Participation 101: What We Took Away from the Sixty Hotel Hearings [Updated]

The Planning Commission agreed to allow Sixty Hotel at Wilshire and Crescent to continue rooftop operations including dining, bar and events well into the wee-hours of the morning despite complaints from residents near the hotel. City Council agreed. No new operating conditions were imposed on the hotel. Decision-makers in good faith balanced the city’s interest in tourism and revenue against the neighbors concern about peace and quiet. Yet the decision left neighbors feeling unheard and unhappy. What can we learn?

Approval of late-night Sixty Hotel rooftop activities may have been a foregone conclusion. The city wants to get back to its pre-pandemic normal and hotel operations generate big tax revenue. Indeed hotels are so crucial to our economy that the city spends $3.5 million annually to market Beverly Hills to tourists! Yet the process is supposed to protect the peace and quiet of residential neighbors. Let’s look at how those concerns are balanced.

Threshold Test is Substantial Disruption

When a hotel is located in a commercial-residential transition area and will operate past 10 p.m., the Municipal Code empowers the Planning Commission to ensure that such operation will not “substantially disrupt the peace and quiet of the adjacent neighborhood.” As described in Municipal Code section 10–3–1958 the Planning Commission must make such a finding and, if necessary, impose conditions of operation to mitigate the harm to residents.

“Substantially disrupt” suggests a threshold that is not trivial. Late-night hours of rooftop operation can be expected to generate noise and perhaps other impacts like parking on residential streets. Indeed two planning commissioners thought that some impact can be expected (“It comes with the territory,” one said). However it is up to neighbors to make the case.

B.H.M.C. 10–3–1958 identifies many factors that may be cited by neighbors when opposing an Extended Hours Permit. They include noise, light and glare, threats to personal safety and security, spillover demand for parking, increased congestion on residential streets and more. Neighbors can also cite “cumulative impacts” in opposing an Extended Hours Permit if it can be demonstrated that the proposed operation will add to existing impacts from nearby extended-hours hotel operations.

The job of the Planning Commission is to assess whether such impacts ‘substantially disrupt’ the quiet of the adjacent neighborhood; impose conditions of approval as necessary to mitigate any substantial impact; and make the finding that permit approval won’t harm neighbors.

About the Sixty Hotel Decision

Neighbors did a good job of documenting noise and other impacts from Sixty Hotel’s late-night rooftop operation. There was also the problematic code enforcement report record and a letter from the city prosector threatening prosecution for violations. Together these were a solid basis for denying the hotel an Extended Hours Permit or at least adding restrictive conditions of approval.

However the Planning Commission found that the rooftop operation until 2 a.m. would not disrupt the quiet of the adjacent neighborhood. Why? The hotel pledged to commissioners that a recent management shake-up now makes it a better neighbor. And owing to the pandemic the neighbor complaints mostly dated to 2019 and earlier. Read more: Planning Commission to Sixty Hotel: Party Like It’s 1999!

Here are a few suggestions that we take-away that can be applied to future hotel permit hearings or indeed any development project in the neighborhood.

Marginal Gains Are Often Preferable to the Big Win

Commission deliberations rarely result in an all-or-nothing outcome. Reaching for the big win might sacrifice a potential gain at the margin. For example, it is often better to reach for a restrictive condition of approval (like shorter nighttime hours) rather than press commissioners to deny an Extended Hours Permit. When it’s all-or-nothing the community is more likely lose. The commission would grant the permit but might not add the restrictive condition simply because the community didn’t focus on it as the goal.

In this case the Planning Commission was never going to turn down Sixty Hotel’s permit renewal. The hotel promised to be a better neighbor and the city is looking to get back into the tourism and hospitality business. Instead the strategy could be to focus laser-like on the conditions we need.

In my comment I pushed back on what I called “phantom mitigations” because they wouldn’t make a difference to neighbors. I also referenced a comparison case — L’Ermitage on Burton — which operates under tighter restrictions imposed by the Planning Commission even though the hotels are similarly-situated. Using that hotel as an example, I suggested closing Sixty Hotel at the midnight hour and limiting occupancy by 92 persons (down from 165). In the end the commissioners didn’t agree, but I was going for the marginal gain rather than the big win.

