As the reigning king of mega-mall development in Los Angeles, Rick Caruso is no stranger to adversity.
It took him eight years, a multimillion-dollar legal battle and a public vote to finish the just-opened $400-million Americana at Brand retail center in Glendale.
So Caruso's latest project, renovating the dilapidated Miramar Hotel near Santa Barbara, should be a walk in the park by comparison, right?
Wrong, says a corps of organized opponents. They see Caruso's $200-million plan to rebuild the century-old resort from the ground up as a threat to local water quality and an unacceptable departure from the rustic cottage-style bungalows that generations of families have enjoyed.
As the southern entry to Santa Barbara, the 14-acre beachfront location in Montecito has great historic and sentimental value to the community. Any development there must be scrutinized carefully, and that hasn't happened, said Marco Gonzalez, a lawyer representing one Santa Barbara group opposed to the Caruso plan.
Questions about the size of the 202-room project, about parking and noise, and about storm-water runoff into a nearby creek have not been adequately addressed, Gonzalez and other opponents say. They also accuse the county of fast-tracking the approval process to please Caruso.
"We don't think an L.A. developer who tries to ram a project through the staff, as this one has, shows enough respect for the community's sentiment for this property," Gonzalez said.
Before it closed eight years ago, the Miramar Hotel was an affordable beachfront destination for families from across Southern California. Over the years, cottages and other buildings were added.
Two other owners have tried to restore the hotel. Designer Ian Schrager got through the approval process but abandoned the project after tearing down some of the buildings.
Its next owner, Santa Barbara hotelier Ty Warner, ran into trouble with Montecito residents with his plans for the site.
Caruso bought the property in January 2007.
With a crucial hearing before the Montecito Planning Commission scheduled for Wednesday, Caruso is employing his charm, hands-on schmoozing and zest for challenge to see that his first resort project gets off the ground.
He's meeting with residents in their homes. He's attending homeowners association gatherings. Got a question about the parking, layout or landscaping? No problem, Caruso tells residents. Call him on his cell.
"He's like a good politician who goes out and walks the neighborhoods and kisses the babies," said Montecito filmmaker Steve Traxler. "He knows what to do, and he does it the right way."
Many Montecito residents seem impressed. In dozens of meetings, they say, Caruso listened to their concerns and made changes. He agreed to put most of the hotel's 551 parking spaces underground to create a more beautiful facility, said Ted Tedesco, chairman of the land-use committee for the influential Montecito Assn., one of several neighborhood groups in the moneyed community.
He also replaced a planned sound wall adjacent to Highway 101 with heavier landscaping, set aside 68 parking spaces for the public and donated land for easements that will allow beachgoers to walk through the property.
Caruso agreed to make a beachfront cafe, boardwalk and showers available to the public as well as hotel guests, satisfying nearby homeowners who feared they would lose amenities they had long enjoyed under the Miramar's previous owners.
Those changes helped Caruso win support from the Montecito Assn. and other homeowner groups.
"We were skeptical at first," said Traxler, president of the Montecito Seaside Assn., which represents the beach-area homes closest to the hotel. "But they have reached out not to just the neighbors but to the entire Montecito community."
But Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, a big gun in Santa Barbara's environmental lobby, said leveling depressions in the property with fill dirt could increase storm-water runoff into nearby Oak Creek.
Oak Creek drains into the ocean, taking polluted storm water with it, said Hauser, who wants more environmental studies.
Others accuse Caruso and the county planning department of rushing the project through the approval phase. They point to the recent resignation of the county's top planner on the project, Michelle Gibbs. In her resignation letter, Gibbs alleged that superiors in her department were pressuring her to speed up the process.
Gonzalez, the lawyer, said he has numerous internal e-mails and memos among Santa Barbara County planning staff, elected officials and Caruso staff that indicate the project was improperly fast-tracked.
The goal was to get the project before the Planning Commission on Caruso's timeline, Gonzalez alleged.
The developer was able to give short shrift to issues of concern, even after planning staff asked for more information, the attorney said.
"Essentially, [the paper trail] shows that Caruso got some special treatment here," Gonzalez said.
Dave Ward, the county's deputy planning director, said he could not comment on the allegation that Caruso received special treatment or respond to Gibbs' resignation letter. The planning staff is recommending that the Planning Commission approve the project, with some modifications.
Caruso, developer of the hugely popular Grove next to Farmers Market in Los Angeles, disputes any contention that he leaned on county staff or local politicians.
"It's just not our style," he said. "It's not our way to do business. If we did it that way, we would not be welcomed and beloved by so many communities."
Caruso said that if the commission does not approve the plan, he will appeal to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. "We're into it to the end," he said.