Warning Signs Unheeded for Too Long
“It can’t really be that bad,” we say to ourselves. Our human nature seems to be inherently optimistic. How many articles did Woodward and Bernstein write about the revelations related to Watergate before the Congress and the American public was finally convinced there was “a cancer on the presidency”?
Optimistic, naïve Laguna, “Maybe Mohammad Honarkar really has the interest of Laguna Beach at heart.” “Maybe with all his money he can rejuvenate our town and bring about a renewal, reinventing the town in an imaginative, and still compatible way.”
Honarkar acquired a large portfolio of properties in town including the Hotel Laguna and hired a “dream team” of prominent and knowledgeable Laguna business and politically-involved people—Karyn Phillippsen, hotel consultant and board member of Visit Laguna Beach; Mark Orgill, businessman and former owner of 7 Degrees; and Paul Freeman, planning consultant and former Laguna Beach mayor. With their advice and leadership what could go wrong?
Apparently mostly everything! Honarkar strayed away from the sound planning concepts the team had recommended and took his own direction—that included proceeding without public reviews and permits. When the rumors circulated that the team had disbanded alarms started to go off, however faintly.
Last June the city reacted to complaints of unpermitted construction taking place at the Hotel Laguna by issuing a stop work order. By August 2020, two more stop work orders had been issued and Marc Wiener, director of community development, wrote a list of items to “address the previous violations and ensure that there are no future issues.” Honarkar was supposed to submit a “historic report for all work that has occurred and is planned,” and a “plan detailing the scope of the entire project.” Neither of these have been publicly reviewed, and yet work at the hotel continues. (City staff has not confirmed that they have even been submitted.)
Meantime the council ad hoc committee authorized in April 2019 to monitor Honarkar’s projects sunsetted at the end of July 2020. This committee of Mayor Bob Whalen and Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf was intended to work with Honarkar and his team to keep the project on track, facilitate the re-opening of the hotel and give status reports to the council and public.
As badly as the community and council want to see the Hotel open and restored, that ad hoc committee was unable to make it happen. The meetings were unproductive and Whalen and Kempf did not request a renewal of their assignment.
It turned out there were underlying financial and personal reasons. Lenders were foreclosing, a pending divorce restricted him from making decisions on the properties, and a receivership had been established to oversee management.
Under public comment at council meetings speakers voiced their concerns. Ruben Flores described how management of Honarkar’s north Laguna properties involved unfair treatment of tenants, forcing them out, and leaving a vacant rundown appearance of the commercial strip north of the art museum. He also pointed out continued work at Hotel Laguna even though there was supposed to be a stop work order in place. Council questioned staff, they assured the council that staff was working with the applicant to achieve compliance.
In March, Mark and Sharon Fudge filed a Coastal Commission appeal of permits issued by the city for Hotel Laguna that will be heard May 12. The Coastal staff recommends the Commission find “substantial issue” which means that the city’s local coastal development permits will be held in abeyance until the Commission reviews the project at a future date. At issue are the city’s lack of determination of a bluff edge, allowing encroachments onto the bluff and sandy beach, and failure to produce an evaluation of whether the piecemeal permit requests will ultimately trigger a “major remodel” and a comprehensive examination of the whole project.
This week former Mayor Paul Freeman raised an alarm. Yes, it really is that bad, folks. Damage to the Hotel is in process—major walls were removed without permits and structural analysis. Proper reviews for conversion of back-of-house spaces to new restaurants have not taken place. A comprehensive plan for the property along with the historical report must be publicly reviewed. With the neglect of proper procedures, lack of enforcement by the city, and no overall plan being in place the community has no assurance of the desired and promised outcome of a beautiful and thriving hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. The project must be shut down until all the required public reviews and approvals have been completed. Our landmark hotel and the community deserve better.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.