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Beverly Hills wants to welcome tourists. Tour buses, not so much

Beverly Hills wants to welcome tourists. Tour buses, not so much
Sevag and Houry Alsanian, tourists from Lebanon, take photos in front of the Beverly Hills sign in Beverly Gardens Park on Oct. 30, 2015. The Beverly Hills Conference & Visitors Bureau is proposing a tour bus stop in the city's business district. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Beverly Hills, its streets lined with palm trees and pricey celebrity mansions, has long encouraged selfie-snapping tourists to stroll into its swanky shops and restaurants.

But when it comes to letting smoke-belching tour buses disgorge visitors among high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Versace, the town hasn’t been so welcoming.

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“At peak tour times, my patients remark that the city of Beverly Hills is becoming a theme park, with tour buses much like Universal Studios,” psychologist Robert Morris complained in a recent letter to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission.

Tour bus loading zones in the business district have been installed and removed at the request of local merchants several times since the 1990s.

Now, with brick-and-mortar merchants losing customers to online retailers and nearby malls, Beverly Hills civic leaders have raised the idea again, hoping that the buses will bring more foot traffic and sales to the shopping district.

But the idea, once again, has drawn the ire of small businesses located next to the proposed loading zone, who say the buses will cause traffic jams and bring tourists who would rather gawk than shop, milling around, talking loudly and cheapening the image of a town where the median home price is a whopping $3.5 million.

The tour bus debate comes in the midst of a tourism boom in Los Angeles County. A record number of tourists — 48.5 million — injected $22.7 billion into the local economy last year, a 2.6% increase in visitors over 2016. It marked the seventh straight year of new highs in the county.

Beverly Hills has benefited from the tourism surge.

The city welcomed 7.4 million visitors in 2016, up from 6 million in 2014, according to the city’s Conference and Visitors Bureau. Out-of-towners generated more than $57 million in sales and lodging taxes in 2016, representing about 26% of the city’s general fund revenue.

The city has tried to encourage more visitor spending by persuading shop owners to stay open late on Friday and Saturday nights during the holiday season.

And even if visitors to Beverly Hills spend most of their time snapping photos, such tourists help promote the Beverly Hills brand on social media, said Julie Wagner, the bureau’s chief executive.

“Are they necessarily Rodeo Drive shoppers?” she asked. “Not necessarily, but they do spend money in the city. They have value for brand awareness.”

The plan to bus more visitors into the city has sparked a dispute over what a tourism surge will do to the image of Beverly Hills.

The clash of views was aired during a recent meeting of the Beverly Hills Parking and Traffic Commission, which was asked by the city’s chamber of commerce and its Conference and Visitors Bureau to endorse adding a loading zone in the business district, known by the glitzy name the Golden Triangle.

“We believe it will greatly enhance business in the area,” business owner Jeffrey Gross told the panel.

Gross, whose businesses include Mickey Fine Pharmacy on North Camden Avenue, was among several business leaders who spoke in favor of adding a loading zone on the 400 block of North Camden in front of a medical office building.

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Only one person spoke out against the proposal at the commission meeting — a representative of the landlord at 414 N. Camden Ave., who urged the panel to find another location.

“I think having a tour bus here in Beverly Hills is fantastic,” said Steve Pavlovski, regional manager for the property manager, Douglas Emmett Management. “We want to support business. We are part of the community. We do have a hard time with the idea of having it in front of a medical building.”

The commission was also served with several letters in opposition plus a petition signed by 26 business operators who oppose the idea. A petition in support of the idea was signed by 18 merchants.

The opponents’ petition was signed entirely by tenants of the medical office building next to the proposed site of the loading zone. The petition says the loading zone will create “excessive foot traffic, litter, a general atmosphere of commotion and a threat to the privacy of our patients and patrons.”

Sandra Garfield, a psychotherapist with an office adjacent to the site of the proposed bus stop, said in a letter to the panel that a tour bus zone in the area several years ago “resulted in frequent and considerable disturbances.”

“The disembarking and waiting tourists roamed the streets talking loudly; some sat on the front steps of 415 North Camden Drive speaking loudly on their cellphones,” she said.

The dispute is not the first time Beverly Hills has wrestled with a tour bus loading zone in the business district. Since the 1990s, the city has tried and failed repeatedly to establish such a zone. But each time, the city removed the zones after complaints from local merchants.

In that time, designated loading zones have been established and removed on the 9500 block of Dayton Way, the 400 block of North Camden Drive and the 400 block of North Roxbury Drive.

The latest proposal is different from those, transportation planners told the parking and traffic commission. Most visitors will be directed to use three other bus loading zones now operating on the outskirts of the business district, they said, making the proposed stop less busy than past zones.

In addition, the planners proposed that the loading zone on North Camden be staffed by a full-time city “ambassador” who will ensure that buses and tourists don’t idle around and cause problems.

Following comments from Gross and other Beverly Hills merchants, the parking and traffic commission unanimously endorsed the idea of a tour bus stop for a test period, which they didn’t define. The entire City Council has the final say, but a date to consider the matter hasn’t been scheduled yet.

“It’s very clear we need to be open to business because we are getting our lunch eaten by businesses outside of the city,” Traffic and Parking Commissioner Jacob Manaster said during the meeting.

Todd Johnson, president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Manaster.

“This is a program where these buses will be bringing in people that will spend money,” he said.

“Are they going to spend money on Rodeo Drive? I don’t know,” Johnson said. “But they are going to order something to eat. Our restaurants will flourish. Some of the smaller stores will flourish and some of the big ones will as well.”

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