California's Initiative Loophole Scam -- Now in Beverly Hills...

Developers in California have discovered California's time-worn ballot initiative process as a sound business idea. By avoiding planning commissions and city councils, these developers have made the cold business calculation that it's worth spending a few million dollars on political campaigns, including glitzy brochures and slick cable TV ads as a way to avoid pesky environmental reviews such as CEQA. That's right: in California, voter-approved initiatives can bypass the entire planning process which is meant to protect communities and the general public. They can create hundreds of millions of dollars in property value to the developer while creating traffic and other negative impacts for residents.

With hard-sell tactics which would put time-share hucksters to shame, paid signature gatherers spread half-truths to place developer-sponsored projects on the ballot. It's a clear loophole in our state's initiative process, and it's a loophole which should be ended by the state's legislators.

Until that happens, we can only hope that the cities in which these scams are being perpetuated have enough savvy residents to see through the self-interest and false claims. As Mayor in a city in which this unique form of initiative abuse is currently being perpetuated, I have penned the following missive to our residents which I hope can clear up some misinformation which is spreading through Beverly Hills like wildfire, with the November election's casual voters in mind.

In Beverly Hills, namely, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and Beverly Waldorf Astoria (which is currently under construction) is trying to build a 375-foot skyscraper by selling it to our residents as a "park and open space initiative." Seriously.

Let's hope that the spirit of P.T. Barnum, and his modern-day helpers at the legal firm of Latham and Watkins fail in their attempts to create new BH suckers; in fact, let's hope that this is one of those instances when Honest Abe was right that "you can't fool all of the people all of the time," or, better yet, where you even "can't fool all of the people even some of the time."

A NOTE FROM BEVERLY HILLS MAYOR JOHN MIRISCH ABOUT THE HILTON'S INITIATIVE TO BUILD A 375 FOOT SKYSCRAPER

Dear Neighbor,

As Mayor of Beverly Hills, I've been approached by a number of residents who have asked me about a petition circulating which would add to the Beverly Hilton's building entitlements without going through the standard City reviews, including environmental reviews. Let me tell you my personal opinion about the petition and initiative: I believe that the more you know about this deceptive initiative, the more you're going to want to say "no." For example, you are probably not aware that the initiative's real purpose is to allow the developer to build a 375-foot high skyscraper, and that there are no "public gardens," despite the pretty pictures.

As Mayor, and, more importantly, as a resident who cares about Beverly Hills, I urge you not to sign the petition. The initiative is being misrepresented by those asking, and in some cases pressuring you to sign. The circulators get paid per signature, so they clearly have a financial interest in getting you to sign. In many cases, the signature-gatherers aren't Beverly Hills residents and have no stake in our Community.

Here's why you shouldn't sign (or should rescind your signature if you were pressured into signing or mistakenly signed the petition):

1) The campaign is deceptive, especially about the "open space". The developer has titled his scheme "The BH Garden and Open Space Initiative." In fact, his main goal is to build a 375-foot skyscraper, absolutely unprecedented in Beverly Hills.

a. The park is not a "public park." The developer has tried to give the impression that the small amount of additional open space created would be a public garden. Paid supporters have compared the new open space to the popular Beverly Canon Gardens by the Montage. The new open space is NOT a public park, like the Beverly Canon Gardens. It would be a private area, open to the public at the owner's discretion. It could be closed for private parties and events.

b. The "open space" could be eliminated in the future. There is nothing in the initiative which ensures that the park would remain green space forever. The open space would not be deeded to the City, nor is the City being offered a permanent easement, which means the developer could apply to build an additional high rise building there at some point in the future.

c. Disruption to El Rodeo. The "open space," as planned, would be more - not less disruptive - to El Rodeo across the street. One of the arguments made to El Rodeo parents is that "a park would replace a building, and that would be better for El Rodeo." However, the developer has announced that the park space would host a "Tavern on the Green" style restaurant, which would serve liquor. It would likely host parties and the potential noise and impacts on the school cannot be studied, as the developer is avoiding a full environmental review through the initiative.

d. No free or additional parking. Not only can the owner close the park at his sole discretion for private events etc., but the initiative does not provide for free parking, such as the City provides at the lot below the Beverly Canon Gardens. Neither does the initiative add parking to the project to deal with the additional demand the new restaurant and event spaces would create.

2) At 375 feet, the building is much too high for Beverly Hills. While getting the skyscraper approved is the main goal of the initiative, none of the renderings shows the full height of the building. All of the developer's drawings cut off the skyscraper to deceptively minimize its visual impact. To put things in perspective: the proposed tower is 70 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty - including the base; it is 60 feet higher than Notre Dame in Paris; it is 60 feet higher than Big Ben in London; it is more than double the height of Niagara Falls. What's more, it is more than double the height of the current highest building in Beverly Hills. The maximum height allowable for commercial buildings by our General Plan is 45 feet. Beverly Hills is not Manhattan; we are not Dubai; and we are not Century City. There is simply no good reason for us to allow such a ridiculously outsize monstrosity just to satisfy the financial desires of a developer.

3) The process is unfair and sets a bad precedent. The Hilton is using a loophole, which would allow it to avoid the full environmental and public review which every other construction project has to go through in Beverly Hills. There are numerous additional impacts, including increased traffic and shade and shadow issues, which the project would create and which would be completely ignored because the loophole eliminates the full environmental review. This is clearly unfair to all of our residents and businesses who go through the existing process whenever they want to build, remodel or construct something. If anything, a project of the magnitude proposed by the Hilton should in fairness require more, not less environmental review.

4) The proposed project wastes water compared to the existing plan and is less environmentally friendly. The current Hilton project requires the Waldorf Astoria hotel and the condo buildings to have a gray water system, which means that the buildings would need to use recycled water, for example, to flush the toilets. The initiative would eliminate the buildings' gray water system, meaning each time a toilet is flushed, potable water is wasted. This is both irresponsible and unacceptable in a drought-stricken California in which the City of Beverly Hills has been mandated by the State to reduce our water usage by 32%, which has forced the City to assess penalties for residents who use too much water.

5) The proposed project will have additional impacts, including additional traffic and circulation impacts, which can't be studied or mitigated with this initiative. The initiative creates new outdoor event areas, which could be used to host numerous private parties, conferences and other events. These kinds of events are among the most intense traffic generators, and we would not be in a position to regulate or mitigate any of the negative impacts the project would necessarily create.

It is clear why the developer doesn't want to go through the same process and procedure as every other resident and business in the City; it's clear why the developer is spending millions on a deceptive campaign to get our residents to approve his plan. The fact is, the project, if approved as proposed, would enrich the developer by some $200 to $300 million -- without any additional financial benefits to the City.

Let me be clear: even if the developer would renegotiate the development agreement with the City to provide additional financial benefits to the City and schools, which are not included in the initiative, I would oppose it for all of the reasons stated above. While it may be a financial boon worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the developer, a 375-foot water-wasting skyscraper, which is what the initiative is really about, is simply wrong for the City and for our residents.

I would urge you not to sign the petition, and should you have signed by mistake and wish to rescind your petition, please contact our City Clerk, Byron Pope, at bpope@beverlyhills.org, 310-285-2401. You have the right to rescind your signature.

Of course, if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,
John Mirisch
Mayor, City of Beverly Hills