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Great Gatsby, Batman!

After 20 Years of Battle, the Bacara Opens for Biz!
October 12, 2000
SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT

Due to the stubborn tenacity of New York developer Alvin Dworman, the 360-room, $220 million Bacara Resort opened for business this weekend. But two questions remain unanswered: Will people pay the top-of-the-line $400 to $5,000 a night room rates? And will its very existence push the urban limit line further up the coast?

BY NICK WELSH

Buried somewhere in millions of dollars' worth of reports, files, and documents about Goleta's Bacara Resort and Spa--which opened this weekend with conspicuously little fanfare--there exists a brief memo, dated 1982, predicting that the hotel--then still a gleam in developers' eyes--could win all the necessary county permits within a scant six months and at a cost of no more than $150,000. Not even close.

In fact, it would be extremely difficult to imagine anyone being so wrong and in so few words. Lost in the recent press hoopla about the $220 million, 360-room beachfront resort and all its extravagant opulence - like suites as expensive as $5,000 a night--is any sense of the urgent, intractable, and desperate struggle waged between New York billionaire Alvin Dworman and what was then the well-oiled political machine of Goleta environmentalists led by former County Supervisor Bill Wallace.

For Wallace, the proposed luxury resort hotel was his line in the sand, and he fought it ferociously with everything he had. But Dworman, an intense rags-to-riches developer, banker, and former Golden Gloves boxer, proved even more determined and tenacious. In the course of the conflict--spanning nearly 20 years--the likes of former President Gerald Ford and then state Gov. George Deukmejian were enlisted to lobby on behalf of the proposed coastal resort, but even these two heavyweights came away embarrassingly empty-handed. That's when Dworman let fly his purse strings and funded a public relations campaign the likes of which Santa Barbara had never seen before and has not seen since.

Ultimately, Dworman prevailed. But in the 17 years it took him to translate his dreams into concrete, white stucco, and red-tiled Mission Revival reality, his project would be scaled back, conditioned, and redesigned. In that time, Dworman's development plans were dragged kicking and screaming through the entire state judiciary, all the way to the California Supreme Court, where the justices upheld as state law certain environmental principles while, in the same breath, lambasting Santa Barbara environmentalists for abusing those very principles. Eventually, Dworman would strike a strategic peace with Wallace and Citizens for the Goleta Valley, agreeing to pay them $5 million--over time--to stop suing him. That money can only be spent, however, on open space protection efforts in and around Goleta. Even so, Dworman and his hotel barely managed to survive the recession of the late '80s and early '90s. In fact, his longtime partner, Hyatt Development, was forced to back out.

That's when Dworman decided to run the show himself, breathlessly recasting the look and personality of the resort as the biggest, most modern, most luxurious hotel and spa in the United States, if not the world. Where Hyatt would be conservative and traditional, Dworman would be brash, overstated, and sexy. Bacara's marketing brochures feature images of young women in various stages of undress, and its employment ads proclaim Bacara to be no mere four- or five-star hotel--the highest ratings go--but a six-star establishment. Dworman has definitely made a splash, and those in the high-end hospitality industry are watching with keen interest if Bacara can really command the absolute top-of-the-line room rates-average accommodations range from $600 to $900 a night for an ocean-view room. In the meantime, Dworman has moved on to new battlefields, all but declaring war on Bacara's nearest neighbor, Venoco Oil. He publicly offered to underwrite the county's costs for expensive studies on the economics of closing the refinery. As Dworman and the resort's 400 employees work out the inevitable kinks that come with opening a new enterprise, it's worth noting that Bacara hasn't just changed the face of Goleta's coastline; it's changed forever the face of land use politics in Santa Barbara County. Although Bacara won't be 100 percent up and running until November, it officially opened for business this past Friday. There was no gala opening ceremonies, which, given all the hype, was surprising. "This isn't Las Vegas," explained Anne Luther, Bacara's PR executive. It was hard to tell if she was kidding.

Guests staying at any of the 100 rooms now available travel along an entry road that passes first the Sandpiper Golf Course, then the Venoco oil and gas plant--where bushes and shrubs have been planted to obscure the view--and then into Bacara's vast oval courtyard. There they are greeted by a long line of valet parkers sufficient to field a decent-sized soccer team. (Because they get tips, they are paid minimum wage. Employees who don't get tips are paid $9 an hour.) The valets-who don't wall, but run--wear dark blue shirts, vests, and pants. Inside, there were more hotel staff dressed in blue--both men and women--many equipped with Secret Service-style earphones. Their mission is to make sure that no visitor's needs go unanticipated, let alone unmet. On this day--Labor Day--the staff vastly outnumbered the guests, who come from places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York, but none from Santa Barbara.

