The Hilton Chronicles: Just how much does HH stiff BH?

After the City of Beverly Hills issued a press release announcing a tentative development agreement between the City and the Wanda Group for its One Beverly Hills project which would provide revenue to the City of $820 million over 30 years, the Beverly Hills Courier hastily sent out an e-blast. The City’s press release is solely about One Beverly Hills, but the Courier somehow decided it would bring the Hilton into the mix.

Now, the Courier’s coverage of the Hilton Condominium Tower Initiative, Measure HH, has been anything but objective. In fact, it seems like the “HH,” at least in reference to the Courier’s coverage, stands for “Hysterically Hysterical,” with the fact-challenged e-blast article serving as a perfect example. As if wanting to one-up the City’s tentative agreement with One Beverly Hills, Courier reporter Victoria Talbot wrote: “By comparison, the Hilton will bring in $1 billion over 30 years.” One would have to speculate whether the origin of this incorrect statement comes from a TED talk or, perhaps, Austin Powers, because not even the Hilton press wags are making such inflated and outrageous claims.

In a recent piece from its never-ending stream of propaganda, the Hilton’s paid legion of spinmeisters do, however, brag, “Measure HH Generates $125 Million for Vital City Services – Without Costing Taxpayers One Cent.” The glossy ad then goes on to proclaim that the amount is “$33 million more than the amount generated by the existing plan that will otherwise be built according to an independent report done by the city.”

It should be noted that the time frame for these purported benefits is over 30 years (whereas the Hilton is likely to burn through $8 million to $10 million on campaign propaganda in a matter of mere months) and the additional funds for the City result from a trickle-down effect from the greatly enhanced value of the condos, not from any additional benefits the Hilton is offering.

But $125 million, even over 30 years, sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing: it’s not a good deal for the City. It’s a ridiculously bad deal for the City, but an amazing deal for the developer who can avoid paying the City a fair share of the upside which would be created by the 375-foot skyscraper, which is absolutely unprecedented in our City (it is more than double the height of the current tallest building in town).

And since the Hilton’s white-label version of Pravda decided to try to compare the revenue generated by Measure HH with the One Beverly Hills project, we can follow suit. All we need to do is to look at actual terms of the recently announced tentative development agreement the City negotiated for the adjacent One Beverly Hills project (full disclosure: the agreement was negotiated by a City ad hoc consisting of myself and Councilmember and former Mayor Lili Bosse, aided by the law firm of Greenberg Glusker). The project, including the development agreement, is now going to the full Council, where we will still have to make a set of findings.

As yesterday’s article in the LA Times suggests, the terms of the deal with One Beverly Hills are “unprecedented.” In a good way. For the City. The 30 year public benefit of the deal we negotiated is estimated at $820 million, up from $260 million, which is what the current project on the location is projected to generate.

The figures pretty much speak for themselves and the math is pretty simple: it’s more than additional half-billion dollars for the City to be able to provide services and, hopefully, to improve the residential quality of life.

Compare the additional $560 million the re-negotiated One Beverly Hills development agreement provides with the additional $33 million the Hilton is blustering about.

Compare the $10.2 million upfront payment the Hilton is paying the City for its project with the $60 million (up from $30 million) we negotiated for the City with the One Beverly Hills project.

Also compare the methods by which the two developers are attempting to get their projects passed. The One Beverly Hills project has done things by the book. They provided a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR), examining the implications of their project, which is over 2000 pages — more voluminous than the original full EIR. The process involved with their project includes numerous public hearings with the opportunity for the public to comment and give input (something, in a seeming attempt to suppress potential competition, the Hilton is hypocritically taking advantage of with its cadre of paid lawyers and paid consultants raising objections to various aspects of the One Beverly Hills project).

There is no EIR or SEIR for the Hilton’s skyscraper. There aren’t and won’t be any public hearings or opportunities for public input for the Hilton’s skyscraper. There won’t be the ability for city planners or the Planning Commission to improve the project. And there won’t be a chance for the City Council to negotiate a deal which allows the City to get a fair share of the developer’s upside. The Hilton consciously short-circuited and circumvented our process. To sum it up, while One Beverly Hills is doing things in a kosher fashion, what the Hilton is doing is distinctly treyf.

If the Hilton hadn’t circumvented our standard development process by using what the California Supreme Court calls “a loophole,” we would be in a position to re-negotiate the Hilton’s development agreement. We were able to increase the City’s public benefit for the One Beverly Hills project by over half a billion dollars. Who knows just how much public money we would be leaving on the table by allowing the Hilton to build its 375-foot skyscraper without playing by our rules?

Of course, beyond the ability to stiff the City, the initiative loophole allows the Hilton developer to avoid the full review process and the public scrutiny which exists to protect our residents and to protect the Community as a whole. The loophole allows the Hilton to reduce its graywater use, meaning they would be increasing the use of potable water and making the project less environmentally friendly. Yes, they would be using more water at a time when the rest of us are being asked to cut back. The loophole also allows the Hilton to avoid discretionary architectural review

These are just a few reasons we should never support a developer’s attempt to circumvent our development process, the same process we all have to go through when we want to build or remodel in Beverly Hills.

It may feel like we are powerless to do anything against the millions and millions of dollars the Hilton has been spending in their machine-like efforts to mislead the residents. It may feel like we are powerless to resist the continual barrage of glossy propaganda which has been clogging our post boxes for months. It may feel like we are powerless to stop the xenophobia and dog-whistle racism which has surfaced in some of the pro-skyscraper materials. It may feel like we are powerless to stop the unbridled greed which is driving all of this.

