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Doheny Hotel developer seeks city height variance to build over 35-foot limit

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By Andrea Papagianis

Visitors to Dana Point currently pass under a landmark pedestrian bridge only to be greeted by gateway street corners occupied by a vacant lot home to seasonal produce sales, a Denny’s diner, a gas station, a vacant liquor store and fast food chains.

One developer has a vision to change this with the addition of a new hotel, but area residents aren’t so sure he has the city’s best interests in mind. Numerous letters submitted to the Dana Point Times and online commenters have produced mixed-results, some welcoming change to the street corner, and others, whole-heartedly calling for alternatives to the proposed hotel’s development.

The Proposal

Michael Draz, chief executive officer of the hotel’s developer Beverly Hills Hospitality Group, started acquiring land in Dana Point back in 2006. Draz had attended a friend’s wedding at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, when he fell in love with the town, he said. He began purchasing land at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point Harbor Drive, eventually piecing together 1.5 acres.

The developer submitted a city application in 2009 to construct a 258-room, two- to five-story hotel on three adjoining parcels of land, now home to a Jack in the Box restaurant, a vacant storefront and the 46-room Dana Point Harbor Inn, all of which would be demolished for the project.

Plans for the hotel include conference rooms, restaurants, rooftop amenities, such as pools, gardens and bars on both the second and fifth floors, and an underground parking structure with about 275 spaces. It is Draz’s hope that the proposed amenities would garner the hotel a four-star status.

In October, Draz said major hotel developers, like the Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corporation, have expressed early interest in the project but added that contractual commitments from companies like Hyatt depend on the hotel’s actual amenities.

One thing riding on the proposed hotel’s four-star status, Draz believes, is the height.

An architect’s rendering shows the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point Harbor Drive with an image of the proposed Doheny Hotel. Courtesy of Langdon Wilson International
An architect’s rendering shows the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point Harbor Drive with an image of the proposed Doheny Hotel. Courtesy of Langdon Wilson International

The Height Issue

The hotel proposal was first introduced to the Dana Point City Council and public in 2011.

After a public scoping meeting and numerous responses raised issue with the plans—specifically traffic, noise, parking and the hotel’s proposed height—the city determined an environmental-impact report was necessary.

A 302-page draft report, prepared by Irvine-based UltraSystems, was released earlier this summer for public review, bringing the project back into the limelight after nearly two years off the radar.

In order to move forward with the project as planned, the developer would need a variance for the city’s height limit of 35 feet, said Ursula Luna-Reynosa, the city’s community development director.

The proposed hotel varies in height from two stories to five, with its highest point standing at 60.5 feet tall. While the EIR reflects a height of 86.5 feet, the architect did not account for the site’s elevation, Luna-Reynosa said. Staff has corrected the document, but it will not be recirculated because the impact is being lessened as opposed to increased, she said.

“I would not be so insulted and aggravated by this presumptuous move of theirs (the developer) if they had presented a primary Doheny Hotel plan that worked within the current 35 foot limit,” said Dana Point resident Philip Krajeski, in an email to the Dana Point Times. Krajeski said he feared any height variance approval would set a precedent in the city.

That is something, Luna-Reynosa said would not happen.

This would not be the first height-variance approved within Dana Point, Luna-Reynosa said, but it could be one of the first granted by the city since its incorporation in 1989.

Other major hotel projects in Dana Point, with the exception of the St. Regis, occurred before the city’s incorporation, meaning the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved any development plans pushing for higher limits, said Erica Demkowicz, a senior city planner.

According to Luna-Reynosa and Demkowicz, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel; DoubleTree Suites Doheny Beach and Best Western Plus Marina Shores Hotel, all required height variances, but each was dependent on the topography of the sites they occupy.

“The way you measure the height of a project is based on the land’s topography,” said Luna-Reynosa. “So, it is not always apples to apples.”

As required under the California Environmental Quality Act, the report included “significant irreversible” and “unavoidable environmental impacts” and “changes.” The report determined that the development would have “unavoidable significant adverse impacts” to aesthetics and land use, but would not significantly change scenic views. The findings were attributed to the site’s hilly topography and the building being set back from the roadway.

Additionally, the EIR provided four project alternatives that would “feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project” while lessening the environmental impact. This included a four story building, and one with three stories, which would fall within the city’s height restrictions. Both of these alternatives would significantly decrease the project’s guest room capacity, from 258 accommodations to 188 and 144, respectively.

Draz said neither alternative is a financially viable one, and could hinder the hotel’s chances of being awarded four stars.

“What interests me is higher property values, not whether they are three-stars, four-stars or no stars,” said Krajeski. “I want to chop the Doheny Hotel to make it fit within our height restrictions.”

Concerns with Traffic and Parking

The developer has plans for a driveway entrance on Dana Point Harbor Drive, between PCH and Park Lantern, which provides access to Lantern Bay Park, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa and Doheny State Beach.

In response to traffic concerns, the developer is proposing adding a right-turn-only lane from eastbound PCH to Dana Point Harbor Drive and widening the roadway at Park Lantern to allow vehicles to make U-turns for PCH access, said Coralee Newman, with Government Solutions Inc., the developer’s communications consultant.

“It doesn’t block a view, it improves the traffic and it brings a lot of benefits, because it enhances a sense of arrival to the city of Dana Point, Doheny State Beach and the Harbor,” Draz said.

Initial plans stated that the developer would increase its offered parking for guests and employees utilizing an off-site lot. The developer suggested supplementing its parking needs with 50 spots, using land owned by the South Coast Water District. But at a government affairs meeting hosted by the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce in October, Wayne Rayfield, president of the SCWD board, said the plans were outdated and the district currently has other plans for its land.

Newman said, since the meeting, the developer has looked at other options but has not confirmed anything as of yet. She added, the development only needed an additional seven spaces to fulfill the city’s parking requirements.

The Public’s Chance to Weigh In  

While the public comment period has closed on the Environmental Impact Report, community members still have opportunities to hear and weigh in on the project.

Story poles will be erected on the property demonstrating the various heights of the proposed hotel through Wednesday, November 20.

On Saturday, November 16, the Planning Commission will gather at the site for a meeting. This meeting is open to the public, as commissioners will work to familiarize themselves with the property. Commissioners and city staff will be on-site at 9 a.m., said Luna-Reynosa.

The hotel’s plans will be presented to the commission on Monday, November 18 at its meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. No vote will be taken on the project, as this is just a study session re-introducing commissioners and the public to the project.

A public hearing will follow on Monday, December 9, at which time a vote on the project could be made, Luna-Reynosa said. If significant questions remain and public comments go long, the hearing could be continued she said. Planning Commission meetings are held at City Hall, Council Chambers, located at 33282 Golden Lantern.

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