GUEST OPINION :
Say it Ain ’ t So , Mo
By Billy Fried
Dear Mo ,
Oh , how we wanted to love ya . At least some of us . A benevolent local entrepreneur who would revive some of our aging , decaying properties and breathe new life into town .
Even when you demonstrated an alarming , outsized appetite to acquire every trophy property in town and entire blocks of buildings , we suspended disbelief that you were hellbent on converting our little sleepy town into a glitzy “ Mo-town .” So we took a wait-and-see . And boy , have we waited . And my God , what we ’ ve seen . Some of which isn ’ t suitable for children !
Nobody could figure out what was going
on in that head of yours to take on so many development projects simultaneously , particularly seasoned real estate developers . After all , this was a far cry from where you made your gazillions – retail cell phone stores . Not to diminish your astounding success , but that ’ s a formula-driven commodity business that involves scaling up stores in a burgeoning category that was blowing up . Still , kudos to a young immigrant who came here for college saw an opportunity , and pounced .
But buying storied hotels , vacation rentals , event and retail centers , restaurants , apartments , and raw land in a town that fanatically protects its historic core - thinking you could remake an entire village - was just flat-out hubris . In an article in Architects Orange back in 2019 , you proclaimed you were investing $ 1 billion in redevelopment projects in Laguna : $ 250 million in Hotel Laguna ( including town homes , shops , and hotel additions ), $ 500 million in something ambiguously called the Arts District ( where you had already gobbled up 7 Degrees , the Festival Marketplace and Tivoli ), and another $ 100 million on the Holiday Inn and the 600- foot long “ cruise ship ” in North Laguna known as the Museum Hotel . I guess you thought investors would be banging down your door to partner . Instead , they ’ ve been banging it down asking , “ Where ’ s our money , Lebowski ?”
You started off slow , and somewhat
successfully . You reimagined the Festival Center as The Hive , put some lipstick on that pig , and attracted some quality tenants . But that was a gimme – the previous landlord was so stubborn he left most of the center vacant because potential tenants refused to pay his then outrageous price of $ 6 a square foot . So , you tarted it up , were gifted pandemic outdoor seating for your restaurant tenants , and it looked as if you really did have fairy dust .
Then came the admirable restoration of Tivoli Terrace in the Festival of Arts to Terra , highlighting the amazing 1957 mid-century parabolic roof of Don Williamson . But then we find out you did unpermitted construction , stiffed your contractors , and owed your landlord $ 369,000 . Rut Row , Mo .
Next up , you gave the community a peek at how you would redevelop the Holiday Inn , which admittedly could use a makeover . But there it was : a gleaming , glittery hotel that looked more Miami than Laguna , complete with variances that would obliterate the views of tenants behind it . You were sent packing once more , and we began to grow weary , not only of your plans but also of your taste .
But the piece de resistance of tone-deafness was the Museum Hotel , a 600-footlong monolith fronting Coast Highway – with no ocean view , stretching from Cliff Drive to Jasmine Street . Something so gargantuan and out of scale with the neigh-
borhood it begged the question of whether you were living in an alternate reality .
This leads us to the debacle known as Hotel Laguna , the one you stated was your “ gift to Laguna .” Oh , what a gift it ’ s been ! The city allowed you to first renovate the ground floor without providing a plan for the entire hotel so you could get the public areas open for the “ community ’ s benefit .” This meant the city would forego its needed TOT taxes on overnight room revenue for an untold period of time . And what did you give us in return ? Red tag after red tag over unpermitted work , which delayed the opening way beyond what was reasonable , and created a giant headache for the very city officials who were trying to help you . And when it finally opened , meh . Way too loud , with no soft edges – and overpriced . A gift only unsuspecting tourists would savor .
Throughout this time , we had to endure the nasty public conflicts with your creditors , not once , not twice , but three times , including your ex-wife , who claimed you were hiding assets and spending her settlement illegally .
But this latest episode is by far the most unsavory – and surreal . Early on , you claimed to be getting financing from banks . But judging from the recent scuffles and wrestling matches in the lobby of the hotel between you and your partners , I doubt you are working with Goldman Sachs .
FRIED , PAGE 22