Los Angeles has seen its share of fights over luxury developments. It is hard to think of one with more curious and combative elements than the proposal to build a massive hotel and mansion project in Benedict Canyon.
This battle has almost everything: celebrity supporters and opponents; community groups for and against; labor unions; potential environmental impact. All that and more was rolled out in a fevered City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 16. The contentiousness continued through the moment of the council vote, as the panel cast a rarer-than-rare 7-7 split decision. That result allowed the project to move forward, at least for now.
Developer Gary Safady hopes to build the high-end, 58-room Bulgari resort on 33 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains. Though groundbreaking is far from assured, a website already boasts about the development coming online in 2026, complete with “the signature Bulgari dining experience” and a 10,000-square-foot spa. There would be a funicular, a private cinema, and “an exclusive eight-seat sushi bar.”
The effort has actually been going on for more than five years, with Safady working city channels and hiring lobbyists to help secure approvals. The developer previously received a general plan amendment from the Department of City Planning which would allow a hotel project in an area not zoned for hotels.
Tuesday’s vote was an effort to yank that amendment, which would likely kill the project. It flowed from Councilwoman Katy Young Yaroslavsky, who in December took over the District 5 seat where the development would rise.
Yarolslavsky argued that the project was inappropriate for the area and asserted it had moved forward partly thanks to heavy spending by Safety on lobbyists. She also chucked hardballs at previous city council rep Paul Koretz, implying the hotel’s approval process was tainted because a lobbyist on the project years ago had been married to a Koretz planning deputy. The aide, Shawn Bayliss, told the Los Angeles Times, “Dragging me in when I had no involvement with this project puzzles me.”
The hotel is not the only structure that would rise in what is now a wilderness area. Altogether there would be more than a dozen buildings, as well as what the Bulgari website describes as “eight private estates.”
Sides have been drawn. Hundreds of letters have been written. Celebrities including Dr. Phil and actress Stefanie Powers are reportedly opposed. A community group called Save Our Canyon asserts that the project would endanger wildlife, destroy 500 mature trees, drastically increase traffic, and heighten the risk of wildfire.
Another group, Enhance Our Canyon, claims that the development would result in 1,000 trees planted and a positive economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A breathy eight-minute video touting the project includes area residents, among them Lance Bass and his husband, advocating for the development. It closes by mentioning support from a clutch of labor unions, including powerful Unite HERE Local 11.
The split City Hall vote is interesting for several reasons, starting with the fact that almost no council members brings a vote to the floor if they suspect the result will be that narrow. Historically, when it comes to land-use decisions, council members tend to go along with the will of the lawmaker representing the affected district—the idea is that if you want the other members to support your position in your fiefdom, then you do the same for theirs.
While it is impossible to know what propelled every vote on the panel on Tuesday, some city hall insiders have quietly pointed out that, during her early months on the council, Yaroslavsky voted against members who wanted to create no-camping zones in their districts. Though she was not the only opposition, the impression left by Tuesday’s vote, which this time concerned Yaroslavksy’s district, was that council members have long memories—and aren’t at all conflicted about making that evident when it comes time to cast their votes.
Whatever the reasoning, at least one more chapter in the saga is coming: The 7-7 decision means the council has to vote again on the matter. Initially that was set to take place on Wednesday, but it has now been pushed back until August.
Expect plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiations in the meantime.