Beverly Hills residents will have the final say over the approval of the Cheval Blanc luxury hotel project in a special election on May 23. The City Council voted 4-1 to schedule the election, during which residents will decide if they want to repeal the ordinances approving the project and its development agreement.
Council decided it wanted to call a special election during a 2:30 p.m. study session on Feb. 21 and then formally voted to do so at the regular session later that evening.
“I personally feel that this (Cheval Blanc) is, at least for my lifetime and the lifetimes of next generations, among the best things to happen to our city,” said Mayor Lili Bosse during the study session. “But we’ll let the voters decide.”
With average room rates exceeding $2,000 a night, the hotel room taxes from the proposed development are expected to generate a windfall for the city–some $778 million over 30 years–according to Henry Finkelstein, a lawyer who presided over project negotiations.
The Council passed ordinances approving the project and its development agreement in November 2022, but faced criticism regarding certain elements of the deal. In December 2022, hotel worker labor union Unite Here Local 11 and Beverly Hills resident Darian Bojeaux exercised their right under state law to circulate petitions seeking to repeal the ordinances.
Among other concerns, the petitioners pointed to the fact that the development agreement includes no requirement for LVMH to help fund affordable housing.
On Jan. 24, City Clerk Huma Ahmed certified that the petitions contained the requisite number of valid signatures. Council then faced three decisions: repeal the ordinances, call a special election, or place the decision on the ballot at the next municipal election.
At its regular meeting this week, the Council voted to call a special election to settle the matter as soon as possible, a decision that comes with an approximate $870,000 price tag. Friends of Cheval Blanc, an organization funded by LVMH, submitted a letter requesting that the city call a May 23 special election and offering to reimburse the city for the cost of this election.
“Cheval Blanc Beverly Hills is also gratified by the support the project received from hundreds of Beverly Hills residents who engaged throughout the city’s approval process,” wrote Anish Melwani, Chairman and CEO of LVMH for North America, listing himself as “President and Chairman of Friends of Cheval Blanc” in the letter.
Over 20 letters of support signed by around 70 residents were read during the study session. Representatives from labor unions Sprinkler Fitters Local 709 and IBEW Local 11 also spoke in support of Cheval Blanc.
Council ultimately agreed to accept the offer of Friends of Cheval Blanc to reimburse the cost of the special election.
“I would be in favor of supporting the May 23, 2023 date for special election, with the caveat that the Friends of Cheval Blanc pay in full for the entire election,” said Councilmember Sharona Nazarian.
Speaking in opposition to the Council’s actions were Beverly Hills resident and former City Council candidate Darian Bojeaux and Danielle Wilson, a representative for Unite Here Local 11. Each objected to LVMH’s offer to cover the special election costs, and argued that the matter be placed on the ballot in March 2024, which comes with a more modest $204,000 approximate price tag.
“The city has a duty to its residents to hold an impartial election and allowing a party to the election to pay election costs at any amount to buy an early election date and to curry favor with the electorate is clearly improper,” said Bojeaux at the study session.
“We hope that this council is not seriously considering a direct subsidy from the developer’s allies, which could undermine citizens’ confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the election process,” said Wilson in a written comment.
Councilmember John Mirisch shared similar sentiments during both the Study Session and the evening regular session.
“I also feel it’s unethical to let a developer choose their preferred date and then pay for it,” he said.
Mirisch cast the sole dissenting vote against both the project’s initial approval and Tuesday’s decision to call a special election.
“I think it’s (the development agreement) a bad deal,” said Mirisch at the evening meeting, adding that Cheval Blanc is paying $465 million for the land, but will essentially double the land space by building tall structures.
Mirisch said he wanted to have the city place a surcharge on the hotel tax to create an affordable housing fund.
“I feel that this was a missed opportunity to raise the bar and to get dedicated funding for affordable housing,” he said.
Mirisch also raised concerns about the decision of Louis Vuitton to hire model Bella Hadid as the face of its new collaboration with Japanese artists Yayoi Kusama. Mirisch called Hadid an “antisemite” and “Jew hater” while referencing published articles that describe her involvement in the pro-Palestine and anti-Israel movement.
Deborah Quick, an attorney representing LVMH, said during the study session that the organization “condemns hate in any form, including antisemitism” and noted that Hadid recently spoke out against antisemitism in an Instagram post.
Bosse said she supported the earlier election date, not because of LVMH’s offer to cover costs, but because this project has been in the works for many years and it would be unfair to residents to delay it until March 2024. She also raised concerns about the methods the union used to gather signatures. She said she heard reports of residents being harassed repeatedly by signature gatherers, of signature gatherers pretending to be building owners and even an instance where an elderly woman was told signing the petition would help her stay in her apartment.
“There was a tremendous amount of misinformation and fraud,” said Bosse.
Wilson told the Courier that Unite Here Local 11 disputes these allegations.
“Thousands of Beverly Hills residents signed petitions to send the Cheval Blanc project approvals to the ballot,” she said. “In approving a special election, Mayor Bosse and the City Council majority voted yet again for what would be an advantage to the developer, disregarding the concerns of thousands of voters.”
Bosse, for her part, said she did not find the special election nor Cheval Blanc’s offer to cover costs problematic.
“I find that to be actually very caring about funding that residents are paying for,” said Bosse, referring to the offer. “In this (special election) people are going to go to the voting box and they are going to anonymously vote based on what they believe in.”