Sheraton Gets OK to Build Hotel on Torrey Pines Site

Times Staff Writer

After six years of waiting and $2 million in expenditures, Sheraton Corp. won the right Monday to build a 400-room hotel on the edge of the city-owned Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Sheraton, the winner over Hyatt and Marriott in an earlier city competition for building rights, had been delayed in starting its project because the city could not cancel its land lease with operators of a golf driving range on the site.

But during a marathon meeting, the City Council cleared the way for construction, voting 5-3 to overturn a city Planning Commission denial of the hotel project. Voting unsuccessfully to stop the Sheraton development were Mayor Maureen O'Connor and Councilwomen Celia Ballesteros and Abbe Wolfsheimer.

Opposition to the project focused largely on the dangers posed by aircraft operating out of nearby Miramar Naval Air Station.

Risk Was Lessened

Although the hotel layout was changed to minimize the risk--with designers "sinking it into the ground" on the sloping 11.4-acre site in order to concentrate guests on the lowest of three levels, O'Connor, her two council colleagues and numerous community members allied against the project remained skeptical.

Even the Navy refused to endorse construction of the project. A Miramar NAS spokesman, Roy Johnson, said that the Navy opposed the hotel development because it lies under the field's westerly takeoff path. An earlier ruling by the Navy, however, did approve a smaller, 200-room version of the hotel.

Mayor O'Connor said that "for no amount of revenue to this city could I vote for this without having the Navy say it was safe. But, the Navy is telling us . . . that it is a safety hazard, and the Sheraton Corp. has not agreed to hold the city harmless."

Craig Beam, attorney for the hotel chain, said that a $100-million liability insurance policy would be purchased if the city so requested.

Despite the safety concerns, the project is expected to be a lucrative one. The city stands to gain more than $50 million in revenues on the property during the 55-year lease with Sheraton.

During the hearing, former City Manager Ray Blair and Chamber of Commerce executive Lee Grissom urged the present council members "to live up to the bargain made by a previous City Council" that awarded the lease to Sheraton in 1981.

Council Has Changed

Only two of the present council members, Mike Gotch and Bill Cleator, were on the council when the original award was made.

Cleator, arguing in favor of the hotel, scoffed at the safety concerns, telling fellow council members, "I can't understand how anyone can say that this (hotel) is going to cause problems . . . when right next door is one of the finest hospitals (Scripps Clinic) and right across the street is a solid wall of buildings," headquarters for a number of major high-tech firms.

Councilman Ed Struiksma proposed that "if the Navy is so dead set against this, let them exercise their rights and buy the (hotel) property" from the city. "We may have reached a time when we should consider whether the Navy is a 'compatible land use' in this city." Bitter words were exchanged by spokesmen for Sheraton and members of Friends of Torrey Pines, a group that has waged an expensive fight to halt the development.

Miles Harvey, attorney for the Sheraton group, recalled that "six years ago, it was like a shoot-out at the OK Corral, and nothing has changed."

Jerry Simms, head of Friends of Torrey Pines, said he personally financed the whirlwind two-month campaign to kill the hotel development, "although a lot of people have offered to contribute." Among the organization's efforts were full-page newspaper advertisements warning of the aircraft crash hazards and a mailing to all coastal households between Pacific Beach and Solana Beach.

Opposition came from La Jolla community groups, the Del Mar City Council and from golfing groups that use the Torrey Pines course. Del Mar Mayor Ronnie Delaney said her city experienced Navy air traffic over its roofs during televised golf tournaments at the course and was not willing to have the flight path shifted, "even a few degrees toward us," to avoid overflight of the proposed hotel.

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