On The Beach At The Miramar

New Miramar owner Rick Caruso surprised the crowd that packed Montecito Hall on Friday, February 16 during a planned Montecito Association “Meet & Greet,” by playing a recording of a song called “On The Beach At Miramar.” Caruso, who proved to be a quick study and engaging speaker, explained that while thumbing through a photo album with “a bunch of old pictures in it,” he found “this sort of yellowing thing, half falling apart,” which turned out to be three pages of sheet music, apparently written in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. Looking at it, he exclaimed, “This is unbelievable; Miramar had a song!” Caruso took the brittle pages to a songwriter friend in Los Angeles, who pieced the music together and hired someone to sing and record it. The song played (sounding like a very old recording) while vintage photos of the hotel flashed on a screen.

The melody is slow and dreamily romantic; here are the words:

Strolling on

The sandy beach

At Miramar

Underneath a California sky

As the moon begins to rise

In the lovers’ paradise

Two hearts would beat as one

As I gaze into your eyes

Miramar, Miramar,

How I long to be there

In a bar on the beach,

Where there’s love in the air

Just to stroll again there

In the moonlight

On the beach at Miramar

It’s not exactly Cole Porter, but then nothing is. If you know who may have written this, please contact me at: jim@montecitojournal.net, as we’d be pleased to credit the composer.

Down To Business

After the fun of viewing old photos and listening to the recreated song, Mr. Caruso turned his attention to the serious matter of the deteriorating condition of the Miramar. “The hotel is in terrible disrepair,” he began. “If there is any notion that any of it can be reused,” he continued, “I’d be happy to walk you through it. Through the mold, and the rats, and the buildings that are collapsing on the site.”

He suggested the hotel’s poor condition was an insult to the community.

“There are some bungalows down there that have history to them and we want to be respectful of that,” he conceded, suggesting however that, “there may be some ulterior ways of dealing with that issue.” He said his crew could, for example, rebuild the bungalows “to make them look like they used to look,” or they could even save some of them for historical purposes, but use them for different purposes. “One of the things we do want to do is have a place where we can celebrate the history of the Miramar,” he said, “so maybe one of the bungalows can be the place where all the archives are.”

Caruso wants to “celebrate those memories” by putting together a program of remembrances – photos, letters, postcards, artifacts, brochures, etc. – in a permanent display on the premises.

Najla Kayyem, Caruso Affiliated vice president for corporate initiatives, solicited memories and material from attendees. Najla is looking to collect old photos, home videos, “anything to create an archive,” by March 15. She will then choose a small panel of “about twenty or thirty respondents” and bring them in for a focus group discussion on site to talk about old times and to help find successful elements to incorporate into their project. Anyone with something to offer should contact nkayyem@carusoaffiliated.com or call her at 323-900-8100.

Caruso’s Plans

Rick pronounced himself “eager and ready to go” and revealed that even though he has his own 150-person team, he’d also be hiring consultants and architects from Montecito/Santa Barbara to help with the project. The following is a breakdown of his plans and hopes.

Traffic: Approved plans do not include a laundry facility; Caruso says shuttling laundry down Jameson to Carpinteria every day adds traffic. “We think the laundry facilities need to be on the property,” he says, and plans to ask for “a little extra building area” for the purpose. “Other than those kind of things,” he says, “we’re going to work really hard to stay in the envelope.” He is considering realigning the access road at the east end of the property and bringing it around and up to lessen traffic too, and is also looking at moving the entrance to Miramar Lane and off Jameson. He’s been meeting with homeowner groups to ascertain the best ways of minimizing traffic through the neighborhood.

Hotel Style: A 213 “key” (number of rental units) bungalow-like resort; “We want to do the cottages again; we think it would be really cool if there was a whole series of cottages and you’re walking through gardens and fountains. We’re looking to do something pleasant, casual, sophisticated… a low-key kind of place where you’re comfortable in a bathing suit. When you get on that property and realize you’re in Montecito; you’re on the beach; life is good. That’s the goal.”

Timeshares or condos: “We haven’t considered timeshares,” Caruso said, adding however that “we’ve been asked a lot about doing a condo-hotel program on a percentage of the units.” That plan involves someone buying a cottage that would go back into the hotel pool for rental when not in use by the owner. “It’s not a timeshare where eighteen people own it,” he stressed. “One person or family owns it. They would get to use it so many days a year; all the other days, the hotel rents it out as a regular hotel room. A lot of people want to own a piece of the Miramar; there’s something about that,” he said, admitting that he hasn’t fully thought it out but “it may be something we’re inclined to do.”

Beachfront cottages: “There’s a lot of rot, and there’s nothing to save. It’s all coming down and will be rebuilt.” When local historian Neal Graffy asked whether Caruso “anticipated a problem with the Coastal Commission,” he replied he didn’t think so, that although they “are going to have to take them all down, we’re only rebuilding what’s there. [The cottages] are not energy-efficient. There is no insulation; there’s no heating in them. To convert those and make them anywhere near energy efficient is… expensive. We haven’t heard from anyone yet who wants to save all of this, but [if we do] I think that would be a big mistake.”

