Santa Barbara’s collective intelligence plunged by about 500 IQ points this past Friday. The town got suddenly quieter, and infinitely duller. Antonio Romasanta — known to friends, foes, and everyone around City Hall as just “Tony” — died of a massive heart attack at age 84. I had known Tony more than 30 years. We’d started off antagonists — I was a newspaper reporter looking for ankles to kick, and Tony, being one of the biggest landlords and developers in town, was all ankle. Over the years, Tony and I would come to enjoy each other. I was somehow shocked by his death. He’d recently beat cancer and all its collateral battles and was back on the job, running his real-estate empire six days a week. Tony figured he’d make it to 120. His doctor estimated 106. Me, I figured Tony would live forever. He was that tough.
The timing of Tony’s departure was sublimely perverse; his five kids might call it cruel. For many of the past 15 years, Tony had been pitching a fit over the festering black hole — the massive construction interruptus project otherwise known as Entrada de Santa Barbara — city officials allowed to swallow the lowest three blocks of State Street. Tony, not coincidentally, owns the Harbor View Inn at State and Cabrillo, where rooms go for about $400 a night. But Tony did not merely complain. He waged operatic war against the developer who first got the project approved — Bill Levy — exposing details of a fatally flawed business deal so mired in debt that no one could ever afford to build it, not even if Ritz-Carlton managed the thing, as was the promise. Tony knew. City Hall should have known.
In the end, Levy — with whom Tony had once been close friends — was allowed to evict all the tenants, shut down their businesses, tear up the street, declare bankruptcy, and then walk away. Everyone understood Levy’s finances were shaky — though not so shaky he couldn’t pay himself $60,000 a month in management fees. When some bank from North Carolina eventually foreclosed on Levy, famous for his French cuffs, the black hole festered even longer. Tony went ballistic. He demanded City Hall pull the plug on what he called “Entrada de Mirage” and start completely over. Several years later — in 2011 — a shrewd, high-octane Los Angeles developer named Michael Rosenfeld bought the “project” from the bank for $7 million and has since filled the hole with $200 million. Rosenfeld, who conspicuously does not wear French cuffs, is about to open the doors to his sprawling 92-room, brand-new hotel, which he’s redubbed the Hotel Californian. Conspicuous by his absence at the grand opening will be Tony.
Unlike so many of the land flippers who come and go, Tony was a genuine Santa Barbara native. Which is to say, he was born somewhere else — in his case, Brooklyn — and moved here in time to attend Santa Barbara Junior High, Santa Barbara High School, and UCSB. Both his parents were immigrants. Tony’s father — who had a 5th grade education — came from Spain; his mother — who could neither read nor write — came from Italy. Tony’s father worked for the Forest Service. As a kid, Tony pushed brooms, washed cars, mowed lawns, pumped gas. He was off-the-charts smart and endowed with a photographic memory. He graduated second out of 211 in his law school, specializing in tax law, presumably because that’s where the money was.
In early 1960s, Tony hooked up with J. Goux, Santa Barbara’s preeminent legal lion at the time. He also hooked up with Don Harcourt of the publishing family — who was then managing his mother’s $10 million estate. Along with Marvin Trevillian, they formed Islay Investments, still one the biggest rental housing operations in the south coast. Court records indicate Islay is worth more than $100 million. I’d say that’s low.
Back in the 1970s, Islay had 1,400 rental units. Long before “affordable by design” became a planning buzzword, Islay was building smaller units, marketing them to working stiffs, and not charging too much. As a reporter, I never heard complaints about rent gouging or substandard conditions. But Islay was in constant trouble for illegally withholding its tenants’ security deposits. After Islay lost a big class-action lawsuit, Tony responded by getting a bill introduced in Sacramento that would have, among other things, been audaciously retroactive, meaning his legal defeat would have been nullified. I was outraged and impressed. That’s how we met.
Tony didn’t hide behind attorneys or publicists; he didn’t duck. You had a question; he had an answer. We disagreed a lot, but we enjoyed the debate. On efforts to pave Mission Creek, Tony thought I was a naïvely knee-jerk tree hugger out to save things that never existed. I remember him driving me up and down the creek and showing me where the rushing waters would jump the bank if my stupid ideas were allowed to prevail. He didn’t change my mind, but I enjoyed the hell out of the ride.
Tony was ruthlessly perceptive; his stories tended to be savagely hilarious. Conversation with Tony was warp-speed time travel. Seat belts were not optional. A lot of what he said, I couldn’t print. Some of it was too profane; a lot was just too true. Tony could be a mean son of a bitch. He was also a lucky son of a bitch and well understood this. He worked his ass off, he enjoyed the fight, and he enjoyed the dance. Santa Barbara will be a duller place without him.