Perhaps, as they say, the third time really will be the charm and the community of Montecito is rooting for those short odds. Rumor has it that Los Angeles bling-mall developer, Rick Caruso, may become the third developer in less than 10 years to try to bring to life the dilapidated Miramar Hotel. Montage hears Caruso has offered to purchase the blue-roofed Montecito derelict from Ty Warner, who purchased it from Ian Schrager in 2005. While this rumor has not been confirmed by the Warner Group or the Caruso team, Montage has received five substantial confirmations from as far away as L.A. and as close as practically next door!
If true, it’s fortunate because Caruso knows how to bring glam to the down-trodden. He is best known for revitalizing LA’s aging Fairfax District into the basin’s premier outdoor shopping experience, The Grove. He has also developed other village-like malls, which he calls “lifestyle centers,” in Westlake Village (the Promenade) and Glendale (The Americana at Brand).
At 48, the USC alum (with a law degree from Pepperdine) is among the youngest powerbrokers in Los Angeles, ranked in the elite club of members included in the 2006 L.A. Times West 100, the one hundred most influential people in Los Angeles—a city of well over 10 million!
Born into influence and affluence, Caruso is the son of the founder of Dollar Rent-A-Car and he grew up in Beverly Hills. He became a developer at the age of 27, buying vacant land near LAX and leasing it to car rental agencies. Later he moved from parking lots to malls. His shopping centers are usually open-air affairs, with amenities such as polished brass topped garbage cans, ambient flowing fountains, and promenades featuring instantly matured landscapes.
While Caruso seems to prefer eye-catching design embellishments (and lots of them), he is no lightweight. He has taken on some fights in his development career and he rattled a few swords as the former head of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
He is known to be heavy player in Republican politics. He is a friend and major contributor of fellow Brentwood neighbor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he raised $1 million in one night for the Bush Reelection campaign by throwing an elite dinner party at his home. We are told that Caruso is “a down-to-earth family guy” who, along with his wife Tina and their children, are frequent visitors to Montecito, and well acquainted with its lifestyle and character.
“We are lucky that there is a buyer who visits Santa Barbara and understands the Santa Barbara dynamic, and that he is on a par with Ty Warner as far as quality,” said one local leader, who had met with Caruso last week.
Before tying the knot with Ty, we’re told Caruso and his team spent several days visiting Montecito to do some final due diligence and meet with locals. At the top of Caruso’s “concern” list was how much community opposition might crop up should the Miramar try to rise from the ashes. Caruso’s team spoke with community representatives from varying local-vocal protectionist groups, including the Montecito Association and the Voices of Montecito, along with several private parties to get insights on possible logjams.
From what Montage hears, rather than opposition, most of those contacted reacted with enthusiastic cooperation, practically offering to pick up shovels and start digging if Caruso would seal the deal! We are also told that part of the zeal is being generated by the fact that, except for some minor changes, Caruso may be willing to accept the existing permits and plans, granted, after numerous community hearings back in 1999, to then owner Ian Schrager.
Another reason for the enthusiasm is Caruso’s personal philosophy about community power. In a revealing and timely December op-ed pieced in the L.A. Times, Caruso wrote, “Competition among developers for usable land is fierce, which enables communities to be more demanding of developers. They cannot enter a community and presume to know what it wants and have a realistic hope of being received with open arms. Quality costs more, but every community will value a quality project….giving a community a sense of ownership is a very powerful concept.” That fresh development approach finally may be the key that opens the long locked doors at the vacant and forlorn Miramar Hotel.
UPDATED: Wednesday Noon
MONTECITO LOVE: After an hour and a half of unison “We Love Montecito” from every imaginable perspective, Montecito Planning Commissioners Bob Bierig, Michael Phillips, and commish-in-waiting, Sue Burrows (pictured) waltzed out of the political slew and on to the MPC dais, obtaining “delayed” but unanimous confirmation by the Board of Supervisors.
After waiting for several years for the tap, and then several weeks in some convoluted political maelstrom, Burrows sat in disbelief that her appointment had been truly been solidified. “Was that it?” she asked Montage. We told her that we had taken her picture, so indeed, that was it!
It was a long morning, long enough to lull anyone into disbelief — 18 speakers took to the podium and the hall was packed with pilgrims wanting to give an homage to Montecito. Each member of the Board of Supervisors ponied up accolades about the divinity of the tax-revenue rich community, while members of the Montecito Association sang the old school song and the Voices of Montecito muted their previous vociferous roar to a less audible mew.
