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A luxury resort in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon? Fierce debate heads to the City Council

A man on a sidewalk atop a hill
Gary Safady, developer of a proposed hotel in Benedict Canyon, at the project site.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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The steep hillsides of Benedict Canyon offer unobstructed views, glimpses of soaring hawks and a quiet that one rarely encounters in the city.

But whether this leafy enclave should also house a luxury resort for the wealthy is sparking a fierce debate.

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to try and halt a developer’s plans for the 58-room Bulgari Resort Los Angeles.

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Developer Gary Safady is in the process of seeking city approvals for the hotel after it cleared an initial hurdle at the Planning Department several years ago.

City Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky, who represents the wealthy neighborhood, is seeking to block the project.

The council Tuesday is expected to take up her motion asking city Planning Director Vince Bertoni to consider rescinding the initiation of a general plan amendment for the project. The amendment is needed because the general plan doesn’t allow hotels in the neighborhood.

Yaroslavsky said the city’s planning staff shouldn’t be wasting time on the project, which she deems inappropriate for the Santa Monica Mountains. She vowed to oppose the hotel during her campaign for City Council last year.

“For me, preserving the Santa Monica Mountains is a core value,” said Yaroslavsky, who formerly worked as a land use lawyer for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Gary Safady’s plan for a luxury hotel has lined up A-list names as backers. It also has plenty of high-profile celebrities among its critics.

Sept. 19, 2022

Safady told The Times that Yaroslavsky’s effort to halt the development is “a shame.”

“I think it’s based on a campaign pledge without having any knowledge of the property or merits of it,” he said. “There’s codified procedures that are built into the city to protect against stuff like this, so her actions are completely contrary to that.”

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Safady said city staff have spent “thousands of hours” reviewing the resort application, and a draft environmental impact report will be published soon.

The 33-acre site off Hutton Drive in Benedict Canyon was once owned by businessman Kirk Kerkorian. Some of the property already has been graded. Safady said he stays in a small home on the property when he is in Los Angeles.

Former District 5 Councilmember Paul Koretz initially supported initiating the general plan amendment for the project, according to Nora Frost, a spokesperson for the Planning Department. The initiation application was approved by Bertoni in 2017, Frost said.

Koretz didn’t return a phone call. He told the L.A. Times editorial board that initially he was “somewhere between encouragement and being OK with it” and wanted to see if the neighborhood liked the project. Later, he came out against it.

Maria Salinas, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that her group “supports the city’s review process for development” and that real estate projects such as Bulgari “rely on these processes to ensure a fair review.”

Several large labor groups, including Unite Here Local 11, support the project.

Mayor Karen Bass opposed it last year on the campaign trail; her spokesperson Zach Seidl wasn’t able to provide an answer about her position on Monday.

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There are two competing community groups: Save Our Canyon, which opposes the project, and Enhance Our Canyon, which supports it.

Celebrities have taken sides: Singer Lance Bass supports it; others, including actress Jacqueline Bisset, have warned about increased fire risks.

The hotel would consist of a dozen bungalows, along with a stand-alone building, that house 58 rooms. Also planned are a sushi restaurant, spa, screening room and parking structure. Eight private residences on the property could range from 12,000 to 48,000 square feet each, Safady said.

He estimated that 50 to 70 employees would work at the hotel. To contend with the flow of cars coming up the canyon roads, a carpool program for employees would be instituted, he said.

Safady suggested that the hotel would be less prominent and have less of an impact than if large mansions were constructed on the land. A developer could carve up the 33-acre parcel and build 30 homes, he said.

Asked about that statement, Yaroslavsky said, “If Mr. Safady would like to pull his proposal and submit a new plan for housing based on what this property is currently zoned for, by all means he should.

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“The number of homes that would even be allowed on this site would have a far less intensive use than a commercial hotel, which hasn’t been allowed in the Santa Monica Mountains in 80 years,” she noted.

It’s far from clear whether Yaroslavsky has support from her colleagues in trying to halt the project.

Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez, a former organizer with Unite Here Local 11, is “still considering his position on this issue,” his spokesperson Nick Barnes-Batista said Monday.

Two council members declined to support Yaroslavsky’s motion at a March meeting of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee.

“Don’t we have to allow due process to happen?” asked Councilmember John Lee, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley. Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, who also represents the Valley, voiced similar concerns.

Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South L.A., sided with Yaroslavsky.

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At that meeting, Yaroslavsky said she had been told by staff at the city attorney’s office that it was “in the discretion of the [Planning Department] to rescind the process that they have started.” She also cited several wildfires in the region since the application process was started for the hotel.

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The city is “going to get sued no matter what” by the developer, she added.

Yaroslavsky, in an interview last week, said there is precedent to roll back a general plan amendment initiation, pointing to the council’s 2016 decision that ultimately stopped a developer from pursing a plan to put hundreds of apartments along the Cahuenga Pass.

In that case, developer Behzad Forat later sued the city but lost. In an interview Sunday, Forat said he’s appealing the court’s decision. He expressed frustration with the council.

“[City officials] cry for the fact that there’s a shortage of housing, but then they stop people from building,” Forat said.

In a twist, land use attorney Fred Gaines represented Forat on the Cahuenga Pass project in his dealings with the city. Gaines is now working with Save Our Canyon, which opposes the Bulgari Resort.

Earlier this month, Gaines sent a letter to the council that suggested the project had been improperly rushed through the initiation process.

The Planning Department’s Frost said the application was “treated like all requests that have been received by the department.”

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