity of the project.” She said she expected Caruso Affiliated to submit its project application in June and projected it could take anywhere from a month to a few months to process the paperwork. Caruso said he expected demolition to begin in January 2008.

At this point, though, Caruso’s Miramar exists mainly in numbers and words, absent of the building-by-building architectural renderings that give a vivid representation of a project’s possibilities. As he was leaving Tuesday’s presentation, David VanHoy, the architect who drafted the designs for Ty Warner’s unfilled Miramar renovation, complimented Caruso on his approach, but said it was “too early to give a credible critique.”

The Highlights of Caruso’s Miramar

• Three pools, including a separate pool for kids

• Conference/banquet facilities

• Spa and fitness center

• Return the float/raft and add cabanas

• Underground parking, no large surface parking lots, less asphalt, more landscape throughout the property

• Restaurant with an ocean view, fine and casual dining choices, beach café

• Large areas of lawn and open space

• Restored boardwalk

• Cul de sac Miramar Avenue, eliminate Miramar Road (while still maintaining emergency access)

• Return the beach and tennis clubs

• Provide four on-site employee housing units

County Defends Westmont Approval

Responding to a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by neighbors of Westmont College over the approval of about 375,000 square feet of campus construction, the County defended its stance, saying the Board of Supervisors made the right decision. William Dillon, a senior deputy counsel who with County attorney Rachel Van Mullen is in charge of the case, said despite the plaintiffs’ objections, the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) did not make incorrect assumptions about the effects of construction on the school’s immediate neighbors.

“As far as I could tell, we think our board acted properly,” Dillon said. “People are entitled to their day in court and they’ll get it.”

Dillon said his office was still a few months away from issuing a formal, written response to the 19-page lawsuit. He was not able to discuss specifics of the suit, such as details about whether the County overstated the amount of construction that Westmont was allowed to have.

The project’s opponents, Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion, filed their petition on March 29 charging that the supervisors’ approval in February of Westmont’s Masterplan update disregarded local and state zoning codes and asserting that construction would create significant environmental impacts.

While the lawsuit is against the County, Westmont has hired its own lawyers to assist in the case. Last week, school officials confirmed they had added land use attorney Richard Monk to the legal team. One of the more prominent land use lawyers in the South Coast, Monk helped the Coral Casino overcome a lawsuit that reached the California Second District Court of Appeals.