In the final analysis, and in spite of some marginally entertaining rhetoric mud slinging, all of Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s appointments to MPC sailed through and discussion of the future jeopardy of the MPC seem to waft away in the wind.
The longest and strongest air punches of the day were thrown by Supervisor Joni Gray, who seemed driven by a need to understand Montecito’s encroachment permit process. She even asked that if she started a “Joni Gray Loves Brown Rocks Committee,” would it too be put on the Public Works’ Montecito roadside must-sign to approve list? (The rocky issue, Montage believes, lies in the fact that the Montecito Association has for many years been included on the County’s Road Encroachment form as a “courtesy” review entity. This fact stirs up Voices of Monecito, so Gray, no doubt, was looking to find a level lane on this pothole filled political artery.)
So, who attended this rock-kickin’ good fun? More than 40 Montecitans suited up for the early morning meeting: Sixty percent of the Montecito Association Board showed up; then there was the old guard (Wells, Kinsell, Eidelson, Hovey); and the new guard (HDF’s Jordan and Ishkanian [pictured above], along with SBCC Trustee Morris Jurkowitz); and of course, the Voices (Luria, Metzler, Snow, Sue Colin, (sans J.) and Luria-Budgor).
Everyone’s favorite Dish, Martha Smilgis was there, along with Kate Firestone (and my how Brook’s face light up when she enters the room — Montage just gets plain valentiney!). Kate was seated near retired MPC comish Meghreblian and Thielscher. Montage noticed, of course, that all of the current MPC commishes (around whom this controversy swirls) were MIA, as was the entire Montecito Board of Architectural Review. Former Santa Barbara County Planning Commissioner Parker Montgomery was there with his wife, and, while previously vocal about eliminating the MPC, on Tuesday he was mum on the issue.
There was one new face in the crowd, and, of course, Montage just had to know, so we sallied up and introduced ourselves to Matt Middlebrook, who turned out to be the vice president of government relations for the Caruso Group (see the Miramar story above). Matt had come to the meeting to rubberneck at S.B. County politics in action, and he certainly got a good initial bounce from the Montecito’s Who’s Who.
So, with a morning of many mutual missions mastered, Matt and Montage watched Montecito mosey away, meeting and greeting each other as if they were departing a sunny Sunday social — and closing yet another exciting chapter on “As the MPC Turns.”
MONTECITO MEANDERINGS: Montecito is revving up for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Not wanting to be in the wrong queue for the wrong event (how embarrassing would that be?), nearly 100 movers and shakers showed up Monday at the Biltmore to get “The Native’s Primer” from SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling. Among the scene stealers were SBIFF Prexy Jeff Barbakow and wife Margo, along with Oprah’s pals Penny Bianchi, Jelinda Devorzon, and Marlene Veloz. (No Oprah though?)
There was a bevy of beautiful blondes, who could cut into any line with ease, including SBIFF boardmembers Linda Hatch, Betsy Moller, Serena Carroll, and Nora McNeely Hurley, the member who, we’re told, created the luncheon’s fun floral centerpieces from real film reels. Some of the smoldering brunettes paying rapt attention to the Film Festival Cliff Notes were Phyllis De Picciotto, who founded SBIFF 21 years ago, seated near Doralle Jacobson, Judy Engenolf, and Lorraine Wilson.
But blondes and brunettes beware, because when it comes to the entertainment business of hair there is really no competition — Roger Durling walks away with the award year after year. For 2007, he’s sporting Tuscan Sunset undercolor, splashed with sunflower seed noir — a combination that puts him heads above any competition.
MONTAGE SBIFF TIP: If you want to be in the right place at the SBIFF, just treck after any of the above mentioned stars, but, please Montage Readers, try not to look like your stalking!
ACT QUICK: Last week Montage let you know that Thomas L. Friedman, one of the world’s most highly respected commentators on international affairs, was coming to town.
Now we can confirm that he will speak at Westmont’s second annual President’s Breakfast, on Wednesday, February 28. He will discuss “The World is Flat: Speaking on the Next Phase of Globalization,” at 7 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort.
Tickets are $75 and can be purchased starting, Friday, Jan. 26, at 8 a.m. by calling 565-6895. Seating is extremely limited and the breakfast is expected to sell out quickly. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times and a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Vanity Fair has called him “the country’s best newspaper columnist.” His latest book is the international bestseller The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, which has been on the Times best-seller list for more than 90 weeks.