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Hotel Debate Fills a Decade of Deja Vu

June 09, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

The only equal distribution of benefits to the community from this investment should be future tax relief. This property must be returned to the tax rolls.

--November, 1972, ballot argument in favor of a proposal to build a 22-story hotel at the former site of the Biltmore hotel. Construction of this hotel will be a major step toward alleviating some of the economic burden carried by our residents.

--May, 1985, statement by Councilman Gary Brutsch in favor of a proposal to build a four-story hotel at the Biltmore site. Council members have come and gone; development proposals have been altered, amended, rewritten and scaled down; committees and subcommittees have held public hearings, commissioned studies and made countless recommendations, and residents have cast ballots three times on proposed hotel projects.

Yet after more than a decade of debate and indecision over what to do with the city-owned former site of the Biltmore hotel, some of the basic issues that first divided residents in the early 1970s remain essentially the same as the city's fourth binding election on a hotel development approaches.

Voters go to the polls Tuesday for a special election on a proposed 250-room hotel and park for the one-acre Biltmore site and several adjoining properties on the Strand between 13th and 15th streets. The $31-million proposed development, smaller and less obtrusive than one narrowly rejected by voters six months ago, could be under construction as early as this fall if voters approve it.

As in elections and battles past, proponents of the project have talked finances and stressed the "bottom line": The Hermosa city government is nearly broke, and tax revenue from new commercial development and a revitalized downtown offer the only hope for solvency in years to come. Variations of the argument have been presented since the hotel was torn down in 1969, leaving the site vacant.

'Fearful of Change'

Besides, the proponents say in a new twist on an old debate, after years of haggling over proposed developments, this hotel development is the right one, both in terms of design and financial promise.

"We are sinfully fearful of change," said Edie Webber, a former councilwoman and a supporter of the hotel, reflecting on years of public opposition to Biltmore-site developments. "Change in this case will lead us to a better life."

Opponents have stressed familiar themes, too, albeit with varying intensity. Opponents do not dispute that the city is in the midst of a financial crisis, but they object to the terms of the proposed financial arrangement with the developer. They argue that the city could strike a more lucrative deal with someone else.

"The alternative is not a sandbox," said former Councilman George Schmeltzer, a member of the Hotel Referendum Committee, which opposes the project. "There is no competition for the use of that site. They (city officials) have been in the bedroom with the developer for 2 1/2 years."

Points of Criticism

Many of those against the new proposal, however, oppose any hotel at the Biltmore site, saying projected increases in traffic on residential streets, higher zoning densities and worsening parking problems would prove intolerable.

Some of these opponents have been active for years in the struggle to keep a hotel off the site, a task that began shortly after the swing of a 3,000-pound iron ball tumbled the old hotel in 1969. They argue that the city could come up with a development more compatible with Hermosa's residential character, one that would earn the city money but would preserve the town's quaint beachfront atmosphere.

"It happens to be my town, and no one is going to buy it from me," said Sheila Donahue Miller, an attorney who has been active in fighting proposed hotel developments at the site. "We have an ambiance of life and no one is going to take it away from us."

The special election Tuesday, the third in 1 1/2 years, has sparked considerable interest in the small oceanside community, with campaign posters dotting windows and rooftops, a public debate airing several times on the city's cable television station and one City Council watchdog launching a recall against the entire council because of its support last fall and this spring for successive hotel proposals.

Issue in Courts

The election also has been entangled in legal uncertainty ever since the Hotel Referendum Committee, a group of residents opposed to the hotel, took the city and the Los Angeles development firm of Greenwood & Langlois to court last month in an effort to cancel it. Although the group convinced a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that the vote is illegal because it comes too soon after the December referendum, the election will go on as scheduled pending an appeal by the developers. The entire exercise may be nullified by a state appellate court in the weeks ahead if it sides with the lower court.

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