Plans: The proposed cemetery could hold 30,000 bodies. Courtesy image

A plan to convert 27.8 acres of prime Malibu bluff-top real estate into a sprawling cemetery raised eyebrows when it was revealed in 2015, after developers gave up their decades-long goal to build a hotel on the property near the intersection of Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway in downtown Malibu.

Now, seven years later, the development team has attained its second two-year permit extension, citing difficulty security funding amid COVID-19 and given the unusual nature of the proposed project.

Initially marketed as the Rancho Malibu Mesa Development, or Adamson Hotel, developers first envisioned a 300-room hotel including private villas, a separate 10,000-square-foot restaurant and a community facility, in plans presented in 1984. Back then, all of Malibu was unincorporated county land.

Malibu’s incorporation into cityhood in 1991 led to a moratorium on new development, stopping the Rancho Malibu Mesa project from moving ahead.

In the years that followed, property owners again and again redrew plans in an attempt to gain approval from city leadership committed to slow growth, but plans stalled.

Even the smallest version of the proposed hotel, containing 147 hotel rooms, would have more than doubled the number of available guest rooms located inside the 21-mile-long city that currently offers 130 hotel rooms for visitors hoping to spend the night along the shore.

One of the only things harder to find than a hotel room in Malibu is a grave site: the city contains zero cemeteries or memorial parks. But that could soon change.

After more than 30 years of efforts toward constructing a hotel at the site — adjacent to Pepperdine University and just up the hill from Malibu Bluffs Park — developers did a 180 and submitted a proposal for the cemetery project, to be called Malibu Memorial Park.

The proposal included 28,265 in-ground burial plot spaces, 47 freestanding mausoleum structures, 3,644 above-ground crypt spaces and a 28-foot-high chapel, plus 176 parking spaces. It also contained walking trails traversing 21 of the site’s 28 acres. 

The permit extension hearing, which came before the Malibu Planning Commission last week, was punctuated by gallows humor.

As the extension was requested on the basis that funding was increasingly difficult to secure during COVID-19, Planning Commissioner Kraig Hill asked why a deadly pandemic was not driving interest in memorial parks.

“I’m not sure how to phrase it delicately enough. But Don can explain — as it pertains to extraordinary circumstances — how is it? How is a pandemic resulting in mass death? How does that make it difficult to obtain financing for a cemetery?” Hill asked.

Don Schmitz, a consultant speaking on behalf of applicant Green Acres, LLC, said there were “plenty of people dying to get in there,” but, while he was not in the room during negotiations, he did not think the nature of the pandemic factored in; rather, that many sectors were adversely affected.

“This is a long term investment to do a project like this, to get off the ground — man, I was about to say, ‘To put people into the ground,’ but that’s just way too morbid,” Schmitz said. “The financing agreement that they had at the beginning of 2020 fell apart.”

Assistant Planning Chair John Mazza, who said in his former career with a trading firm he had experience in commercial debt, added that he believed most major firms categorized debt into various groups — things like shopping malls — but none were likely to have a cemetery or memorial park group. That meant developers seeking to secure funding would need to go outside the established channels. Coupled with the state of the economy, Mazza called it a “very, very tough market for that kind of debt.”

But, in the interim, the City of Malibu has been working on various road and sewer projects that will make the memorial park feasible should it finally secure necessary funds to break ground.

All five planning commissioners approved the two-year extension on the memorial park project.