Public Comments Matter

City decision-makers tend to be most influenced by public comments that resonate with their own view or experience, but numbers matter too. When a commissioner or councilmember receives even a handful of organic and non-scripted comments they can carry great weight. Not many residents take the time to attend hearings and prepare thoughtful comments. Those that do have outsized influence. Indeed Chair Ostroff and Commissioner Demeter several times referred to the number of people that commented on Sixty Hotel.

Despite the relatively small number of comments compared with the hundreds of households impacted by hotel operations, the brief emails and phoned-in comments provided the commissioners with an opportunity to scale-up their estimation of community impact. Often that makes a difference when it comes to gains at the margin. Another ten public commenters would have nudged the commissioners to a better outcome for the neighborhood.

A Single Commissioner Can Matter

There are five members of the Planning Commission yet even a single commissioner can have outsized influence on a commission decision. There is always an opportunity to persuade a commissioner to cast the third (swing) vote to cinch a desired outcome. But practically speaking the community should think tactically about influencing a commissioner to steer the commission discussion in the right direction. Indeed an experienced commissioner can get much of what the community would want through persistence and persuasion.

In the Sixty Hotel case, if only one commissioner had pressed doggedly for limiting the hours of rooftop operation we might have seen some compromise on late-night hours. We heard commissioners recognize neighborhood impacts, sure, but we didn’t see a commissioner strong-arm earlier weekend hours (midnight rather than 2 a.m.) or seek to reduce capacity to fewer than 100 visitors. Instead hotel representatives suggested their red line was the hours and capacity and no commissioner crossed it.

Speaking of marginal gains, if the community had focused laser-like on opposing the additional twelve weeknights that are allowed for 2 a.m. operations, it likely could have found commissioner support for eliminating it when renewing the permits. Nobody focused on it exclusively and no commissioner did either.

Community Documentation Matters….

Sixty Hotel impacts were well-documented by neighbors who provided images of hotel violations and logs of calls to the police and to code enforcement. That documentation is very valuable! The more careful and thorough the better. Providing evidence of impacts goes a long way toward persuading a city decision-maker to take a more critical look at an applicant’s presentation. Think dates and times and log those violations with cross-references to relevant sections of the Municipal Code. (Refer to the footnote about Sixty Hotel at the bottom.)

Complaints matter too. Violations can be reported online using Ask Bev. That clunky system requires registration but the advantage of filing online over calling Code Enforcement is that there is a record created. All complaints are tracked in one place. Reporting by phone may not result in a complaint or a case opened. Ask Bev also shows which officer is assigned too.

…But Official Documentation Matters More

The Sixty Hotel staff report includes records of police calls and complaints to code enforcement. That is crucial information for commissioners to consider. But the community also has access to public safety data (helpful to establish a record of crime near a location) while collision data reports crashes by street and intersection.

Other city data can be requested using a public records request using a city form. For example the transportation division of Public Works conducts traffic counts on major streets. There may be data available to provide insight into traffic volume. The police conduct speed surveys of streets. Together that data may make a case for increased traffic or congestion as a local impact.

(There is generally no cost associated with ‘inspecting’ a public record. The records are usually provided by email anyway. But specifically requesting a paper report may incur a nominal cost for reproduction. Read more on the public records request webpage.)

Get Notified Early

When possible it is best to get a heads-up on a permit or development application before the public notice goes out. Get hold of the monthly project report and scan it for projects of interest. Visit my.beverlyhills.org (log in or create an account) and then navigate to the e-Notice section. Flip the ‘current planning projects’ switch and each month a log of planning projects will be sent by email.

E-notice planning projects report opt-in

The public notice for the Sixty Hotel went to residents in May, but the hotel permit renewals appeared in the project report in 2019 and was continually updated as the permit application moved through the process.

Sixty Hotel current projects report excerpt

Last, ask the city planner assigned to the project to be added for ‘courtesy’ notices. An informal email contact list is often maintained for a particular project. In the Sixty Hotel case the second permit hearing was not noticed to neighbors because it was technically a continued meeting (quite common) and notice wasn’t required. But if you were on the courtesy notice for the project you may have gotten a heads-up before the continued hearing date.

Look for Opportunities in the Staff Report

The staff report briefs decision-makers and provides much of the necessary context such as project history. Every staff report includes some variation on introduction, site and project description, required findings (if any) and other material relevant to the case. Sometimes there is a draft resolution for commission or council approval that is attached.