Architecturally, Bacara offers a cluster of two, three, and four-story Spanish-style buildings that meander efficiently from one drop-dead ocean view to another. The exterior walls are painted four different shades of off-white to convey a more residential feel. The red tiles have been pre-antiqued, and all the 1,900 trees Bacara had planted are mature to avoid startling visitors with the immense newness of it all. There are three swimming pools-all with negative edges--and a four-story 41,000-square-foot health spa offering a host of classes, massages, facials, pedicures, and sun bathing. After this weekend, the spa will be open to the general public; half-day passes fetch $500, full-day passes $900. For those looking for outdoor relaxation, Bacara has made arrangements with Glen Annie and Sandpiper golf courses to secure preferred hours. The tennis courts are still under construction.

And this is situated, of course, right over Haskell's Beach, once a sweet secret savored by Santa Barbara surfers and birdwatchers. The public will still have access to the beach, and Bacara is building a parking lot, snack bar, and public restroom--with showers included.

Inside, Bacara offers a screening room and stage, meeting rooms, and the largest ballroom on the South Coast--capacity 1,100. It also boasts 225 'fireplaces, two in the lobby itself. There are three restaurants, two of which are open, and the third--the Miro, which has three works of art by its namesake--is scheduled to be open October 7. The lobby bar is open; beers sell for $5 and martinis for $11. In short, the Bacara is a place for the wealthy to pamper themselves.

One person who exhibits strikingly little curiosity about Bacara's decor is former County Supervisor Bill Wallace--now a practicing veterinarian--who occasionally jogs along Haskell's Beach with his dog. "That place looks like a monster," he said. "That's because it is a monster. We should never have allowed something so immense and so intense to be built right on our urban limit line. We were just asking for trouble." Wallace's gripe all along has been that any development so large would inevitably serve as a nucleus around which further development will grow. This "leapfrog development,'"Ď he said, will put at risk areas of the coast now open. "Besides, who really needs another $600-a-night hotel along the coast?" '

In the 1980s, Wallace and the Citizens for the Goleta Valley proved more than formidable adversaries for Dworman and his friend lay Pritzker of Hyatt Development. Dworman had acquired the 73 acres on which Bacara is now situated as well as 1,100 acres on the other side of the freeway in 1968, almost by accident, when he took over a failing tire and rubber company that owned the land. In 1973, Dworman sought to build a gated community of 150 luxury homes situated on half-acre lots, but his plans were shot down by the California Coastal Commission. The commission let him know they wanted visitor-serving uses, so Dworman teamed up with Pritzker to build a Hyatt luxury resort that would rival the one in Maui. In 1982, when tennis was all the rage, Dworman and Hyatt proposed an ambitious scheme that spanned both sides of the freeway--a 650-room resort with 36 tennis courts. When neighbors on the north side of Highway 101 raised a ruckus, Dworman retreated to the south side.

Neither Dworman nor Pritzker lived in Santa Barbara; they didn't have a clue about Santa Barbara's environmental politics, then in full flower, and with the exception of land use attorney Richard Monk, they had no locals advising them. In 1985, even a staunch pro-growth Republican supervisor like Bob Kallman was expressing serious concerns about the project's size. And when Kallman insisted the hotel be scaled back to no more than 400 rooms, Pritzker and Dworman launched Gerald Ford and Governor Deukmejian into the fray. Their efforts backfired. As a result, Hyatt--as the development was then known--looked not just big and greedy, but like a bully, too.

Realizing he needed someone on the ground, Pritzker dispatched a promising up-and-comer named John Tynan from Chicago to Santa Barbara. Young, smart, and well groomed, Tynan became the front man for a campaign that would set the standard for corporate PR in Santa Barbara. Tynan teamed up with John Davies, then a budding political consultant in Santa Barbara, who specialized in Republican candidates and causes. Although Davies and Tynan are no longer on good terms, Tynan credited Davies for formulating the winning strategy for getting Hyatt's simple message out: Hyatt would create jobs and contribute substantially to the county's then-beleaguered tax base. But for that to happen, Hyatt needed the community's help. Davies's messenger was Tynan himself, whom he cast effectively as Santa Barbara's answer to Mr. 5mite Goes to Washington. Of Tynan, Davies said, "He was the best Mr. Smith I ever worked with."

Tynan and Davies polled and canvassed; they met with people; they took out endless newspaper advertisements; they joined every business organization in town; they hosted so many rubber chicken dinners that they could have qualified as a restaurant; they wrote letters to the editor and found the people who would sign their names; and Tynan mailed out countless personal and folksy letters chronicling how his young son was growing, developing, and maturing as Wallace and crew threw obstacles, unfairly, in his path. Speaking of Wallace, Tynan said, "When I first met him, he said, 'Hi,' and then he said, 'I will fight you to the day I die.' It was kind of refreshing; there were no games."

Not so direct were supervisors Tom Rogers and Toru Miyoshi, who declined to declare their positions until almost the last minute. And Tynan desperately needed one of their votes to win when Hyatt--already whittled down from 550 rooms to 400--went before the supervisors in the summer of 1988. Shortly before that meeting, Miyoshi announced he supported Hyatt. But even with a board majority secured, Tynan and Davies aimed their political fire hose at Rogers and opened the spigot. Rogers and his staff were deluged with phone calls and letters in support of the Hyatt project, as Davies patched in phone calls from Hyatt supporters directly to the County's Administration Building. An even greater display of overkill was in evidence the actual day of the vote, when Tynan and Davies packed the supervisors' chambers with so many supporters that the fire marshal had to stop the meeting to clear the aisles.

