Déjà Vu: Beverly Hills Journalist Defends Deceptive Hilton Scheme, Paper Ignores Facts Once Again

In today's, Beverly Hills Courier, reporter Laura Coleman's article takes up my open letter to the Beverly Hills community and my Huffington Post piece about the Beverly Hilton's initiative to build a 375-foot skyscraper. If anyone had any illusions that Coleman's story was objective, all they needed to do was fast forward to the last line of the article, which links to the initiative's "official website," a masterpiece of hucksterism which could make veteran time-share salesmen seem like rank amateurs. Now, it hardly takes a Hercule Poirot to connect any of the dots, and should be no surprise to anyone either that the Hilton/Waldorf has multiple full page ads in the Courier.

Whether or not Laura Coleman got a little help from her friends at the Hilton directly, or was simply preparing her application for the Mohamed Hadid school of real estate, let's deconstruct the story, starting with the headline: "Déjà Vu: Mirisch Kicks Off Election Campaign, Goes After Hilton Redevelopment Once Again. " Just what "election campaign" is being referred to in the headline? The Hilton campaign itself? A potential November election to replace the departing BH councilmember Willie Brien? Next March's election? The US presidential election? The article is not clear, but one might potentially draw a conclusion from a subsequent statement in the article that I'm kicking off a reelection campaign for next March's Council election. Interesting. That could be the ultimate "conspiracy theory": I goaded the Hilton into a deceptive, self-serving campaign in order to oppose it, so that I could kick off a potential reelection campaign. I see...

Coleman's lead uses the Hilton's own description of its initiative, the deceptively (some might say "ironically") named "Beverly Hills Garden and Open Space Initiative" and characterizes the initiative as a "reorganization" of a building project. Instead of a serious consideration of the points of fact I made in my original Huffpost article, Coleman suggests that the real source of my opposition to the "375-foot Hilton Skyscraper Initiative" is that the decision is to be made directly by the voters rather than by the Council. Yet this nifty attempt at mind-reading is completely wrong (and here I was thinking it was only men who couldn't mind read...). This is not about the Council; it's about the entire process, which every other developer or resident goes through when he or she wants to build, remodel or construct. As I point out in my original article, the matter of process is one of fairness. The normal process by which construction projects are entitled includes a significant amount of public comment and environmental review, all of which is circumvented by the process the Hilton has so cynically chosen.

Coleman's "argument" as such (and one can easily question the extent to which a news article should be making "arguments" on behalf of a developer), is both speculative and self-serving. Rather than ask me straight out, she theorizes about why I object to the project and lack of process. Why is it difficult for Coleman to read my actual text, which explicitly states my grounds for opposition? And while I don't think that ballot-box planning is necessarily the best way to engage in urban planning, what I truly object to is the lack of public input and any kind of meaningful municipal review, including - importantly - environmental review. I truly object to the Hilton's selling their initiative as being about "creating open space" when it really is about getting entitled to build a 375-foot skyscraper.

Her comparison between my letter and the "excoriation of residents for voicing their concerns" about the Lot 12 and 13 tree cutting scandal is downright bizarre. Can Coleman really not see the difference between criticizing a developer who is misrepresenting an initiative (which will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for the developer) and residents who are justifiably angry because trees have been cut down in violation of the law and a situation which should have included copious public input has excluded the public and been handled in an unprofessional and unacceptable manner? Clearly, Coleman correctly feels there was inadequate attention paid to the public health and safety when it came to Lots 12 and 13, with a developer ignoring the proscribed process, ignoring the public and ignoring long-term impacts. The disregard of the developer for the public and public process is in both instances are eerily similar, yet Coleman fails to see how the Lots 12/13 tree cutting scandal shows exactly why public input and review are an important part of the process for all major development projects.

In language which easily could have been written by Hilton spokesperson Marie Garvey herself (and perhaps was), Coleman describes the initiative as creating "a more idyllic redevelopment." I'm surprised she didn't try to throw in the word "bucolic" or "pastoral." Yet to describe a skyscraper which is 70 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty (including the base) and more than double the height of anything in Beverly Hills as "idyllic" seems, well, let's just be kind and use the word "inappropriate," not to mention the fact that none of the Hilton's propaganda mentions the true height of their proposed skyscraper, let alone shows it in renderings.

The article then mentions that the new initiative would amend Measure H which "was approved by the City Council and Beverly Hills voters in 2008 following 19 public hearings and a referendum." Coleman conveniently omits that the 2008 referendum itself was tainted: the measure passed by a mere 129 votes, while there were over 500 documented instances of voter fraud (i.e. people who voted in the election who were not Beverly Hills residents). Yet the irony of this sentence should be clear to all. In 2008 there were 19 public hearings. This time there will be none.

The next paragraph yet again seems predicated on the author's self-presumed mind-reading talent: "But Mirisch is incensed that he and the City would not control how the project shapes up and thus he is using his position as mayor to do everything he can to affect the process now underway. In fact, Mirisch vigorously opposed the Hilton's Revitalization Plan and blogged incessantly against it in order to promote his first campaign for City Council."

Here, Coleman tries to paint me as a "control freak." According to her, I'm "incensed" because I and the City can't control "how the project shapes up." Let's be clear: this has nothing to do with me personally. This has everything to do with the Hilton and the way in which they are selling a 375-foot skyscraper as "open space." Quite simply, such hucksterism is an attempt to insult the intelligence of our residents, and, yes, that disturbs me. Furthermore, as I wrote, I believe that the Hilton's "process now underway" would be precedential should it succeed and that it would encourage other developers to try to circumvent public input and environmental reviews in favor of slick, superficial campaigns to get their projects passed, with potential lasting and irrevocable impacts to our Community.

