Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

Revisiting the Romneys' La Jolla beach house -- and its car elevator

After President Obama won reelection, interest in Romney faded; but now Mitt is back, maybe

You remember Mitt Romney's California beach house? If you don't remember the house, surely you remember plans for that infamous car elevator?

In March 2012, Politico revealed that Mitt and Ann Romney's renovation of their $12-million beachfront home, one of three they owned, would include a two-level, four-car garage with a mechanized lift: "The cars," Politico reported, "will have their own separate elevator."

Romney was a rich Republican presidential candidate already having trouble convincing voters he understood the struggles of everyday Americans. The elevator would feed that perception until the end of the race.

In reality, though, the car elevator was a nifty — if expensive — design solution for the house on Dunemere Drive, a narrow street of pricey homes jammed together on overbuilt lots with jaw-dropping ocean views. The location would have made for a picturesque Western White House, something the country has not had since the days of Ronald Reagan with his mountaintop ranch above Santa Barbara, or Richard Nixon, who famously strolled the beach in front of his San Clemente estate in dress shoes and slacks.

After President Obama won reelection, interest in Romney faded.

But now Mitt is back, maybe.

Last week, he told a group of donors that he was weighing a third presidential campaign. Then, at the last minute, he was added as a Friday speaker to the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in San Diego.

Seeking the presidency, we can only conclude, is like going through childbirth. You swear off that kind of pain, but two years later, you're ready to do it again.

If Romney opts in, we will have once again a candidate with a foot in California, a state so reliably Democratic in recent cycles that its average voters get almost no attention from either party's presidential candidates. (High-rolling California donors, by contrast, get all the access money can buy.)

San Diego, the most conservative big city in the state, is a natural fit for a high-profile Republican like Mitt. How natural? In 2012, Romney lost to Obama by 42 points in Los Angeles, and by 70 points in San Francisco. In San Diego, he lost by a mere 7.6 points. Is it any surprise that Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain owns two condos in Coronado? Or that Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the New York Times Magazine last year he vacations annually in San Diego and would move there if he could afford it?

Now, with Romney dominating the political news cycle, I wondered what had become of the sleepy little enclave on Dunemere, and what neighbors might think about Romney running again. In 2012, Dunemere had been overrun by Secret Service agents when the Romneys were in town. Black SUVs blocked access to the street. Armed guards patrolled the property's western edge, a popular surfing spot known as Marine Beach. Vacationers who rented the house next door had to be vetted by the feds.

Neighbors were polarized about his candidacy and his remodel. Generally speaking, Republicans didn't mind either; Democrats were opposed to both.

As for the remodeling, the plans sparked a long, expensive battle typical of California beach development. The Romneys were asking to increase the size of the house from 3,000 square feet to 11,000. Neighbors on both sides of the political divide wrote letters to the local planning department, then the California Coastal Commission. About half supported the Romneys' plans, and half asked the commission to reduce the size of the project, claiming it was too big for the lot.

In October 2013, the coastal panel approved the plans. Construction began last spring and is expected to wrap up before the end of the year. The Romneys' San Diego attorney, Matthew Peterson, told me they are committed to finishing the remodel but haven't decided whether they will keep the house or sell it.

When I strolled down Dunemere on Wednesday, I found a neighborhood in chaos, abuzz with the sound of hammers and construction saws, jammed with pickup trucks. Every other house, it seemed, had decided to follow the Romneys' suit.

"Within a half a block of where I sit, there are four major projects going on," said a neighbor who lives across the street from the Romneys. "It's like a war zone." This homeowner did not want to give his name because he had publicly criticized Romney's politics two years ago and did not want to stir up bad feelings among neighbors.

Residents praised the Romneys for being as sensitive as possible, given the scope of their project, which involved hauling away 1,500 cubic yards of dirt.

Each time next-door neighbor Jeff Lepore shows his newly renovated $12.9-million home to prospective buyers, the Romneys' work crew turns off the saws. Lepore was also given a set of Romney house plans, so he can show prospective buyers what the finished project next door will look like. The houses are almost uncomfortably close; they are situated at an angle so no one's ocean view is impeded.

"We've gotten along great with Mitt and his contractors," Lepore said. His house, which he is offering furnished, has fallen out of escrow twice.

When he bought the run-down property in 2010, he assumed having a major political figure next door would enhance its value. "Buyers," he said, "have not been impressed."

Another neighbor told me that despite a growing Republican backlash to the idea of another Romney run, he was delighted to hear the news. "Eventually the construction will be finished and the neighborhood will be enhanced," said David Sear, an investment advisor and NASCAR driver who lives around the corner from Dunemere on Olivetas Drive. "And hopefully President Romney will be our neighbor in two years."

Twitter: @robinabcarian

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