Sometime next year, partial demolition may begin at the storied Fairmont Miramar Hotel, where Greta Garbo once lived, for an expansion that will create stunning condos for the very rich, luxuriously appointed hotel staterooms and even a little affordable housing. Santa Monica city fathers are drooling over the prospect of new bed-tax revenue and street parking that will be freed up by the hotel's new parking structure. Plus, computer billionaire and Miramar owner Michael Dell will be City Hall's best friend for life.
If only it weren't for the troubles with the Wilshire-Montana (Wilmont) Neighborhood Coalition, a highly active neighborhood group in a city jammed with them.
On June 9, the coalition was for all practical purposes taken over by new board members who vociferously oppose the expansion. If Dell thinks the neighbors are nothing to worry about, he probably doesn't spend a lot of time in the city by the sea.
The old board of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition warmly backed the Miramar expansion 13 months ago. But that all changed at the June annual election meeting of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition, where furious neighbors jammed into the Santa Monica Main Library, taunting the old board and demanding their own chance to run to replace its members.
As reported by The Lookout News, sitting board member Larry Isaacs declared, "It's a coup. This election is not lawful!" Chairwoman Valerie Griffin "attempted to adjourn the session, appealing to a Santa Monica police officer and several library security guards for help."
Then, the paper reported, "Amidst shouts and jeers, Griffin was voted down as moderator by a show of hands." In a humiliating 47-4 vote of community residents, the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition board was prevented from adjourning. The election proceeded, and the votes were dropped into a box, deciding the fate of the sitting board members and 11 challengers — who call themselves the Wilmont Rebels.
But the vote tally was a mystery for another month.
The embattled board insisted it could not verify that the challengers, including many fresh faces, belonged to the 300-strong neighborhood organization. That was because, days earlier, Marcia Carter, the 84-year-old membership director, had broken her hip — and the sole existing list of official Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition members was locked in her apartment.
Lockouts and coups in neighborhood boards are not uncommon in California, nor are allegations of purloined or missing paperwork. But normally, a quarter-billion-dollar project — with major political promises riding on it — isn't involved.
In Santa Monica, where politicians pride themselves on letting key decisions be guided by community involvement, a project can gain legitimacy if a major community group backs it. But such a group also can set a political fire that turns into a cause, which grows into citywide opposition against a plan — if the plan is significant enough.
In this case, the $255 million proposed makeover of the Miramar may fit the bill.
In June 2011, the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition board backed Dell's proposed redo of the 88-year-old hotel to double the size of the staterooms and add scores of world-class condos, tearing out two buildings and adding three tall towers.
In fact, the neighborhood coalition board was so supportive — the plan includes saving the historic main building and its iconic Moreton Bay fig tree, planted in 1879 by Santa Monica founder John P. Jones — that one board member, Albin Gielicz, was named co-chair of Friends of the Miramar. The Friends' 700-plus members include three past Santa Monica mayors and numerous civic leaders.
Dell's development would increase parking from 167 to 484 spots, freeing up perhaps 120 street spaces in parking-starved Santa Monica — the city's "most critical, life-numbingly difficult problem," Griffin says without irony.
But opponents, who viewed the planned development in apocalyptic terms, fired off a citywide mailer dubbing the plan "Miramar-geddon" and arguing that it opens the door to other developers "to blow through height limits" in the city. The mailer depicts the Miramar about to be crushed by a meteorite, atop which sits a crass, Vegas-style hotel.
The Weekly has determined that much of that opposition was bankrolled by owners of the 18-story Huntley Hotel one block inland, whose pricey upper rooms would have their ocean views blocked by the towers Dell wants to erect.
Huntley's general manager, Manju Raman, initially ran in but then withdrew from the race to unseat the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition board members, according to nominating petitions.
The Huntley has hired heavy-hitters to help it oppose the Miramar — law firm Latham & Watkins, Burnside & Associates political consultants and Sugerman Communications.
"In just weeks, Burnside & Associates created and designed a community outreach plan that knit together a coalition of involved participants of neighbors, environmentalists, businesses and organizations that eventually engaged more than 950 people," Burnside's website boasts.
The effort gathered more than 1,000 signatures in opposition to Dell's project.
"They're going to screw up the view and put up a huge wall [of buildings] that looks like China or Russia built by the Soviets," said Robert Gurfield, who ran as a Rebel candidate. His own condo's ocean view would be wiped out.
The Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition board will not acknowledge the chaotic June 9 election, says Becki Kammerling, attorney for the ousted board. But on June 18, more than a dozen Wilmont residents gathered at Ken Edwards Center. Outside a locked room, they recited the group's bylaws and bandied about ideas to deal with the crisis of democracy.
They agreed that first, the votes cast June 9 must be counted to verify the new board. A ballot box containing 57 votes from that day had been sealed and placed with Friends of Sunset Park president Zina Josephs.
But on June 18 the burning question was: "Where's Marcia?" — Marcia Carter, the hospitalized octogenarian who held the sole membership list of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition member's names.
That list was widely known to be in Carter's locked apartment.
Suspicions about how sick Carter really was tore through the group on June 18. "She can't still be in the hospital," somebody said. "Can someone step in and stop this?" asked another resident, alluding to "stalling tactics." "Maybe the Jimmy Carter Institute," someone offered.
On July 7, the Rebels met at Santa Monica's Church of the Nazarene to finally count the votes inside the ballot box.
Lacking the membership list — still locked inside Carter's apartment — the Rebels asked a respected member of the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition not involved in the campaign dispute to try to match voters' names against receipts, canceled checks and Paypal payments showing who had paid dues of $5. Some coalition members who voted provided their documentation at the meeting.
It may not have been the Jimmy Carter Institute, but a panel of three, including former Santa Monica City Council member Kelly Olsen, Santa Monica attorney and professional mediator Carole Aragon and Lauren Murray, a cash manager for Latham & Watkins, oversaw the vote count.
"I'm just here to help with the democratic process," Olsen said. "I've never seen or heard of anything like this."
When the count was over, the Rebels apparently had won eight seats.
On July 13, the apparently unseated Wilmont board lashed out.
In a letter from Griffin, the group called itself the "current board" and said it had "terminated the membership of a rival group of Santa Monica residents who staged an improper takeover of the June 9 community meeting."
Each newly elected board member received a cease-and-desist letter from Kammerling, the old board's attorney, claiming that they had failed to "exercise self-control" or "listen to others respectfully," among other things.
Griffin tells L.A. Weekly that recently, the apparently ousted board members finally retrieved the elusive membership list from Carter's apartment.
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Griffin compared the list — on handwritten index cards, because Carter does not use a computer — with the members' payment records. She says five of the 11 Rebel candidates joined the coalition less than 21 days before running, an alleged violation of the bylaws. She says the membership status of another Rebel has not been confirmed.
As for the missing Carter, Griffin says she is at a board-and-care facility.
The battle for the Miramar Hotel project — or, at least, for the community group whose views could play a role in its viability — seems bound for lawyers' offices, or maybe for the courts.
"Do we accept the terms of the letters?" asks Reinhard Kargl, who created the Rebels' website. "The answer is definitely no."