Always Doggest Before the Dawn

GILDING THE LILLY: It’s true I haven’t played baseball in a long time, but I still know a bean ball when I see one. And that’s exactly what Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner is throwing these days. But that’s to be expected, I suppose. I am referring to Warner’s latest and greatest public tantrum in which he threatened to sell Montecito’s abandoned and dilapidated Miramar Hotel rather than renovate it, as he recently promised. That’s because — we are told — Warner has become fed up with the incessant and sniping demands of the jackals and Lilliputians sitting on the Montecito Planning Commission and the Montecito Association. These self-important, self-inflated petty tyrants have the gall to express opinions contrary to Warner’s about his plans for the Coral Casino and the Biltmore Hotel — which he also owns. In a word, they are out to get him. As a result, Warner announced he is selling off the Miramar, the once beloved dowdy dowager of waterfront hotels. Naturally, we hear none of this from Warner himself.

Instead we hear it all from Warner’s right-hand man, Greg Rice, and that’s just the problem. Although Rice clearly deserves an Oscar for delivering so masterful a performance, much of Warner’s difficulties derive from his peculiar style of communicating. Which is to say, he doesn’t personally communicate at all. While Warner will on occasion mingle anonymously with the little people, it’s clearly beneath him to engage in any kind of verbal give-and-take. To do so, presumably, would imply some remote aspect of equality, and this would not mesh with his carefully cultivated kooky-but-brilliant-billionaire mystique. In most places, such an attitude would cause friction; but in Montecito this is especially true, as its occupants suffer no appreciable shortage of self-esteem.

Ty’s whole Miramar gig has been an act from the start. When he first bought it, Warner was trying to secure final approval to renovate the Coral Casino and he was facing some stiff opposition. He bought the Miramar in part to win friends among the Montecitans, many of whom felt angry and betrayed regarding the broken promises made by developer Ian Schrager — of Studio 54’s disco-decadence fame — to refurbish the blue-roofed hotel. Schrager and his jet-setting rock-star architect Philippe Starck had charmed the pants off Montecito to win support for his plans.

When those plans never got built — and when Schrager stopped returning Montecitan phone calls — the High Hedge Set reciprocated with the injured fury common to jilted lovers. Warner bought the Miramar just as he was battling a small but dedicated band of architectural-historian types who were — and remain — convinced he would desecrate their temple. Announcement of his purchase brought the desired results. There may not have been dancing in the streets, but Montecito’s Red Hat Club assembled en masse on the Miramar beach and with their bodies spelled out a big “Thank You,” which was captured from on high in a now famous photograph that’s since been reprinted in all the local papers. For that brief moment, few people in Montecito would have cared if Warner put a McDonald’s in the Coral Casino, and his project sailed through the county Board of Supervisors.

In recent months, however, Warner’s overweening aesthetic megalomania has collided with the Montecito taste police about the design of the beach-access stairways Warner has proposed for the beach across the street from the Biltmore, which he owns. The existing stairs need to be replaced, and Warner’s architects proposed a design consistent with the hotel.

Some people on the Montecito Planning Commission objected that this gives the impression the stairs and the beach are each extensions of the Biltmore. The beach belongs to the public, they said, and it shouldn’t look as if it’s privately owned. They wanted Warner to change the design. Maybe they could have said it nicer, but Ty doesn’t like being told what to do. He did what any self-respecting billionaire who doesn’t like being bossed around would do. He declared war. He sent out letters to members of the Coral Casino, who have been trained through the years to salivate at his command. He sent out letters to members of the Montecito Country Club — which he also owns — who are now being trained to salivate at his command. And he sent out letters to the media, who don’t need to be trained because they salivate at anything. The obvious plan is to drown the Montecito Planning Commission and the Montecito Association — which are charged with maintaining some pretense of architectural order — in the ensuing spit.

The Montecito Association made an odd target. Despite the rhetorical excess of a few isolated members, the association itself took no official action on the controversial steps, much to the harrumphing displeasure of some commissioners who wondered whether the association was taking a dive or was merely asleep at the switch. Association big cheese Bob Collector took Warner’s bait hook, line, and sinker, and spammed everyone in Montecito with a broadside inflammatory enough to win their sympathy. But it’s really the Montecito Planning Commission that’s under fire. The new board is only three years old and is vested by the county supervisors with some genuine land-use planning power and authority. As such, it’s well worth the agony developers, like Ty Warner, face to build in Montecito.

The fact is, Warner will be back with new plans for the Miramar. Maybe they’ll be timeshare condos, as has been rumored. Certainly, the approved plans make no financial sense. Because of this, Warner can’t and won’t sell the hotel. Who in their right mind would buy if Warner with all his loot couldn’t make it work? And if he couldn’t hang with Montecito’s stringent environmental review process, who else could? Warner will be back with his new plans, but they’ll have to be approved by the Planning Commission. But by then, he’s hoping his gambit plays off — that everyone will be so mad at the Planning Commission that the commissars will tuck their legs between their tails and slink impotently off. Nice try, Ty, but you forgot one thing. Baseball season is still months away.

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