Beverly Hilton developer goes to voters with new plan
Beny Alagem wants to make a deal with Beverly Hills voters.
In 2008, the Beverly Hilton developer proposed a plan to redevelop the Hilton property into a sprawling complex, with a 12-story triangular Waldorf Astoria pointing into westbound traffic on Wilshire Boulevard accompanied by two luxury condominium towers, one eight stories, the other 18.
The only problem: Beverly Hills building code allows a maximum height of 45 feet and three stories for commercial properties.
Despite this, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to allow the construction to proceed, but citizens banded together to offer a referendum to block it. The referendum lost by just 129 votes — less than 1 percent.
Now, Alagem wants to tweak his plan, and he’s returning to the same voters who nearly thwarted him eight years ago.
“This time, we said, ‘Let the voters decide,’ ” Alagem told the Jewish Journal. “ ‘Let’s go to the residents of the city and let’s ask them if they agree with me or not.’ ”
In March, two residents sponsored a ballot initiative to allow Alagem to scrap the smaller, eight-story residential tower and instead add another eight stories to the taller, 18-story high-rise, which would be built set back from Wilshire Boulevard. Where the shorter tower would have gone, a 1.7-acre green space, open to the public, would replace it.
Soon after the new plan went public, the Hilton rolled out well-funded signature-gathering and advertising campaigns. Twitter ads and television commercials illustrate a proposed lush park with a fountain populated by spiffily dressed visitors. On May 2, the campaign submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
But, as in 2008, some Beverly Hills residents are none too eager to allow the developer, an Israeli American who immigrated in 1975, to raise the roof on the Beverly Hills skyline.
“This is not Legoland — it’s not like you get a certain number of blocks and you can distribute them however you want,” Mayor John Mirisch said in an interview at his office in City Hall. “That’s not how it works.”
Mirisch first objects to the initiative on the basis that it attempts to skirt the normal process for permitting construction. It would bypass a close review by City Hall and the public, he said.
New construction projects that stretch code limits typically go before the city’s planning commission, the architectural commission and City Council.
The mayor, a film executive, said Alagem’s decision to go directly to voters proves “there is absolutely not a level playing field” when it comes to development: Builders with enough money to throw into an election can attempt to buy special treatment.
“There is a basic question of fairness,” he said.
Alagem said these accusations miss the mark, as his project is not a new one. Before the first iteration was approved in 2008, it went through 19 public hearings and three years of review.
“This is totally misinformation,” he said of the mayor’s argument. “It’s pretty simple to analyze: Do I want open space … or I don’t want it.”
The proposed ballot initiative has raised some of the same hackles as the 2008 proposal.
“It’s another Beny Alagem sham — just like the last one,” said Larry Larson, an attorney and a longtime opponent of upward development in Beverly Hills.
Both Larson and Mirisch are committed to the idea of Beverly Hills as a low-rise community. In separate interviews, each mentioned the “village-like atmosphere” of the wealthy enclave. Most residents, they said, prefer the city’s current human scale to the towering height of other parts of Los Angeles.
In 2008, Larson spearheaded a residents group that pushed the anti-development initiative.
After it failed, he led an effort to uncover phony votes. Along with volunteers and one paid employee, he painstakingly reviewed election records and knocked on doors to investigate whether there had been double voting. He said he found 569 instances of illegal votes.
Larson brought his case to the Los Angeles District Attorney Public Integrity Division. The DA’s office confirmed it received the complaint, but said in an email that it “closed the case after a thorough review determined there was insufficient evidence to file any charges.” Larson can’t connect the Hilton to the alleged false votes.
However, no one argues whether the hotel operated vigorously within the law to defeat the measure, spending $4.67 million on the opposition campaign.
Alagem declined to say how much the Hilton has spent so far on this election. But he made no secret of the fact that he stands to profit on the development, whether or not voters approve his ballot initiative in November.
Building upward in a low-rise city would provide unparalleled views and likely increase sales prices on upper-floor condos. In addition, the developer said the new plan would create a more desirable space for Hilton guests and make them more likely to return.
“Of course we hope that [the new plan] will create better revenue, even for the Beverly Hilton, which in turn is more revenue for the city of Beverly Hills,” he said.
The Hilton currently pays more than $22 million to the city in taxes each year, not counting what Alagem has paid for permits.
“The residents are our partners for life,” Alagem said. “Every dollar that we bring into the hotel, the residents get 15 cents out of it.”
By this argument, too, Larson is unmoved.
“We don’t need the money,” he said. “We don’t need to prostitute ourselves and allow overdevelopment to make a few extra dollars.”
Larson questioned even the premise of the ballot measure that residents would benefit in the form of a public park.
He pointed out that the initiative doesn’t require Alagem to deed the land to the city or offer an easement on the open space, and suggested the developer seeks to build there in the future, despite the fact that the initiative would mandate that the garden “shall generally be open to the public.”
Residents are by no means united in opposition to the project.
Martin Geimer, a realtor who served on the Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Commission for six years, said the initiative would address residents’ complaints that the city lacks open green space.
“All we ever heard was we’re under-parked, under-green space, and wish we had more,” he said of his time on the commission.
For the longtime Beverly Hills resident, who lives in the shadow of Century City near Beverly Hills High School, the additional height on the condo tower is a non-issue.
“After about two weeks, nobody will hardly notice it,” he said.
Speaking in the conference room at the Century City office of Alagem Capital Partners, yards away from the Hilton, the hotelier dismissed complaints that the 26-story tower would alter the Beverly Hills skyline.
Dominating one of the conference room windows, a nearby 40-story residential skyscraper is nearing completion just across the Los Angeles border, in Century City. Nearly double the height of Alagem’s proposed tower, he argues it negates concerns about changing the low-rise character of Beverly Hills.
Linda Briskman, a former city councilwoman who sponsored the current Hilton initiative, echoed that sentiment.
“I’m not afraid of height,” she said. “They’re already entitled to build 18 stories. Unless you’re just standing there looking straight up, you have no sense of how high it is, anyway.”
Nor is she swayed by the argument that the initiative subverts the normal planning process. Even if Alagem went to City Hall with the altered plan, residents would likely have opposed it with the same tactics as in 2008, she said.
“[The plan] would have been thrown into a referendum, anyway,” she said. “To be honest with you, why not cut to the chase?”