The Beach and Tennis Club: Caruso intends to honor longstanding memberships. Club members would get a card with signing privileges, use of the beach, the facilities, spa, pool, tennis courts, and have priority for reserving them. There is a limit to the number of memberships allowed by the hotel’s Conditional Use Permit (CUP) “and based upon the number of calls we’ve been getting,” Rick says, “we’re going to broach the question of moving that number up a bit so more people can enjoy it.”

Freeway and Train Noise: “We’re going to celebrate the train,” Caruso jokes. “We’re not going to get rid of the train, so you might as well try to have fun with it.” He sees freeway noise as more of a problem. “I know they have a sound wall proposed, which is fine,” he says, but acknowledges that an eight-foot sound wall “is not going to solve the problem.” According to residents, when the conference center was razed, noise doubled. Caruso plans to build all the “back of the house” facilities along Jameson to keep traffic away from the surrounding neighborhood and also to buffer the freeway noise. He supports the idea of “quiet zones” (no horns!) for the railroad and says his company will “put a lot of money into landscaping, fountains, and mature trees,” which will help subdue noise levels too.

Conference Center: Originally, the Caruso group believed the permitted 15,000 square feet for conference space was more than what would be required, but have determined there is a large unfulfilled need for such space, so they are “going to go back and look at that and see what the right size is.”

Montecito Planning Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker said the convention center was an asset and with its absence “there is nowhere to hold things like Rotary and other community group meetings. We really need something like that,” she added, “as bad as the carpet was!”

Another attendee observed there was no place (in Montecito) where one could get 17 to 25 people together for a breakfast meeting “without being rushed out or where you can’t hear the presentation.” Another pleaded to “bring back the Writers’ Conference” to the Miramar.

“I hear you. I hear you,” Rick responded with a smile, promising, “We will build it.”

Construction Schedule: His contemplated start date is January 1, 2008, with an opening 18 to 24 months after that. Caruso admits it’s an aggressive schedule but says that “with the existing entitlements that are on the property and with the support we’ve been getting from the local supervisor, and the help and the leadership we’ve been getting from Bob [Collector] and [the Montecito Association] and others in the community, we think it’s a doable goal. As soon as we get the approval, we’ll be ready to go.”

Neal Graffy pointed out that more than 100 years ago, Mr. Potter was able to build his 600-room five-and-a-half-stories-tall beachfront hotel in Santa Barbara within a year of breaking ground. “With twenty-first-century technology, don’t you think you could do your project even quicker?” Graffy asked.

“We want to get it done, but we also want to build it right,” Caruso said, adding that he didn’t “want to be building through the night, disturbing people and those kinds of things,” advising that “the hotel has to be really well-appointed, so it’s going to take a little longer.”

Financial Viability: When Ted Stern asked about Caruso’s financial ability, Caruso replied that from a financial standpoint, he’s fine; he isn’t trying to use the old buildings that would cost a fortune to redo. “[Ian Schrager and Ty Warner] were looking to draw people from the outside,” Caruso said, “which we need to do also, but if I make it a local club and a local hangout, a place where people want to go for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and hang out with their family, we think that revenue will support the hotel. So, are we making a big investment in it? Yes. But fortunately, I’m a long-term holder. I’ve never sold anything I’ve built.”

Status of the Blue Roofs: Maxie Decker asked about the blue roofs that were added in the 1940s when the highway became the dominant feature of the site, to attract motorists. Caruso said he’d leave that decision up to the community but that “if you want blue roofs, we’ll make ‘em blue.”

Types of Restaurants: “What kind would you like?” Caruso asked as the audience broke into laughter. “We’re going to have a fine dining restaurant, a casual restaurant, and a beach bar where you can get a burger and a hot dog.”

The Railroad Car: It’s parked outside Bakersfield, and when Rick asked what people thought of the car, most shook their head in the negative. That will not return.

The Ocean Raft: “It was a challenge to swim out there and everybody did it. When it came down, there was a pall over the beach,” Caruso was told.

“Well, we’ve heard that. The raft is actually on the property if anybody would like it; it even comes with an anchor…” he said, smiling, before promising to bring back the raft. “When I was a kid,” he said, “we had the same thing. I’d actually like to put a slide up for the kids. We want to do a lot of beach stuff. Boogie boards, the raft. Hotels have become so stuffy, it’s become difficult to do anything at the beach.”

Keys to the Gate: In the past, there was a gate in the back where 35 homes that run along and onto the Miramar property. What will happen to that, some wondered, will key holders continue to have access?

“Absolutely,” Rick reassured. “That has to stay. Your key will still work, I promise you. And, if it doesn’t, call me.”

Parking: “We’re looking at hiding the garage [underground]; it’s expensive but it’s the right thing to do.”

Undergrounding Utility and Power Lines: Someone suggested Caruso pitch in and help the neighborhood underground everything, but Rick wouldn’t bite. “We underground everything when we go on to a site,” he said. “I can’t speak for the outlying neighborhoods, but undergrounding is the way to go if you can afford to do it.”

Sustainable Development: Caruso Affiliated is a LEED-certified company (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System). The Commons, one of Caruso’s projects, for example, uses pervious asphalt, which directs rain water back into the water table. “We can’t do everything under LEED but you can do a number of things,” Caruso said.

As the Meet & Greet drew to a close, outgoing MA president Bob Collector announced that if there were other questions for Mr. Caruso, people should call the Association at 805-969-2026 and they’d forward them to him or put them in touch with Caruso directly.