Status of historic theater remains cloudy, delaying refurbishment efforts
By Jim Shilander
The Miramar Theater sits idle. Next door, the Casino San Clemente enjoys a renaissance as a newly renovated event and wedding facility and now houses a restaurant that promises to host a steady stream of patrons. Despite delays in the process, the city is on track to begin rehabilitation of the Ole Hanson Beach Club in the coming year. The third historic facility in North Beach, however, still sits deteriorating as it has since 1992, due to both cost and issues of ownership.
The cost of rehabilitating the theater and bowling alley has itself been an obstacle to its redevelopment since this past summer. But the question of who owns the building has been front and center, delaying any move to rehabilitate it. Despite a court ruling last month in the case, two men still claim ownership, or to represent ownership, of the Miramar.
In July, Barry Baptiste, who owns Mach-1 Autogroup of San Clemente, along with his brother Craig, told the City Council he had won ownership of the Miramar as a result of a lawsuit against its owner, Marc Spizzirri. The news came at the conclusion of a consultants’ presentation outlining potential development plans for the site, including information that the potential costs to make the property commercially viable could run in the millions.
At the time, Baptiste said he was on the verge of taking complete ownership of both buildings on the property, the theater and the adjacent bowling alley, as a result of a bankruptcy filing by Mr. Spizzirri and a court ruling in his favor. This was disputed by Spizzirri. Now, the city has held off any plans to assist with redevelopment until the situation is settled.
Spizzirri acquired the property in 2007 for $5.3 million with the goal of restoring it, he said. The property was put on the market in 2011 but did not find another buyer. Around the same time, Spizzirri and Baptiste’s company became entangled in lawsuits over a failed investment in Spizzirri’s former Family Honda automotive dealership in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Mach-1, Baptiste’s company, tried purchasing its first auto dealership, he said.
“I was attempting to be in Mr. Spizzirri’s business, with his partner, Raymond Dixon,” Baptiste said. “My firm put in a considerable amount of capital, that Mr. Spizzirri decided to not contribute toward the sale of the property, then to sell the property to a third buyer.”
Spizzirri agreed that Batiste’s company tried to purchase the dealership. But that’s about all the two men agree on.
“He misrepresented their financial ability to get that done, even though we gave him every opportunity. I was patient with him for the better part of a year,” Spizzirri said. Baptiste, he said, tried to stand in the way of the sale after “throwing in the towel” on his own attempted purchase.
Spizzirri said Baptiste “tried in any possible way that he could” to disrupt him financially. Spizzirri filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year.
Spizzirri said a judgment in the initial suit found no fault for his company but did allow Mach-1’s initial $2 million investment to be refunded. He is appealing that ruling.
Spizzirri also does not claim to be owner of the Miramar. He says the property was sold in May from Auto Orange II, the limited liability corporation that he had held ownership of, to another company, El Camino Real Estate Holdings, LLC. Spizzirri manages the corporation, but he said he is not a member of the corporation. Spizzirri said he could still receive development fees for finishing the project.
“Mr. Baptiste never had ownership. Never had the opportunity for ownership,” Spizzirri said. “His assertions back when he stood up in front of city council and said owned the property were lies or misunderstandings.”
Baptiste disputes this. He says a November judgment made by Orange County Judge Jamoa Moberly states that Mach-1 has control over Auto Orange II and closes the case. He said the title of the Miramar property lists Auto Orange as the owner.
“It’s been resolved since November 1. The legal issue is now done,” Baptiste said. “Now it’s a matter of running the assets and running the company as we see fit so that they can survive.”
Baptiste said he had spoken with city officials about the property but did not want to elaborate on the discussions. He said he would be ready to discuss the buildings with interested parties such as the North Beach Community Association and San Clemente Historical Society as plans become clearer.
Baptiste said he and his brother had been involved in other entrepreneurial ventures, including real estate development.
“Although we were trying to buy a car dealership, we come from a more entrepreneurial background,” Baptiste said. “Although it’s come as a happenstance of the judgment, our plan now is to develop the property.”
Spizzirri said the group he manages has deliberately kept a low profile in the last few months but that they were willing to move on rehabilitating the property at any time. He said he still has “strong emotional ties” to the property, since he initially purchased it with the intent to restore it and expressed confidence that the judgment returning the money to Mach-1 would be reversed on appeal.
The question of what to do with the property remains an important question for many. In its draft General Plan, the city specifically mentioned finding new uses for the building: “We encourage the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the historic Miramar Theatre as a movie theater, performing arts center or other high quality cultural use.”
Matt Jennings presented the Historic Structures Report on the current state of the two buildings and provided two possible development options to the council in July. Both utilized the theater building to show movies and divided the bowling alley into different commercial spaces but differed in how the entire theater space was used. One option provided for a commercial kitchen that could serve movie-goers at a dine-in movie theater. Another option used theater space as an art gallery with additional commercial space, rather than the kitchen, in the bowling alley. However, Jennings said the final look of the space, once developed, could still vary greatly, even within the options he’d discussed.
The two buildings are in varying states of disrepair, Jennings said. Of the two, the bowling alley was much worse off.
“It’s in really poor shape,” Jennings said. There were some historic hardwoods that could be utilized in future development, he said, but that was essentially it, as far as anything of historic value.
The theater, despite damage from a fire, was in relatively good shape, he said. “Theaters are designed to stop fires,” Jennings said. “The damage is repairable.”
Larry Culbertson, president of the San Clemente Historical Society, notes that the building is one of only five in the city listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
“Whenever we set up a booth to talk to the public, we get more questions about the Miramar than anything else, because it’s so iconic,” Culbertson said. “We’re always following it closely.”
San Clemente Community Development Direct Jim Holloway said he had not spoken to Spizzirri recently. He said Baptiste had met with city staff Tuesday for a discussion.
City Attorney Jeffrey Goldfarb said the city could make a final determination by taking a look at the title report on the property, but said he had not seen the document. He noted, however, that deeds are sometimes not updated properly. Both Baptiste and Spizzirri claim the title report proves their case for control. Holloway said the city was reviewing documentation Baptiste had presented at their Tuesday meeting.
And still, the Miramar sits. Whoever owns the property still faces obstacles and potentially millions of dollars in costs to bring back the last of North Beach’s jewels.