It didn't hurt any that Davies and Tynan had Dworman and Pritzker's financial backing. "There probably was a budget, but, you know, at the time, it just didn't seem like there was one," said Davies. Of Pritzker and Dworman, Tynan said, "They didn't understand Santa Barbara, and they didn't understand butterfly habitats, but they said 'make it happen' and gave me the latitude to get the job done."

That, as Hyatt was to learn, was the easy part. Citizens for Goleta Valley hired attorney Phil Seymour, then with the Environmental Defense Center, who proved as tireless and inventive as he was sardonic. Today Tynan describes Seymour's legal briefs as "colorful" and "fun to read," but at the time, Seymour--who stayed up late making sure he left no legal objection unargued--effectively tied Hyatt up in knots. Due in large measure to Seymour's ingenuity, the word "Goleta' had become a verb for people in the Hyatt camp, as in 'Tm going to Goleta you." (For his part, Seymour returned Tynan's compliment saying, "l wound up liking all the people on the other side; it was kind of like the Patty Hearst Syndrome.")

Mostly Seymour argued that alternative sites for Hyatt's hotel should have been far more thoroughly explored as part of the county's environmental review. He and Hyatt's attorneys ping-ponged their way up through the state court system, successfully taking the case all the way to the California Supreme Court. On December 31, 1991, the high court ruled in theory that Seymour was right, but that in practice, he'd "subverted [the environmental review process] into an instrument for the oppression and delay of social, economic, or recreational development."

By the time the Supreme Court came down, all hell was breaking out. Meanwhile, county elections had given the board of supervisors a more environmental tilt and the county itself was suing Hyatt to protect a grove of eucalyptus regarded as a prime habitat for migrating Monarch butterflies. (After two years of litigation, that case was settled when Hyatt agreed to. pay $250,000 to maintain Monarch habitat, but the trees themselves were wiped out in El Nino rains.) Seymour and Citizens had filed yet another lawsuit' against the Hyatt proposal, arguing that the county's general plan was so internally deficient and defective teat no project--let alone Hyatt's---could be found in conformance with it. Making matters worse, the economy was in the tank, no financing was available for such a project so huge, and Hyatt pulled out of the deal.

By the time the Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of Hyatt, both sides had long been meeting to see if they could negotiate a way out. Both sides were exhausted. For the environmentalists, the handwriting was on the wall. Unlike other developers who would have given up and gone away, Dworman was stubbornly holding on. Eventually, they reckoned something would get built overlooking Haskellís Beach. So what was the best deal they could strike for the environment? For the developer, time was money, and Seymour, Wallace, and Citizens had already demonstrated their ability to delay his project. Why not cut a deal?

In June 1991, they did just that. Citizens announced they were dropping their lawsuits, and in exchange Hyatt would give them $5 million for environmental protection in the Goleta Valley. Last Friday morning, the county granted the resort its certificate of occupancy, and that same day Harriet Phillips of Citizens received a check for $1.4 million. The rest will be paid in quarterly installments over the next few years. According to Phillips, $100,000 of that money has already gone to Michael Abelman's organic farm, Fairview Gardens. Another $50,000, she said, was earmarked for a butterfly preserve, and $250,000 has been earmarked to create the Slippery Rock-Fremont Trail linking residential Goleta with Los Padres National Forest. Phillips said some of that money would be used to underwrite fledgling organizations dedicated to preserving endangered open space, such as the Bridle Ridge Coalition.

Between 1991 and 1997, what the environmentalists could not stop, the economy did'. Hyatt backed out of the deal when lending institutions made it clear they would not finance new hotel construction. Dworman, left holding the bag, decided to go it alone with his company, Great Universal Capital Corporation. But even without the environmental opposition, it proved a tough road. Dworman's permits were scheduled to expire in 1993, but he successfully lobbied the supervisors to grant him a series of extensions that gave him until 1.997. And that's when he first broke ground.

Now the hotel and resort are built and open. Land use attorney Richard Monk's daughter was two when he first started working for Dworman, and she's now 30. He acknowledged the Bacara project helped make his career, and said the development "pretty much looks like what we planned all along." -Similarly, political consultant John Davies has found professional' success perfecting the tactics and strategies he and Tynan developed for Hyatt, though his techniques have been castigated by liberal political columnists in the national press as "astro-turf campaigning." John Tynan went native, settling permanently in Santa Barbara and runs a land use and political consulting company that recently managed Fess Parker's unsuccessful ballot initiative to build a new hotel on the city's waterfront.

Phil Seymour, who has since left the Environmental Defense Center, said although Citizens lost, environmentalists did manage to win a few collateral victories, not the least of which was the financial settlement. Wallace finds no such solace, saying, "It's pretty obvious that we lost, but you move on." However, still plans to go running with his dog on Haskell's beach.

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