I'll ask Coleman directly: do you feel that it is a good thing to avoid a public process, which includes public meetings, public input and environmental reviews? Do you feel that all development projects in Beverly Hills should be done by initiative which circumvents the public process and environmental reviews? Would this not virtually ensure that the only projects which would have a chance of passing would be those with well-funded developers behind them? How is this fair? How is this a level playing field?

It would seem that Coleman is not concerned with fairness; she clearly, at least in this article, has a fast and loose relationship with the truth as evidenced by her suggestion that I opposed the initial Hilton plan in order to promote my candidacy for the City Council. In fact, I opposed the original Hilton plan because as a 4th generation Beverly Hills resident, I felt it was just too big for our Community. I felt the Council majority at the time was more concerned with protecting the interests of developers than the residents of Beverly Hills. In fact, I decided to run for Council after Measure H passed in a questionable election with tainted votes because I felt we deserve a Council which puts residents - not developers - first.

Coleman ends her article by trying to call me out on "inaccuracies" in my letter. It seems she got her talking points directly from the Hilton's PR flack Marie Garvey, but Coleman herself is inaccurate about my being inaccurate.

Let's deconstruct the inaccuracy of each "inaccuracy":

-"The park is not a 'public park.'"-In fact, the initiative states that it is a "new publicly accessible garden."

I wrote: "The new open space is NOT a public park, like the Beverly Canon Gardens." Indeed, this is a true statement. A "publicly accessible garden" is not the same thing as a "public park." The Hilton hotel itself is a "publicly accessible hotel" and the gardens would be "publicly accessible" to those to whom the Hilton chooses to grant access. The gardens could be shut down at any time at the Hilton's discretion - for private events or the like. This isn't the case with the Beverly Canon Gardens, which truly is a public park. As a resident commented to me, "The proposed gardens are no more a public park than my backyard is if I decided I wanted to open it to the public at some point."

-"The 'open space' could be eliminated in the future."- (Hilton front man Beny) Alagem has told the Courier and multiple residents that the area along Wilshire Boulevard that he intends to transform to a public garden will be a public garden forever;

What the developer says is one thing, and what the initiative itself says is another thing. If Coleman had bothered to read the initiative itself (which I had sent to the Courier), she would have seen that the new Specific Plan which the initiative creates can be amended for the first ten years by another initiative and after 10 years by the Council itself. If Alagem, or a future owner, in some 10 years decides he wants to build another building on the site of the "gardens," there is nothing stopping them from applying to do so. The initiative could easily have been written to deed the "public gardens" to the City and the residents or to give the City and the residents a permanent easement to ensure that the park truly would be a public park in perpetuity. This, however, is not written into the language of the initiative and there is clearly a reason for that.

-"The process is unfair and sets a bad precedent."-Alagem is going directly to the voters, as allowed by law;

C'mon Laura, really? Because something is "allowed by the law" makes it fair and good precedent? Again, is this the process you envision for all future land use decisions in Beverly Hills? Would you perhaps recommend to Mohamed Hadid if he wants to build a Ritz-Carlton in Beverly Hills that he get his project passed by initiative?

Of course, even if all the residents were land use experts, one unavoidable pitfall of the initiative process is the fact that it eliminates all meaningful public input and environmental review. And why, Laura Coleman, is that a good thing?

-"The [petition] circulators get paid per signature...[and] in many cases, the signature-gatherers aren't Beverly Hills residents."-According to Garvey that is simply untrue, and in fact, in addition to using a firm who employs people to collect signatures, there are over 100 resident volunteers;

What is being disputed here? That the Hilton is using paid signature gatherers? Or that they get paid per signature (which is a common way to compensate paid signature gatherers)? Just how much is the Hilton spending to gather signatures? Just how much are they spending on their entire campaign? Are any residents working on the initiative on the Hilton's payroll or getting any perks from the Hilton?

-"The proposed project wastes water compared to the existing plan and is less environmentally friendly."-In fact, according to the master plan architect, Steven Upchurch, principal with Gensler, the project's use of an on-site greywater system means that water will be reused to irrigate the landscape

The initiative would use recycled water to irrigate the gardens. However, it would also eliminate gray water systems for use both in the Waldorf Astoria and the new building. This means that under the current plan, gray water would be used in the buildings to, for example, flush toilets. If the new initiative passes, each time a toilet flushes, it would be with potable water rather than recycled water. Drinking water literally being flushed down the toilet. Clearly, the proposed project wastes water compared to the existing plan, and that is not a good thing in our drought-stricken state in a city which has been mandated to reduce our water use by 32%

Unfortunately, Laura Coleman's "news article" calls her journalistic objectivity into question. It seems she never actually attended Gil Chesterton's cub journalism class at Beverly Hills High School. Rumors have been flying around Beverly Hills that Hilton front man Beny Alagem was going to purchase the Courier. It seems that may have already happened... So while it looks like that long-awaited Pulitzer may have to wait just a little bit longer, I'll use my own mind-reading powers to predict that at least you can expect a lot more full page ads in the Courier for the "Hilton 375-foot Skyscraper Initiative."