Developer hopes Malibu cemetery plan won't rile slow-growth activists

A longtime Malibu resident supports a developer's cemetery plan: “Anything to preserve open space.”

Developer Richard Weintraub tried for years to push through a plan to build a resort-style hotel on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, only to face push-back from the notoriously slow-growth enclave.

Now he's proposing an alternative that is more Eagles' "Hotel California" than destination inn: a memorial park, the city's first, with nearly 55,000 burial plots. The ultimate destination, one might say.

"Guests check in, but they can't check out," said Malibu Mayor Skylar Peak, who likes the idea.

Replete with celebrities, wealth and the entitlement that fame and money often bring, Malibu has long been a development battleground. Now, Weintraub, a longtime real estate maven whose Malibu estate is on the market for $60 million, is promoting a plan that he says is just the ticket for the growth-phobic community.

True, the cemetery population would grow. But at least the occupants wouldn't be clogging PCH with jaunts to Zuma Beach or the Malibu Country Mart.

"I do believe the cemetery would have less of a traffic impact than the hotel," the mayor quipped, adding that he couldn't think of a "more beautiful area for a cemetery in Los Angeles."

With millions of visitors pouring through the city each year, locals in Malibu — population 13,000 —bemoan bumper-to-bumper traffic on PCH, the thoroughfare that snakes along the city's 20-plus miles of dazzling coastline.

That has led to testy skirmishes over growth. The most recent one pitted Emmy-winning actor and director Rob Reiner against Steve Soboroff, a developer, philanthropist and president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

On election day, city voters approved Measure R, an initiative spearheaded by Reiner that gives the public the power to approve or deny commercial developments larger than 20,000 square feet and limits the percentage of chain stores in new shopping centers. The measure has thwarted, at least temporarily, Soboroff's latest endeavor — a Whole Foods supermarket complex in the Civic Center area.

Christi Hogin, the city attorney, said she anticipates that the city will face legal challenges from property owners over the measure.

When Weintraub first floated the cemetery scheme, some Malibu residents assumed he was using a cynical ploy to make the hotel idea seem more palatable (or at least less creepy) by contrast.

Weintraub insists that was not his motivation. The memorial park that his Green Acres LLC proposes on nearly 28 acres just east of Pepperdine University is ideal, he said, "if people in Malibu don't want traffic and don't want noise and light pollution."

And the idea pencils out, he added, with in-ground plots expected to start at $10,000 or so and family plots or mausoleums running $50,000 to $100,000.

Weintraub refuses to give up the ghost on the hotel, however. He intends to formally propose both the hotel and the cemetery.

Carol Moss, a longtime resident of the exclusive Malibu Colony, digs the cemetery plan. "Anything," she said, "to preserve open space."

For visitors, Weintraub said, "it will not look or feel like any cemetery that anyone has ever seen. We're not planning on having headstones or even ground markers, except for maybe small circles."

Visitors would locate grave sites by using GPS. Weintraub said he has consulted with prominent international architects and artists including Ed Ruscha and Chuck Arnoldi, with the aim of weaving art and architecture into the natural landscape.

According to a preliminary plan submitted to the city, the project could include "lawn crypts," "bench estates," "terrace estates" and "private family estates." A 40-car underground parking garage and an ecumenical chapel of about 7,500 square feet are also proposed.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue cheered the notion of a memorial park where visitors could sit in quiet solitude while admiring the ocean view. "It is a good use of this property," she said. "We have such limited oceanfront open space."

Cindy Landon, a longtime friend of Weintraub, said she would prefer a cemetery over a hotel. "I don't want to see Malibu continue to overdevelop," said Landon, widow of actor Michael Landon. "If [the cemetery] is done the way Richard's proposing it … I certainly would want to be there."

The site has a long history of unrealized ambitions.

A project in one form or another has been in the works since 1984, when Malibu was still part of unincorporated Los Angeles County. Then, the property was owned by members of the Adamson family, one of Malibu's founding families, who proposed a large hotel complex known as Rancho Malibu Mesa.

Weintraub and a partner bought the property more than a decade ago and proposed Rancho Malibu Hotel, with 146 hotel rooms in multiple buildings, a four-story underground parking structure, a spa, retail spaces, a restaurant and bar, swimming pools, conference centers and ballrooms.

A financial analysis found that the hotel would cost $138.5 million to build and generate $50 million or more in annual revenues while employing hundreds of full-time workers.

The recession and community opposition foiled the project.

If the cemetery comes to fruition, it could fill a void in the local burial business. Two relatively close cemeteries are Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village and Conejo Mountain Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Camarillo. Weintraub, who is Jewish, noted that many Jewish families have buried loved ones in Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary or Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Cemetery, both in Los Angeles.

Major resistance to the cemetery has not yet emerged. But the community is still recovering from the dust-up over Measure R — and it's early.

Joyce Parker-Bozylinski, the city's planning director, said the project would require amendments to the zoning code and local coastal program. The California Coastal Commission agrees, said Jack Ainsworth, the panel's senior deputy director. The commission has supported the hotel.

A cemetery would not be "the ultimate home run," Weintraub acknowledges, "but it's a way to create … a positive project."

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
44°