Long an eyesore for travelers headed to Santa Barbara, the dilapidated Miramar Hotel had been the site of broken promises and failed expectations for more than a decade.
But now, the family vacation spot dating to the 1880s has been demolished, and a luxury hotel is headed for one of the last available seaside resort locations in Southern California.
It comes as real estate mogul
Seeking to meld the family feel of the original Miramar with the luxury demands of today's well-to-do travelers, he unveiled Tuesday the design for his first hotel project — set to open in 2018.
Included are waterfront cottages where families are expected to check in for months at a time and a beach club for nearby residents, some of whom have been skeptical over the years about the new development.
Caruso also revealed that the 170-room inn will be operated by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, a chain of high-end hostelries based in Hong Kong that caters to well-to-do international travelers.
"We see it mostly as a leisure destination very close to L.A.," Rosewood President Radha Arora said. "We believe the Hollywood market will really favor it with its unique suites and cottages. At the same time, we want to be on a world platform."
The $185-million resort will be built along U.S. 101 in Montecito where the original Miramar was closed 15 years ago. Two previous owners tried unsuccessfully to rebuild a hotel there as the site languished and became an eyesore in the wealthy community between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific.
Now, with the premium hotel market recovered from the beating it took after the last recession and construction approvals from Santa Barbara County officials in hand, Caruso is close to breaking ground on what he says will be one of the coast's most elite inns.
"We will be the only five-star hotel on the beach in Southern California where you can open the door and step on the sand," he said.
Most other top-end seaside hotels are on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, Caruso said, but not on the beach. His goal is to re-create the relaxed atmosphere of the old Miramar while incorporating the kind of amenities found in exclusive international resorts, he said. The Miramar opened in the 1880s as one of California's first beachfront hotels.
"It will look and feel like a great old home that was built in the 1930s," he said, "a gracious, beautiful home with a lot of history to it."
Besides the Grove, Caruso built Americana at Brand in Glendale and other shopping centers, as well as condominiums and luxury apartments.
He plans to start work on the hotel next year after plans are completed. Spread over 16 acres, Rosewood Miramar Beach will have 122 guest rooms and 48 suites, many of which will be in single-story cottages and bungalows with as many as four bedrooms.
Caruso expects some of the bungalows to be rented by the season. Long-term guests will get sheets emblazoned with their own monograms and other personal services such as having room larders stocked to their tastes upon arrival and getting their clothes laundered and returned to their closets while they are away.
Such "high touch" services, as they are known, are increasingly expected by guests at elite hotels, said Newport Beach hotel investment specialist Donald Wise, co-founder of Turnbull Capital Group.
"The luxury hotel segment is back, but it still has challenges," Wise said. "Affluent people want highly personal, intimate and sophisticated service" customized to their individual tastes.
The Rosewood Miramar Beach will have to create its own style different from other plush Santa Barbara-area hotels including Belmond El Encanto, San Ysidro Ranch and Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara, he said.
Caruso did not reveal what rooms would cost at his hotel, but Wise predicted they would top $750 a night. "It'll be a pretty strong number," Wise said.
The challenge of creating a coastal resort in California keeps the number of competitors low, Wise said.
Sites are difficult to find and state and local approval processes can be agonizingly slow. The Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes and Montage Laguna Beach each took more than two decades to complete.
"If three or four more hotels like the Miramar get built in the next 20 years, that's probably a lot," Wise said.
The Rosewood Miramar Beach will have an oceanside bar and restaurant with an outdoor terrace, a signature restaurant, two swimming pools, a spa, a fitness center, a screening room and event space including a ballroom.
It will also have a rare feature for a would-be five-star hotel — a train track running through the grounds. The long-standing track serves Amtrak's passenger line, which used to stop at the Miramar. Passenger trains pass through up to a dozen times a day.
The resort will mark a return to Santa Barbara County for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which formerly operated San Ysidro Ranch.
An international brand, Rosewood operates 18 luxury properties in 11 countries. Among them are the Carlyle in New York, Hotel de Crillon in Paris, Rosewood London and Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos, Mexico. The company plans to operate 50 hotels by 2020.
A stable economy and growing out-of-state awareness of California coastal resorts put them in position to prosper, said Los Angeles hospitality industry consultant Bruce Baltin of PKF Consulting.
"Southern California is developing a more national and international base for these," he said, "and they do well with locals in the summertime, weekends and holidays."
The success is a pronounced turnaround from the last economic downturn, when some top resorts including the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Orange County went into foreclosure or were forced to find new financial partners.
In 2009, top-tier coastal resorts were less than half occupied and charged an average daily rate of $450, according to PKF. The firm anticipates that their rooms will be occupied 75% of the time this year and cost about $590 a day.
The Santa Barbara area provides the right ingredients for a successful resort, Baltin said.
"It appeals to L.A. as a getaway as well as international travelers," he said. "It has good-quality food and it's walkable, easy to get around."