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Vacant Lot Full of Fight in Del Mar : Voters Again Argue Proposal for Hotel

February 07, 1988|ANTHONY PERRY | Times Staff Writer

It's political rerun season in Del Mar, but civic passions in San Diego County's smallest and most politicized city are at their usual fever pitch.

For the second time in five months, residents of Del Mar are being asked to approve a view-blocking hotel for their tiny downtown in exchange for a public library.

On Tuesday, voters will decide the fate of a slightly scaled down version of a hotel plan that was defeated last September by 15 votes.

The hotel is to be built on a vacant lot at the northwestern corner of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar.

Now covered mostly with weeds and wild grass, the 5.2-acre lot was the site of the venerable Hotel Del Mar for 60 years. It's been vacant since 1969, when the old hotel was razed as an eyesore and money-loser.

The electoral rematch, which has pitted a nostalgia-business camp against a hard-core, slow-growth environmental movement, has brought this upscale seaside community perilously close to a political meltdown.

By one count, the hotel issue has undergone 70 hours of public hearings in the past two years.

A three-hour City Council meeting last week--broadcast live over the city's cable television Channel 37--was hot even by Del Mar standards, with antagonists bitterly debating the already bitterly debated hotel issue.

"The opponents have strong arguments, but that's easy to do when you don't have to use the truth," said Councilman Scott Barnett, who along with Mayor Ronnie Delaney is leading the pro-hotel fight.

"We've gotten to government by theater, very dramatic and full of bathos," said Councilwoman Brooke Eisenberg, who along with Councilman John Gillies opposes the hotel.

Eisenberg and Gillies insist that a smaller, less bulky hotel would block less of the ocean view and still be financially viable, an assertion the developer denounced as an "11th-hour political hoax."

Former Mayor Dick Roe, who is sympathetic to the anti-hotel "greens" but has not taken sides in the campaign, says he has not seen the council or city so polarized in a decade.

"The hotel has divided the community down the middle, and there is no compromise on either side," Roe said. "Remember Kadafi and his Line of Death? Step across it and you die. That's what the current council is like.

"Scott and Ronnie are one side," he said. "Brooke and John are on the other."

The current proposal calls for the 123-unit Chateau Del Mar, complete with 12 time-share condominiums, a 13,000 square-foot park and 4,700 square feet of retail shops. A meeting room will be open to the public at least 12 times a year.

On the Sept. 22 ballot, a similar project was called an inn and listed as 125 units, 24 time-share condominiums, a 10,000 square-foot park and plaza, and 7,700 square feet of retail shops. A meeting room was to be open at least six times a year.

In September, developer-landowner-hotelier Jim Watkins, a 22-year resident of Del Mar, offered to pay up to $2 million for a library and other public facilities. Now that the hotel size has been trimmed, Watkins is offering more like $1 million and that will be used to build a library.

Pro-hotel forces say the reduced size of the hotel--plus a predicted $300,000 a year in hotel taxes for the cash-poor city--make the proposal a good buy. They warn that if the hotel plan fails, the site will be used for condominiums and a shopping mall, which will bring more traffic and less revenue to the city.

Chamber of Commerce leader Jim Coleman, in announcing chamber support for the current plan, sounded a familiar theme: The new hotel will restore Del Mar to the graceful days of dining and sipping that were once part of the leisurely life style of the Hotel Del Mar.

"The (reduced) size combined with the Old World style and ambiance should actually enhance the village atmosphere," Coleman said.

Opponents are even more adamant--if that's possible--than last time.

They accuse the pro side of lying about the size of the project and employing scare tactics about what will happen if voters reject the hotel. They note that during the last election Watkins said the site might be used for a raucous Diego's-style disco if the hotel were killed.

"This project is still no good for Del Mar," Eisenberg said. "I'm against rezoning residential for commercial. The traffic involved will overwhelm us. With the plaza already going in across the street, that corner will become a metropolis that is not the right size or scale for Del Mar."

As in the fall campaign, San Diego is again being used as a swear word.

Last time, the opponents' rallying cry was "Halt the La Jollaization of Del Mar."

This time, proponents have stolen the phrase themselves, saying there could be a more San Diegoesque development advanced if the hotel is not passed.

"The public should not be bamboozled by the developer constantly referring to his Seaport Village-La Jolla alternative if the hotel is defeated," Eisenberg said.

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