The Bristol Hotel is like a man with one foot ready to step into the future, and the other stuck in the past.
That past includes allegations that when the hotel at 8th and Olive streets was closed last month, operators forced out low-income residents without proper warning or compensation.
The future, however, appears ritzy and bright: a makeover into a swank 84-room hotel for a high-end clientele, with a rooftop bar, a nightclub in the basement, a restaurant and an exclusive movie theater for guests.
“We’d like to do the first true boutique hotel in downtown Los Angeles ... like a boutique hotel out of London or South Beach Miami,” said the new owner, Adolfo Suaya, who also owns the Gaucho Grill chain, Dolce restaurant and other businesses.
But before Suaya’s plans can move forward, key questions remain: Were hotel residents illegally evicted? And does a covenant with the city prevent Suaya from turning the 100-unit Bristol, which had provided housing for the poor, into a posh hotel?
The debate over the Bristol also highlights the competing interests in downtown Los Angeles, where officials hope for a revival and advocates worry that low-income residents are being left out.
The Bristol Hotel was covered by the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, which requires that owners give tenants who have been in place 60 days written notification that they must leave. Owners also must provide as much as $5,000 in relocation assistance.
That did not happen, tenants and advocates say. So Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry has asked City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo to review the matter “for criminal prosecution if appropriate.” The previous owner of the Bristol denies tenants were forced out.
Perry also pushed through an emergency motion this month that authorizes the city “to provide temporary relocation assistance to residents of the Bristol Hotel ... who were suddenly evicted without proper notice or opportunity for orderly relocation.”
The council action was prompted, in part, by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which has been searching for former Bristol residents to help them file complaints with the city’s housing department.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is considering filing a lawsuit seeking to get former residents their rooms back or relocation money. It is unclear how many residents were living in the building when it was closed.
“People are all over: in missions, in transitional housing or in nearby hotels,” said Pete White, executive director of the Community Action Network. “The Bristol Hotel serves as an example that the city and the CRA will go to any lengths to manifest this vision of their new downtown, even at the expense of poor Angelenos who need better housing and services most.”
Community Action Network employees and other advocates have been searching shelters and residential hotels for former Bristol residents. Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the city’s housing department, said her agency has assigned staff to help in that search.
Suaya bought the Bristol in November. Before that, it was owned by Chae Kum Ro and his wife, Chin Deung Ro. After the sale, Ro continued operating the hotel through a lease with Suaya. Ro said that the few residents who remained in the hotel in May left voluntarily.
“We never evict anyone,” Ro said. “I told them, ‘When the new owner comes they will fix the place. They will upgrade and charge more.’ I did say that.”
Suaya said he had no involvement with the hotel or its residents while Ro ran the Bristol. “He was supposed to deliver the hotel free and empty,” he said of Ro. “I don’t know what he did.”
Some former Bristol residents say they were pushed out.
“You had a population of folks who didn’t know they had any choice but to leave when they were told to leave,” said Barbara Schultz of Legal Aid. “They didn’t know they had any rights as tenants.”
Larry Richard, who said he had lived in the Bristol since 1997, still carries his rent receipts folded in his wallet. For $420 a month, he received a room with linens and a bathroom shared by others on the floor. In February a hotel staffer told him to move, but allowed him the opportunity to stay until May “because I been there so long.”
“He never offered me relocation or no one else,” he said.
Carolina Saavedra and Gerardo Reyes said they had lived in the hotel since January, paying $30 a day for a room. One day last month, they went to breakfast and returned about 10 a.m. to see a posted sign announcing they had one hour to move out.
Saavedra said she did not know her rights then. Now, she said, she wants “justice for everybody who lived there.”
Suaya wants to proceed with his plans to turn the Bristol into an upscale hotel. But clouding those efforts is a 1985 covenant with the Community Redevelopment Agency requiring that the building be kept as affordable housing until July 18, 2015.
The covenant was attached to the property in 1985 when the Ros received an $850,000 CRA loan to renovate the building. After selling the Bristol to Suaya, Ro repaid the agency $1.55 million, including interest.
The CRA’s comments on the covenant seem contradictory. The agency last fall signaled support for Suaya’s plans; this month it released a written statement saying the covenant was still in place.
“The new owner is afoul of these recorded covenants if he attempts to develop a project inconsistent with the affordable housing restrictions,” CRA officials said in the statement.
But in a Nov. 21 letter to Suaya, Lillian Burkenheim, a CRA project manager, praises plans to convert the Bristol into a “first-class commercial hotel.”
Burkenheim, who could not be reached for comment, acknowledges the 1985 CRA loan in her letter but does not mention the covenant to keep the building as affordable housing.
“With your purchase of the building CRA/LA will receive the return of our loan, with the interest that was due, and be able to create new low-income residential units elsewhere that will meet our goals and hopes for the building,” Burkenheim wrote.
Ayahlushim Hammond, a regional manager for the CRA, said Suaya and Burkenheim discussed the covenant and how to fulfill it. “His interest was in having those covenants removed to another location,” Hammond said. Such a request would need CRA approval.
Suaya has a different version of the conversation. He said that CRA staff fully supported his plans to convert the hotel. There was never talk of moving the covenant to another property, he said, expressing surprise at the agency’s comments. “That’s actually funny,” he said. “Like I would have the power to do something like that.”
Perry said she has not reviewed Suaya’s project, but said, “Now we have brought to light the issue of the affordable housing covenant
The city attorney’s office also is watching the situation and has sent Suaya a letter informing him of the CRA covenant.
“Ultimately, it’s their decision whether to enforce its terms,” Assistant City Atty. Cecilia Estolano said. “We happen to think it’s worth enforcing. These units were promised and should remain low and moderate income, particularly now when we have this extreme housing crisis.”
As for Suaya and his partner, Sean Sassounian, they hope to start construction soon and expect a 2006 opening. Suaya said the hotel has a perfect location. It’s close to the jewelry and fashion districts, Staples Center and new lofts at the old Southern California Gas Co. building.
“Imagine: The fashion district has four or five shows a year,” Suaya said. “The jewelry district has five or six. Where are they going to stay? They’re going to stay in the coolest place close to where they’re going to work.”