Montecitans concerned about the future of the now defunct Miramar Hotel met on Monday, May 5, to offer commentary about the project being proposed by developer Caruso Affiliated. The company’s owner, Rick Caruso, has been courting neighbors of the Miramar property – which is currently in a state of disrepair bemoaned by many area residents – for the past two years with much success. But as the time comes for final decisions to be made regarding the development, divisions within the community are strong. While most people are in favor of some kind of development there, a fairly strong contingent contends that the scale of Caruso’s plans is too large and would compromise Montecito’s semi-rural character, as well as putting a strain on an already limited water supply. Others were concerned that postponing the project further would cause the developer to lose interest due to economic pressure.
From the start, Caruso Affiliated has seemed eager to please the Montecito community. Rick Caruso has held numerous meetings with community members and organizations, and even had a film made about the property to illustrate their vision of its potential. Caruso purchased the property from Ty Warner in 2006, after the famous toy maker and hotelier found the requirements of the Montecito Planning Commission to be more than he was willing to deal with. After a recent victory in courts against Glendale shopping mall owners who were opposed to a large mixed-use development he built there, Caruso appears to be a tough customer who’s capable of making his investments pay off.
No decisions were to be made at this meeting, however, as it was a somewhat informal airing of concerns prior to the actual hearing before the Montecito Planning Commission occurs on June 10. Due to the number of concerned community members that showed up, the meeting had to be moved from the public library to the church next door, where most seats were filled.
Many residents, calling Caruso a “class act,” said that of all the developers who have been interested in rebuilding the Miramar Hotel, Caruso is the best qualified. “I have three major concerns: delay, delay, delay,” said Bob Hazard, one of the neighbors of the property. Greg Huglin, who also lives adjacent to the property, was critical of those opposed to the project. “The majority of us full-time residents want this to happen,” he said.
For all of the comments urging the Planning Commission to move forward with the project, more were offered in favor of carefully reviewing and adjusting it before granting approval. Even the “let’s-get-it-right-the-first-time” camp wants to see the property developed, but comments by several heavy hitters – including Heal the Ocean ‘s executive director Hillary Hauser – cautioned against making hasty decisions. Tom Bollay, a former City of Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commissioner, showed scale drawings of the proposed new Miramar Hotel, and of the Biltmore, illustrating that the proposed design is nearly three times the size of the Biltmore. “The goal here is that this has to be compatible with neighboring facilities,” he said. “I’m hoping that the [Planning] Commission can look at size and bulk and comment on that.” Susan Petrovich, an area resident and well-known land use attorney, stated that the environmental impacts of the project have not been addressed adequately. “There’s never been an EIR (Environmental Impact Report), and that’s very serious,” she said. “I’ve been a longtime supporter of getting the Miramar back in business, but as itself, not as some mega project that mars Montecito’s south gateway.”
Aside from the size of the new buildings, much concern was voiced over water resources. Matt Middlebrook, Caruso’s vice president for government relations, said that they plan to get their water from the aquifer under the property, relying upon a monitoring system to alert the facilities manager if they are drawing too much. If such an event were to occur, he said that they would buy the water they need from the Montecito Water District. However, in the wake of a recent water conservation ordinance passed by the district – in which it was noted that per capita water consumption in Montecito has increased significantly – many residents thought that the new hotel would have too large an impact on the community’s water supply.
Other concerns addressed were related to traffic impacts, noise, and the presence of another 100 or so people – staff from the hotel – who would be living and working in the community. “Like almost everyone in this room, I want this project to go forward,” said Peter Melnick, who lives near the Miramar, “but I don’t think that there’s been adequate preparation for [the traffic] impact. If it’s not adequately planned for, the results will be catastrophic.”
Several people who live on the north side of Highway 101 commented on the potential noise impacts caused by traffic noise reflecting off of a large building near the freeway. Amidst audible protests from audience members, Middlebrook assured community members that a complete assessment of noise impacts has been made, and that no significant impacts were found. He also asserted that because a project was approved for the property in the late 1990s – a renovation proposal by Ian Schrager that was never realized – an EIR will not be required now. “All of the issues that were raised are adequately addressed in the analysis we’ve done and the documents that exist,” he said.