The staff report informs the public too. The Sixty Hotel staff report provides information that the community can use to construct an argument to support or oppose a project. For example:

  • Planning Commission back in 2006 “conditionally approved” the hotel for a significant expansion of rooftop entertainment area and new activities. That approval was entirely discretionary and was, in effect, a big gift to the hotel. What were those original conditions — and were they adhered to in the following years? If the hotel didn’t respect those conditions remind the commissioners!
  • A look at the project history (p. 2-3) shows that the commission had alternately tightened restrictions on rooftop activities in response to community complaints and then relaxed them again….before tightening them once more. Additionally, the commission had put the hotel on a short leash in 2016 by allowing only 12 months of operation before calling the hotel back to the commission for the next permit renewal. Remind the commissioners that this is a problematic operator that can’t be trusted to operate responsibly.
  • The residential neighborhood to the west, east and south is correctly identified as multifamily. That suggests a question: if those neighborhoods were single-family, would resident complaints have received greater deference? The staff report doesn’t suggest that but merely asking the question highlights a truism in Beverly Hills: renters often get shorter shrift than single-family homeowners.

Indeed no detail is too small to flag in the staff report. The parking restrictions section (p. 4) indicates that the South Crescent curb adjacent to the hotel is “red curb (no parking).” Shouldn’t that be a no stopping zone? (It is no stopping on the other side of Crescent.) Indeed  Google Streetview shows that there is not a single ‘no stopping’ sign posted at this curb.

Crescent no parking / red curb
Streetview shows no no-stopping sign at this informal and unlawful rideshare loading area.

This should be brought to the attention of the Planning Commission too! There is always a rideshare pickup or drop-off here and every time it blocks southbound Crescent traffic. Recall that traffic congestion is considered an impact to be considered when planning commissioners decide whether they can make the necessary findings to approve a permit. I would argue that the city itself is adding to the problem by not conspicuously posting a ‘no stopping’ sign.

(For reference have a look at the annotated Sixty Hotel staff report with my yellow highlights.)

Persistence is Key

In Beverly Hills persistence is key. Things fall between the cracks so it is essential to follow-up ourselves. That goes double when a hotel promises to be a better neighbor. It is up to us to hold the hotel to account the next time it comes back for a permit renewal. That’s especially the case because we can’t count on the Planning Commission to do it. Institutional memory is fleeting when commissioners rotate off and new commissioners join the dais.

Sixty Hotel comes back to the Planning Commission for renewals in the fall of 2022 but by then one planning commissioner will have termed-out and two more commissioner terms will have come to an end (though they are eligible for reappointment). Neighbors must be the institutional memory!

The City Can Do Better on Hearing Notices

We will have a post on this soon, but for now let’s remember that the hearing notice sent to neighbors is 80% boilerplate: it’s the same housekeeping information that is included on every public notice. That leaves scant room for project-specific detail that would communicate to neighbors why they may want to get involved.

The Sixty Hotel hearing purpose: “A request to renew a Conditional Use Permit and Extended Hours Permit associated with the Sixty Hotel located at 9360 Wilshire Boulevard.” Nowhere is explained what are those permits or that the public has a role to play in the hearing.

Moreover the notice says, “No modifications are proposed as part of this request, which is to continue to allow the following rooftop operations at the hotel….” The language is informative (no modifications) but at the same time, because it implies no change in circumstances, many neighbors will find that reason enough to set the notice aside.

Sixty Hotel public notice no modifications clause

Then the diligent and persistent neighbor who does read through both sides of the notice will find in the very last paragraph contact information for the planner and a mention of “associated application materials.” At the very least we would like to see that a bit nearer to the top of the notice and a link to the posted staff report.

Sixty Hotel public notice materials advisory

To conclude, if there is one primary reason why fewer than 1% of nearby neighbors turned out for the Sixty Hotel permit renewal hearings it is the hearing notice. All that boilerplate text is more a barrier to participation than an invitation to participate. Many people will glance at it and presume they can have no effect on the outcome. But that is wrong. The opportunities we’ve identified in this post suggest that we can all have a voice in the process.

Do you have any feedback on our tactics? Please get in touch with Renters Alliance!


Footnote: The documented history of complaints about Sixty Hotel impacts would have garnered more traction but for the timing: the pandemic curtailed hotel operations for the past 15 months and so the Planning Commission could view the impacts documented by the community in 2019 (and earlier) as a thing of the past. That primed commissioners to hear the hotel’s promise to be a better neighbor and thus look more to the future than the past.