Where Does Mo Get His Jo?
If I had Mo Honarkar’s millions, I’d have long ago built a mega yacht and set my course for the Med and beyond, never to be heard from again. But I’m no Mo, and he is obviously cut from different sailcloth. Mo has instead charted a course right through a town that has been sinking under the weight of it’s own entropy. Driving through Fallujah might be safer.
In no short order he has scooped up the most iconic properties in town, most of which were sadly decaying from owner neglect. Yet many in town seem aghast at the idea of one man controlling so much real estate, and endeavoring to bring them up to the 21st century. It has amplified the never-ending debate on whether to move our town forward with the rest of the world, or leave it as some kind of quaint Norman Rockwell anachronism.
Those who resist change always claim that any attempt to modernize the town would bring an intensification of visitors, and wreck life for locals. If that were the issue, they would be better served fighting the Irvine Company, Five Points, and the other builders who are decimating the open space east of us. But instead they heap scorn on Mo, planting false flags of fear with portrayals of bulldozers flattening our town for redevelopment of high rises. It seems they would prefer keeping the Hotel Laguna, Laguna Cinema, and the Coast Inn shuttered, lest it bring one more car to town that might take their space.
Mo is not leveling the town. Not even close. He is in fact doing what our greedy, out of town owners haven’t done for years: investing in these buildings and breathing life back into them. Take the Festival Center. Can anyone say it’s worse than it was when the previous owner left it half vacant and rotting for decades?
I’m grateful for Mo, just as I am for Ivan Spiers, Mark Christy, Marcella and Chris Dornan, Chris Keller, Joe Hanauer and Sam Goldstein: all locals who have spent lavishly to do something good for our town, and became devoted custodians for the properties they built. Ivan has provided work for hundreds of local musicians, and two great music venues for us. Mark restored the tired Aliso Creek into something we can all be proud of. Chris Keller created the first great rooftop bar, and both Sam and Joe have produced wonderful re-imaginings of historic buildings. Now Chris and Marcella are trying valiantly to restore the Coast Inn and build an artist Live/Work complex in the canyon. So what if they make a little money along the way.
The real villains in this story are the Merritt family, Leslie Bloomberg, and Gary Sauter—all people who inherited their considerable wealth and properties, and who have no attachment to our city. They care not about the fate or condition of these buildings, only how much profit they can wring out of them.
But out of nowhere comes “Mighty Mo Medici,” a self-made immigrant who worked hard to achieve the American Dream and now wants to give back. He is going where most wizened developers would never venture: into the hellhole of Laguna project approval and public scrutiny.
Here’s the thing: Mo and his team have laid bare their ambitions. They are soliciting public opinion. They display their concepts to the public and engage on social media. His gracious daughter Hasty has been their online ambassador, and like a Shaolin Warrior, somehow takes the barbs and redirects them into daisies of diplomacy. Can anyone imagine for a minute the Hilton or Marriott Corporation being so transparent or generous?
We should be grateful for Mo. He’s now endeavoring to do what a trio of local ballers couldn’t: get Hotel Laguna reopened. And perhaps turn Laguna Cinema back into something magnificent. I for one hope that Mo focuses on these projects first to demonstrate his goodwill to the community. There’s no way he can affect the character of these historic buildings. But he’s got the mojo to bring them back to life as quickly as humanly possible.
As for his initial concepts for the Heisler and Cleo projects, they may not be the right design and scale for our town. But any business person (or divorce lawyer) worth their salt will start at the extreme end of what they want, knowing that a compromise will be reached somewhere in the middle. And rest assured that the considerable gauntlet he will run between Planning Commission, Design Review, City Council, public input, Coastal Commission, CalTrans and CEQA will ensure that his projects will be vetted by every stakeholder and produce the best possible outcome. Hopefully in our lifetimes.
As for the $250,000 Mo has offered the city to facilitate faster administration of his projects, the optics are obviously questionable. But I understand the city botched it. This wasn’t a gift, but rather an advance on all the permitting fees he will have to pay. If so, it cannot be construed in any way as a bribe. Just a way of expediting something most of us want done as quickly as possible.
So, in the immortal words of John Lennon, “All I am saying, is give Mo a chance.”
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5 and can be reached at [email protected].
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