Oh, how we wanted to love ya. At least some of us. A benevolent local entrepreneur who would revive some of our aging, decaying properties, and breathe new life into town.
Even when you demonstrated an alarming, outsized appetite to acquire every trophy property in town and entire blocks of buildings, we used cognitive dissonance to tell ourselves you weren’t converting our sleepy little town into a glitzy “Mo-town.” So, we took a wait and see. And boy have we waited. And my god what we’ve seen. Some of which isn’t suitable for children!
Nobody could figure out what was going on in that head of yours to take on so many development projects simultaneously, particularly seasoned real estate developers. After all, this was a far cry from where you made your gazillions – retail cell phone stores. Not to diminish your astounding success, but that’s a formula-driven commodity business that involves scaling up identical stores in a can’t-miss category that was blowing up. Still, kudos to a young immigrant who came here for college, saw an opportunity, and pounced.
But buying storied hotels, vacation rentals, event and retail centers, restaurants, apartments, and raw land in a town that fanatically protects its historic core – thinking you could remake an entire village – was just flat-out hubris. In an article in Architects Orange back in 2019, you proclaimed to be investing $1 billion in redevelopment projects in Laguna: $250 million in Hotel Laguna (including town homes, shops, and hotel additions), $500 million in something ambiguously called the Arts District (where you had already gobbled up 7 Degrees, the Festival Marketplace and Tivoli), and another $100 million on the Holiday Inn and the 600 foot long “cruise ship” in North Laguna known as the Museum Hotel. I guess you thought investors would be banging down your door to partner. Instead, they’ve been banging it down asking, “Where’s our money, Lebowski?”
You started off slow, and somewhat successfully. You reimagined the Festival Center as The Hive, put some lipstick on that pig, and attracted some quality tenants. But that was a gimme – the previous landlord was so stubborn he left most of the center vacant because potential tenants refused to pay his then outrageous price of $6 a square foot. So, you tarted it up, were gifted pandemic outdoor seating for your restaurant tenants, and it looked as if you had the fairy dust.
Then came the admirable restoration of Tivoli Terrace in the Festival of Arts to Terra, highlighting the amazing 1957 mid-century parabolic roof of Don Williamson. But then we find out you did unpermitted construction, stiffed your contractors, and owed your landlord $369,000. Rut Row, Mo.
Next up, you gave the community a peek at how you would redevelop the Holiday Inn, which admittedly could use a makeover. But there it was: a gleaming, glittery hotel that looked more Miami than Laguna, complete with variances that would obliterate the views of tenants behind it. You were sent packing once more, and we began to grow weary, not only of your plans, but also of your taste.
But the piece de resistance of tone-deafness was the Museum Hotel, a 600-foot-long monolith fronting Coast Highway – with no ocean view, stretching from Cliff Drive to Jasmine Street. Something so gargantuan and out of scale with the neighborhood, it begged the question of whether you were living in an alternate reality.
Which leads us to the debacle known as Hotel Laguna, the one you stated was your “gift to Laguna.” But it’s the gift that keeps on giving us migraines! The city allowed you to first renovate the ground floor without providing a plan for the entire hotel so you could get the public areas open for the “community’s benefit.” Which meant the city would forego its coveted TOT taxes on overnight room revenue for an untold period of time. And what did you give us in return? Red tag after red tag over unpermitted work, which delayed the opening way beyond what was reasonable, and created a giant headache for the very city officials who were trying to help you. And when it finally opened, meh. Way too loud, with no soft edges – and overpriced. A gift only unsuspecting tourists would savor.
Throughout this time, we had to endure the nasty public conflicts with your creditors, not once, not twice, but three times, including your ex-wife, who claimed you were hiding assets and spending her settlement illegally.
But this latest episode is by far the most unsavory – and surreal. Early on you claimed to be getting financing from banks. But judging from the recent scuffles and wrestling matches in the lobby of the hotel between you and your partners, I doubt you are working with Goldman Sachs. In fact, we got a good look at who now appears to control your properties (after they lent you $154 million) and, though I’m not religious, God help us all!
In the weeks and months and most likely years to come, you and your various adversaries will be squaring off in court over who is the rightful owner of these exquisite properties that we all share a proprietary interest in. And all progress in completing them will come to grinding halt. It doesn’t matter who prevails, because ultimately, Laguna is the real loser.
There’s only one good option now. A delegation, led by Mayor Bob Whalen, must meet with the property owners (the Merritt family), and besiege them to nullify the lease over breach of contract. There’s got to be dozens of causes. Then reissue the lease to the trio who deserves it most, the dream team of locals Greg MacGillivray, Joe Hanauer and Walkie Ray. They had the perfect plan to preserve and enhance this legacy project with grace and vision, and were tee’d up for years until Mo swept in at the 11th hour with a wildly overbaked offer. One we now know – and his investors are about to find out – is ridiculously unfeasible. It would be the real “gift to Laguna.” Sadly, I doubt the dream team would touch this thing now that it’s so radioactive. They’re not getting any younger. And neither is our precious Hotel Laguna.
Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected].
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