Union Seeks to Put Cheval Blanc Approval on the Ballot

The union that represents hotel workers is canvassing Beverly Hills, hoping to place on the ballot a referendum that would shoot down the City Council’s approval in November of a luxury hotel to be developed by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The signature drive has already resulted in a dispute with the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD). 

Unite Here Local 11 is exercising its rights under California law by attempting to put the ordinances approving the project in front of the voters. Representatives from the union have knocked on doors and stationed themselves along sidewalks asking for signatures on two different possible ballot items. One is whether to reverse the City Council’s approval of Cheval Blanc Beverly Hills, the planned hotel plus retail and private club on the 400 block of Rodeo Drive for which the Paris-based LVMH is set to spend about $1.1 billion in order to complete. The other is whether the city should go back to the drawing board on a development agreement made with LVMH, which includes LVMH providing more than $26 million in public benefits and $2 million more to city art programs. 

Unite Here has 30 days after final approval of each ordinance to gather enough signatures. 

That gives the union until Dec. 19 for the project approval referendum, and Dec. 21 for the development agreement initiative. The required threshold is 10% of all registered city voters or about 2,100 signatures each. Should the union be successful, the City Council would be required either to rescind the ordinances (an unlikely scenario) or set a referendum date. A simple majority of voters is needed to overturn the ordinance(s).

Unite Here declined to say if they are on track to gain enough signatures, but the union has already complained about police interference with canvassers. 

In a letter sent Dec. 2 to the city clerk, city attorney and police chief, George Yin, a lawyer for Unite Here, wrote, “Some of our petition circulators have reported being stopped by police officers and asked to cease what they are doing because they were allegedly engaged in illegal activity. The stops may have involved a mistaken assumption by the police officers that the referendum petition circulators needed a permit.”

Yin wrote that signature gathering is ‘textbook’ protected political speech, and that under city of Beverly Hills law permits are only needed for commercial petitioners. 

Unite Here provided the Courier the city’s response to the union lawyer’s letter, dated Dec. 6. Huma Ahmed, the city clerk, writes, “Thank you, information has been disseminated to city staff,” and to reach out with additional questions or concerns.

According to the city’s Chief Communications Officer Keith Sterling, “Our police department was responding to resident calls of concern regarding solicitors at their door. With certain restrictions in place regarding soliciting in the city, officers were exercising due diligence.”

Mayor Lilli Bosse, a strong proponent of the LVMH project and a participant in drafting the development agreement, told the Courier that petitioners “obviously have the right” to gather signatures.

“What I am aware of is that police responded to residents who called them,” Bosse said. “Residents called BHPD because they have seen these petition gatherers and wanted to make sure they were legitimate.”

Bosse also said she received “many calls from residents that were angry this petition was being circulated by the union and angry that they were coming to their doors. In the world today, people are very, very sensitive about who is coming to their doors.” 

Unite Here has said it is not opposing the development because Cheval Blanc plans to fight any hotel staff unionization drive (LVMH has not said either way its views on a union staff.) Rather, the union claims to be dismayed by a luxury project that does not require the developer to contribute money specifically for affordable housing. 

“At our union, we watch municipalities give these kinds of massive zoning and land use privileges to luxury commercial developers all the time, while housing projects are often stalled and scrutinized,” Unite Here Local 11 Research Analyst Danielle Wilson told the Courier.

In the last stages of the development approval process, Unite Here, along with Councilmember John Mirisch, were the only voices to speak against the development, each arguing that a luxury hotel where rooms are slated for over $2,000 a night on average is out of touch with a county facing homeless and affordable housing crises. Last week, the state of California called on Beverly Hills to revise an eight-year, Sacramento-mandated housing plan for the city that includes Beverly Hills finding sites for more than 3,000 affordable housing units. 

But LVMH has said it is a civic-minded developer. Through spokesperson Randy James, the developer declined to answer specific questions but did send a statement. LVMH cited an economic analysis that Cheval Blanc could produce $788 million in revenue for the city, funding that could help pay for “Beverly Hills public schools, police officers, firefighters and paramedics.”

“LVMH is proud to be a long-term stakeholder, taxpayer and employer in Beverly Hills,” reads the statement. “We are eager to embark on the development of this world-class icon in hospitality, dining and retail, and we appreciate the residents and businesses who engaged with us in a meaningful way.”