LA City Council fails to halt Bulgari hotel project

After more than two hours of public comment, deliberation in closed session and suggestions of an ethics violation, the Los Angeles City Council Tuesday rejected a bid to halt a much-debated hotel project in Benedict Canyon that has drawn the ire of some neighbors.

The council deadlocked on a 7-7 vote on a motion introduced by Councilwoman Katy Yaroslavsky, who represents the area as part of her Fifth District. The motion would have directed the city planning director to reconsider the initiation of a General Plan amendment needed to permit the proposed Bulgari Hotel to be built in a residential area.

The Department of Planning previously approved the start of the process that would give a specific zoning designation for the project to advance. Although the motion was defeated, it still does not guarantee the project will ultimately be built. The council will discuss the project again once the Planning Department releases an environmental impact report.

"I do not ask for this vote lightly," Yaroslavsky told her colleagues Tuesday. "But I strongly believe that it is necessary to protect the integrity of our planning process."

The councilwoman offered four reasons why her colleagues should support her motion, including a possible ethics violation by her predecessor's planning and land use deputy.

Ethics Commission records indicate Stacey Brenner received more than $174,000 for lobbying efforts to obtain the General Plan amendment — while her husband Shawn Bayliss was working as the planning and land use deputy for then- Councilman Paul Koretz.

"There is absolutely no evidence that the City Ethics Office or the City Attorney's Office were ever consulted about this clear conflict of interest that this presented and whether or how they could mitigate that conflict," Yaroslavsky said.

Brenner was the one who personally submitted and signed the General Plan amendment application, Yaroslavsky added.

The councilwoman also noted the developer, Gary Safady, had spent almost $3 million to lobby for the amendment.

In addition, Yaroslavsky contended the proposed project would pose significant environmental threats and increase potential hazards to the residents in the canyon. She also said many of her constituents "overwhelmingly" oppose the project, along with Mayor Karen Bass and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

"...From a land use perspective, allowing an intensive commercial use in a very low density, fire-prone residential area is a terrible idea," Yaroslavsky said. "Nowhere in Los Angeles are we allowing new commercial uses in low-density hillside communities, specifically because of the wildfire and landslide risks."

The Bulgari Hotel project was introduced in 2018 and would be located at 9704-9712 W. Oak Road. It includes plans for a 59-room hotel and eight single-family homes on an approximately 32.67-acre property, according to the motion.

The hotel portion would include 18 buildings, a stand-alone parking structure, funicular railway and a main hotel building including outdoor amenities, commercial space and subterranean parking.

The residential portion of the site would contain eight single-family homes, ranging between 12,000 and 48,000 square feet with associated garage parking.

Safady told the Los Angeles Times he was working to contain events on site "as much as possible, making the hotel seem to blend in with the environment."

Safady also said events would be smaller in size than at two nearby hotels — the Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel — and that any trees displaced by construction would be replaced on a 4-to-1 basis.

Yaroslavsky expressed her concern that if her motion failed it might set a precedent "that if you have enough money and can hire enough lobbyists in Los Angeles, even ones that are married to your planning deputies, you can build whatever you want, wherever you want, using whatever murky shady means you see fit to deploy."

Celebrities have lined up on both sides of the issue. The Times reported that Mark Wahlberg, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Gerard Butler were among the neighbors who signed letters in support, while those opposed included Phil McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger and actress Stefanie Powers.

During Tuesday's city council meeting, residents from the Fifth District and others concerned about the potential impacts of the proposed project expressed their support for Yaroslavsky's motion.

Attorney Alicia Bartley, representing Save Our Canyon, which is a community group opposing the Bulgari Hotel, reiterated that the city was within its legal rights to rescind the General Plan amendment.

Anne-Marie Otey, communication director for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents more than 140,000 skilled and trained workers, asked the council to allow for the continuation of the environmental process for the Bulgari Hotel project.

"It's not the time to resort to reverse your decision," Otey said. "Now is the time to allow a developer who is ethical, a developer who reached out to unions, a developer who is working with all of our trade unions to build a property that will be a showcase for this area of Los Angeles and promote tourism and travel."

City Council members went into closed session Tuesday to consider the legal implications of the motion. Once they came back, they voted, with council members Kevin de León, Heather Hutt, Traci Park, John Lee, Monica Rodriguez, Curren Price and Paul Krekorian voting against Yaroslavsky's motion.

Rodriguez said she found the conversation around the alleged ethics violation to be "rich."

"There's a lot of discretion that we have in every land use decision that we make around this horseshoe," Rodriguez said. "We discovered it after the fact, in many circumstances, how that privilege, that responsibility, was abused. Here, there's nothing proven, and so the allegation is an allegation, unproven."

Park said she will await the results of the environmental impact report on the project.