While it appeared going into Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that developer Rick Caruso had the votes to get his Miramar Hotel project approved-which at the end of the day he did-the question being asked now is what the project will encounter next.
Caruso currently has a hotel project with an estimated $300 million price tag ready to be built. But will he be able to build it in one of the worst economic recessions in this country’s history? He says yes. “I’m confident we’re going to be able to build the project,” Caruso said Monday, reemphasizing a point he made after the Montecito Planning Commission okayed his project in October, when he said that bankers still supported his project even given the downturn in the economy. “Everything on all fronts is going forward.” While the economy “has certainly affected the consumer,” Caruso said, “overall our properties are performing well.” And it appears so, at least at the newly opened shopping center Americana in Glendale, which is exceeding projections in sales tax returns and property valuation. The 900,000-square-foot retail mixed-use center is also lowering nearby retail vacancy rates.
So Caruso is proceeding with the Miramar, which means back to the drawing board with building designs and eventually heading back to county review boards with those ideas. If all goes according to plan, Caruso hopes to begin construction in late 2009. But his plans don’t include a lawsuit.
The two parties threatening such an action are those that appealed the Planning Commission’s approval: Citizens Planning Association and Stan and Jean Harfenist. Prior to the meeting, most watching the situation presumed the matter would end up in court. Either group has up to 30 days after the project’s record of decision is filed to decide whether or not to sue. The matter could also go in front of the California Coastal Commission sometime next year if the decision is appealed to that board.
Meanwhile, Caruso has a project on a site that hasn’t seen a working hotel in 8 years. If built, his five-star resort will have 192 rooms and three restaurants, in addition to two public pathways to the beach. He’s so far made several concessions over the 23 months that he’s owned the site at 1555 South Jameson Lane in Montecito: Caruso reduced the height of the ballroom by 11 feet and the main building by 7.5 feet, eliminated the tennis court lights, reduced the number of rooms from 209, and took out a spa’s second story.
His work made an impact on the four supervisors who denied the appeals, and-with the project expected to generate the county $4.3 million in annual tax revenue-the supes no doubt had dollar signs in their eyes as Caruso led them through a video presentation on Tuesday.
The appellants raised several issues, including potential water supply, noise, and flooding impacts. With 46,100 cubic yards of fill being used to level the property, adjacent neighbors are concerned the raised floodplain will force water from nearby Oak Creek onto their properties during heavy rains. These and other differences between Caruso’s project and a project former owner Ian Schrager got approved in 2000 were large enough that it warranted full environmental review, they argued. CPA attorney Marco Gonzalez alleged “critical failures” in the environmental process. Appellants’ attorneys also suggested county staff had hurried the project through the planning system.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf heard the appellants’ cries, explaining prior to her no vote, “I want to make sure that, as a county, when we do something, we do something right,” she said. To skip a full environmental impact report, she said, was “not the way our county works.” But she was in the minority, as the rest of the supervisors were not only satisfied with the applicants’ work but also content with the staff’s handling of the case.