The Beverly Hills Planning Commission scrutinized the potential traffic impacts of the proposed Cheval Blanc hotel project at a Feb. 24 special meeting. After several concerns were raised by the city and community members during that hearing, the Commission gave staff and stakeholders a March 10 deadline to submit new documentation to address them.
The hearing was continued at that time until March 24 with no motions yet made.
However, since the Feb. 24 meeting, the Courier has exclusively learned that the Cheval Blanc team has asked the city to suspend review of the project until it can conduct studies on how to best meet the requests made by the Commissioners.
“We appreciate the thoughtful feedback to our proposal from the Planning Commission, and we are engaged in detailed studies regarding options for addressing the issues Commissioners have identified,” Cheval Blanc’s parent company, LVMH Moe?t Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), told the Courier in a statement. “Those studies will take time, and we are therefore requesting continuance of consideration of the project to a future date to be determined.”
The Planning Commission will ultimately decide whether to recommend the City Council approve the project, including its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and requests for zoning changes that would allow the hotel and retail development to be built at the location.
The traffic issues discussed largely stem from the project’s proposed motor court where guest drop-offs and valet services will take place on South Santa Monica Boulevard. About 1,400 cars an hour pass along the corridor in question, according to the traffic analysis included in the proposal. Estimates show the mixed-use hotel and retail development would draw an additional 235 cars an hour.
The sticking point for the Commissioners was the predicted amount of time it would take to move a car through the motor court. Analysis estimates it would take an average time of 90 seconds for vehicles to reenter the traffic flow on South Santa Monica. This means it would take roughly six hours to move one hour’s worth of vehicles through the motor court. With anticipated special events at the site potentially creating major traffic congestion on a regular basis, the Commissioners raised unanimous objections to the current motor court design.
Under the current design, vehicles would enter the motor court by right turn only as they head east on South Santa Monica. The entrance to the hotel’s parking garage would be around the corner on Beverly Drive. Valets and other guests would have to exit the motor court and drive around the block to the garage entrance. The Commissioners have asked for a redesign of the motor court, floating the idea of adding a ramp down into the garage to limit the number of cars exiting back onto the boulevard.
“The biggest issue for me by far is the traffic impact,” said Commissioner Gary Ross. “I’d like to see this project be designed in a way where cars enter the motor court and stay on the property, and don’t exit, don’t go back onto Little Santa Monica Boulevard and have to go around the block. It’s awkward, it’s complicated, and it threatens to create a major traffic problem both coming into the motor court and exiting the motor court on a relatively small street.”
However, LVMH would have to drastically modify the building design to accommodate this request. This would possibly include reducing the size of retail, restaurant or other amenities planned for the building’s street level.
“It won’t be the exact project you want to build, but it will be the kind of project that we can approve,” Ross told the Cheval Blanc team.
Many residents also spoke out in opposition to the project. In previous public hearings, the project received mostly supportive comments. However, about 40 public comments were heard during the Feb. 24 meeting, all but five of which were opposed to the project. In addition to traffic concerns, most public commenters raised objections to the size of the proposed nine-story building.
Beverly Hills attorney and City Council candidate Darian Bojeaux called the proposal “outrageous” during public comment, objecting to the size of the building, its proposed changes to the city parcel map, and what she said is likely to be a long and disruptive construction process.
“It’s a very poor value choice to approve this, and it would be like placing brand and status over quality of life and good environment, and good community values,” said Bojeaux who has opposed similar projects and is running on a platform to preserve the “village” atmosphere of Beverly Hills. “So, it would be a very poor choice.”
The Cheval Blanc team is requesting a zoning exception to the city’s height limitations at the location to allow the building to step up to nine stories at the back corner. They have said that preserving the atmosphere on Rodeo Drive is a top priority, assuring the Commission that the building’s terraced design, with a four-story facade at the corner of Rodeo Drive and South Santa Monica Boulevard, will achieve this.
Neighboring businesses, including Herme?s, Chanel and Armani have raised concerns about a proposed change to reconfigure an alley currently used by the retailers to serve VIP clients. They have also asked for assurances that they will be protected or compensated for interruptions and potential damage caused by building construction.
In response, LVMH has adjusted the alley design to make it more easily passable for large vehicles. They have also agreed to pay the salary of a city employee to monitor construction as a show of good faith and protection for the surrounding business community. And they have agreed to publish an alley closure calendar during construction to keep neighbors apprised. LVMH did not agree to a request by neighboring retailers to issue a bond that would pay for any potential damages to their business caused by construction, nor did they agree to a request to publish a master construction calendar.
As for the reconfiguration of the alley that would create a 90-degree turn in an otherwise straight roadway, Cheval Blanc is standing firm on its design. The hotel’s team said that a working alley is “critically important” to its own retail business, as a Louis Vuitton men’s boutique is slated to open in the space between Armani and Herme?s this year.
“As a retailer, we respectfully disagree with the idea that the relocation of the alley entrance will fundamentally confuse or somehow disadvantage VIP clients who are used to coming to these stores,” said Anish Melwani, Chairman and CEO for LVMH North America.
The competing luxury brands have said adding a sharp turn to the narrow alley will “inevitably” cause traffic blockages. As a compromise, they have asked that the one-way, north-south alley’s traffic flow be reversed as part of the project proposal. They say moving the entrance to allow their VIP clients to enter from Brighton Way, heading south to north, would minimize the impacts of the alley turn and the effects of potential delivery congestion at the hotel’s loading bays.
Cheval Blanc said they would not oppose this change, but they object to including it in their plans. They say Chanel, Herme?s and Armani should have to file a proposal to reverse traffic flow with the city and go through the standard approval process. The retailers say this responsibility should fall on the hotel.
“I think we may have something there and we look forward to discussing it with the city and the applicant further,” said Ryan Kelly, a transportation engineer with KOA Consulting about the traffic flow reversal. KOA was hired by Chanel, Herme?s and Armani to do an independent analysis on the project.
Despite the give and take over the details, Commissioners and opposing retailers have all expressed support of a Cheval Blanc at the location.
“We look forward to welcoming Cheval Blanc and the LVMH brand to this block,” said Hank Rouda, General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Giorgio Armani. “We appreciate the steps that the staff and the applicant have taken to deal with some of these issues. Unfortunately, we are concerned that some of these changes do not go far enough.”
In a statement to the Courier after the hearing, LVMH said it would “continue to seek common ground while preserving the core benefits of the project.”
“I love this project, I don’t want it to fail, I don’t think that it should,” said Ostroff. “But I think you have to deal in a responsible way with all of the ramifications before we can really decide whether to recommend approval or not.”