CITY HALL — Local property owners rarely get involved in landmark proceedings except in an attempt to evade them, but a move to designate a portion of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel has proven the exception to the rule.
In an unusual move, the ownership of the 85-year-old hotel requested a landmark designation for select elements of its site, and the competing Huntley Hotel has jumped into the fray to push the Landmarks Commission to go even further.
Representatives of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel hope to extend an existing designation for the historic Moreton Bay fig tree to include the Palisades Wing of the complex and a 50-foot buffer around the building.
Furthermore, the ownership requested that the contiguous nature of the parcel underneath the hotel — the only block in Santa Monica that remains whole — also be preserved.
Landmark status does not benefit the owners, but they felt it was necessary to do right by the historic nature of the property and the community’s wishes, said Alan Epstein, an executive with MSD Capital, which owns the hotel.
The owners have stuck to the script laid out by the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, an historic assessment created by noted historian and architect Robert Chattel and extensive community outreach, he said.
“Those three pillars have guided all of our planning over the last three years,” Epstein said.
The request itself is unusual not only because of its origins — owners rarely request landmark status, something that only ties their hands when it comes to renovations or changes — but also for the scope, which confused both commissioners and the deputy city attorney.
“I don’t think this has come before the commission before,” said Heidi vonTongeln, an attorney with the city.
And, in the stated opinion of the owners of the Huntley Hotel, it never should have.
In two letters at the Nov. 12 and Dec. 10 Landmarks Commission meetings, attorneys representing Second Street Corporation, the owners of the Huntley Hotel, said that their client hoped the commission would choose to preserve the entire Fairmont Miramar property.
That includes the bungalows, which once housed stars like Jean Harlow and Eleanor Roosevelt, and even landscaping on California and Ocean avenues.
So, while the Huntley supports the Fairmont Miramar’s decision to landmark the Palisades building, it’s not enough, wrote Rick Zbur, a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins.
“However, the Huntley also believes that the entire Miramar property should be designated as a landmark and that the commission must consider other aspects of the Miramar’s existing development as ‘contributing factors’ to that landmark designation besides the Palisades building and the Moreton Bay fig tree,” Zbur stated.
If that were to occur, it could throw a wrench into plans to update the Fairmont Miramar from a mishmash of architectural styles built through a number of decades into a hotel with modern amenities and a classic look.
Landmark designations help preserve historic properties by requiring additional steps and public process before owners make alterations to certain aspects of the buildings.
Work must be completed within certain guidelines handed down by the federal Secretary of the Interior and generally approved by the Landmarks Commission through a mechanism called a “certificate of appropriateness.”
Demolition would also have to go through the Landmarks Commission.
At the last public meeting on the topic, the Fairmont Miramar team proposed a 556,000-square-foot project with between 265 and 280 hotel rooms and potentially 120 luxury condominiums on top.
The plans have consistently irked the Huntley Hotel, which has sent representatives to various public meetings to speak against the project which would be much taller than the current hotel and potentially block views from its competition to the east.
Critics have also accused the Huntley of creating and funding an anti-development community group in the most recent election in order to elect Richard McKinnon and Ted Winterer, both of whom have been critical of the proposed Miramar development’s size and scale.
Epstein would not comment on the Huntley’s proposal to landmark the entire site.
Landmarks Commissioners have put the decision off until January at the earliest, expressing discomfort with the proposal and asking the City Attorney to look into the ramifications of designating the parcel.