One day last fall, Huntington Beach City Councilman Wes Bannister and his appointee to the city Planning Commission accepted a developer's invitation to meet at the Best Western Huntington Beach Inn.
As he had done individually with the other members of the Huntington Beach council, Bannister said, Robert Mayer, a respected Newport Beach builder, unveiled his ambitious ideas for The Waterfront.
"I took one look," Bannister recalled Tuesday, "and I thought, 'That's a good idea--no--that's a great idea. But we'll see if he can get it off the ground.' "
Last Friday, Mayer took his first step, applying to Huntington Beach for a conditional-use permit for his project: a $345-million, six-phase development of four oceanfront hotels, retail shops, an upscale gated condominium community, a health club and a tennis resort.
If approved, the swanky Mediterranean-style development, covering 50 acres on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway between Huntington Street and Beach Boulevard, would replace a nine-hole golf course, the 283-space Driftwood Mobile Home Park and the very inn where Mayer first pitched his plan.
City planners hope that the complex will spell the beginning of a $400-million renaissance for the downtown area, the site of many abortive development plans over the past two decades.
"If one good development goes in, then it will be just like dominoes: Everything will fall into place. That first one is tough," said Bannister, a 50-year-old insurance company owner elected to the council last November.
"I like the hotel concept. I'm pulling for Mayer. I've seen his plan, I like his plan," he said. "I'm a little concerned with the density, but I like the four-hotel idea."
The Waterfront would be built in the city's Main Pier Redevelopment project area and construction of the first phase--a $48-million hotel with 467 rooms--would begin late this year at the northeast corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Huntington Street. Three additional hotels--one a luxury resort hotel with 400 rooms, another oriented to business customers with 400 rooms and the third a 250-room all-suite hotel--are also part of the plan.
In addition, the development calls for 875 water-oriented, gate-guarded condominiums surrounded by lagoons, that would be built by 1994.
All told, the project would take nine years to complete.
Mayer must first go through hearings with city planners and then public hearings. Some of his plans are likely to be revised and whittled to the desires of city staff and council members, who said the review process will continue through the summer.
Before Mayer formally announced his plans Monday morning at a press conference, about 100 tenants of the Driftwood trailer park, to which Mayer holds a master lease, had already heard rumors of the plan and expressed their indignation at a council meeting.
A city ordinance passed in 1983 requires that mobile home park residents living within redevelopment project areas to be relocated by the developer taking their property, and Mayer has said he intends to do that "sensitively."
But Councilman Peter Green, a Golden West College professor, said Tuesday that he is worried about the mobile home park tenants.
"And I can't conceive of myself evicting people there to build a hotel," Green added. "They have to be treated justly, they have to be treated fairly and some of them are on fixed income and on Social Security, and we have to take care of them."
"I think it would be very difficult to ever pay us back for what we've got here," George Corbari, a Driftwood resident, said Tuesday. "We have a mobile home, with three bedrooms, 1,440 square feet, with a value of $40,000. It's 11 years old, but we're in space No. 1 where we can look at the ocean waves and by looking to the right I can see the first tee on the golf course."
Others said they already are skeptical of Mayer's project. One is Huntington Beach Tomorrow, a 300-member group of citizens that is also opposed to Pierside Village, a $28-million redevelopment project of shops and restaurants approved for the south side of the Huntington Beach pier on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway.
"With the Mayer proposal, I'm concerned about the density of that project, the large high-rise hotel in the area scheduled for development," said the group's president, attorney Tom Harman.
"I'm also concerned with the economics of these things. We're seeing more and more intense development--Seaport Village in Long Beach and then Peter's Landing in Huntington Harbour and the proposed marina at Bolsa Chica--and (the question is) whether we can support them economically.
"There's a very high vacancy rate among Orange County hotels," Harman added, "and we don't want to have a ghetto on our beach property. . . . We don't want Huntington to become another Manhattan Beach or Redondo."
Some council members said they anticipated this reaction but nevertheless support the concept of The Waterfront--seeing it as the spark for other development in the deteriorating pier area.
"It could be a catalyst to help the rest of the downtown get started," Councilman Tom Mays said.
"I think it's gonna be a pretty exciting project in the future. . . . It's taken (city planners) 20 years just to try and figure out exactly what to do down there. Several attempts have been made and failed, and this is the big reason three out of four of us were elected: because people were tired of nothing being accomplished in the downtown."
Mays, a McDonnell Douglas Corp. business specialist, was elected to the council last fall along with Bannister and Mayor Pro Tem John Erskine, executive director of the Orange County chapter of the Building Industry Assn., all on campaign promises to go ahead with redevelopment.
The Main Pier Redevelopment project covers 336 acres, stretching along Pacific Coast Highway--on the inland side only--from Golden West Street south to Beach Boulevard, where it jogs inland in a zigzag pattern.
In what is called the downtown core area, there are a number of projects "in various states," according to principal redevelopment planner Michael C. Adams.
They include the Pierside Village, which will be built on about five acres of land, now a city beach parking lot, adjacent to the pier. It will house specialty retail stores. About 60% of the stores will be food outlets, such as yogurt, cookie and fudge shops, Adams said. Construction will begin this fall. The Village is projected to open in the summer of 1989.
There is also a proposal to build a "first-class, quality" 280-room hotel on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway where the Golden Bear nightclub once stood. This project, which is zoned for up to 12 stories, is running slightly behind schedule, Adams said.
There are four other key redevelopment areas in the city, according to Adams. They are:
- The Huntington Center Redevelopment Project Area. It is a 165-acre project that surrounds the city's largest shopping mall, and will include new office buildings, a Holiday Inn and two restaurants.
- The Oakview Neighborhood Project Area. A 14-story completed office building called Charter Centre, a health spa, a five-screen cinema and three restaurants are the commercial part of this 69-acre project area near the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Warner Avenue.
- The Talbert-Beach Redevelopment Area. Just west of Beach Boulevard and south of Talbert Avenue, this 25-acre project includes 96 senior citizen condominiums and 164 apartment units for senior citizens, all of which are completed and occupied. Additional senior housing has been proposed in this redevelopment area, Adams said.
- Yorktown Lake Project Area. This is 30 acres just south of Huntington Beach City Hall where medium-density residential housing has been proposed, Adams said. "Right now it's just conceptual," he added. "There may be some improvements to City Hall, maybe a community building."