But if you live in Beverly Hills and are a registered voter, you can do something. You can protect the integrity of our system. You can force developers to play by our rules. You can make the false, slanderous and self-interested statements of local rags and millions upon millions of dollars of misleading propaganda irrelevant. And you can stop developers from stiffing the City out of perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.

You can send a message. You can refuse to allow your intelligence to be insulted. You can say no to letting moneyed interests turn you into a sucker. You do have a choice.

It’s simple: next Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, you can vote No on Measure HH; you can say No to the Hilton Condominium Tower Initiative.

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VR and Municipal Government: Imagine the Possibilities

In Beverly Hills, one of our mottos is that we are “driven by innovation.” We recognize the potential of technology and our goal is to use technology wherever possible to improve the lives of our residents. We’re rolling out our own municipal fiber-to-the-premises, which will provide high-speed connectivity to all of our residents and businesses. We are at the forefront of developing a system of public transportation which will provide on demand, point-to-point mobility using autonomous vehicle technology. Our vision for a municipal autonomous shuttle system has put us at the top of the list of “10 cities at the forefront of automated driving.”

VR (Virtual Reality) is not a developing technology which most people naturally associate with municipal government. Instead, VR is something we tend to connect with entertainment and gaming — and rightly so.

The ability of VR to virtually, almost literally transport us into another world creates an artistic tool which can allow us to enter another time, another place in an immediate, immersive way. We can experience situations from different perspectives, including the perspectives of other people. VR can open up worlds which we can explore, in which we can participate, in which we ourselves can create.

I can clearly see the applications of VR technology when it comes to entertainment and gaming, as well as hybrids of the two. As pure entertainment, you will be able to be transported into another world, whether it is ancient Rome, Sherlock Holmes’s London or an alien culture on the other side of the universe. Depending on the specifics of the particular VR experience, you will have various forms of interactivity.

Whereas some people today like to binge watch episodic TV, I see a time in the not-so-distant future in which binge watching will have a twist. So instead of watching all of season 4 of “Downton Abbey” at one sitting, you may decide to binge watch the same episode from multiple points-of-view, or the whole season from different perspectives. One time you might be the Earl of Grantham, and the next time you might watch the same episode as Mr. Carson or Lady Mary Crawley.

Similarly, you’ll be able to watch live sporting events from the perspectives of some of the players, in addition to neutral (and probably very cool) views. As VR technology gets built into football helmets, you’ll be able to switch from Aaron Rogers to Jordy Nelson to Mason Crosby, as the case may be. Or the hash mark at the 30 yard line or a point 25 feet above the 50 yard line. And the hard-wiring of your brain will give you an immersive, immediate sense that you are actually at Lambeau Field, throwing or catching the winning touchdown or kicking the winning field goal.

The impact of VR on interpersonal connections and social interactions among ourselves will provide fodder for social scientists and psychologists, as will the impact of virtual worlds on the real world. There is the very real danger that as people retreat into virtual worlds, they might have difficulty separating reality from virtuality. What are we going to do to “keep it real”? What will we do to allow for the technology to allow us to enjoy enhanced experiential memories without letting them devolve into “Strange Days,” mind-altering obsessions?

Without a doubt, VR will allow us to explore strange new and familiar old worlds and boldly go where no scrapbooker has gone by creating enhanced memories. Without a doubt, VR will not only transform sports and gaming (not to mention advertising), but also the very notion of art itself.

While it would be interesting to discourse on where VR would fit into German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s theory of art – something I might venture into at a later date – I would like to explore the potential uses of the technology within municipal (and other forms of ) government.

At the Advanced Imaging Society’s industry event “VR on the Lot” last month at Paramount studios, I was able to present my thoughts on how VR technology should be used by and integrated into various aspects of municipal government. Indeed, it was and is my conviction that there are multiple municipal uses for Virtual Reality.

Training VR would be a natural use for the technology. We could use VR to help train our police and fire departments, as well as public works specialists and other employees. VR training could create multiple situations and scenarios in which the employee could chose various options, with the results of the individual choices playing out before her. In much the way that flight simulators help pilots prepare for various situations, training VR could help employees prepare for various eventualities in an immediate, immersive and recognizable way.

VR could also be used by municipalities to promote themselves as tourist destinations or in attracting economic opportunity and businesses. A Beverly Hills VR experience, for example, could serve as a valuable and powerful tool for our CVB (Conference and Visitors Bureau) in attracting visitors to our City. Those who experience some of the highlights of Beverly Hills virtually would be perfectly primed to come and visit it in the flesh, to stay at our hotels and to experience our restaurants and shopping opportunities.

Beyond training and promotional VR experiences, VR could become a useful – and in some cases an almost indispensable tool — in the future of urban planning. VR models of proposed buildings would allow planners, elected and appointed officials, and the public unique opportunities to get a true sense of a specific project’s impact on its surroundings. VR could also be used on a more macro level to allow stakeholders to visit new neighborhoods before they get built, which would create the ability to better gauge the potential impacts on community character of General Plan and zoning changes. In theory, at least, we would be less susceptible to “buyers’ remorse” when wholescale changes within neighborhoods are permitted, including the intensification of land uses or the development of entirely new areas of cities with completely new land uses.

But perhaps the most potent, lasting and important use of VR within municipal government would have nothing to do with land use planning, training or technical issues. VR has the technologically unparalleled ability to augment and support local programs such as Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait’s “City of Kindness” and Beverly Hills’s “Civil City” initiatives.

While there are those who may be rightly concerned that VR in a gaming context might have a desensitizing influence, something we have seen with current, less immersive video games which in some cases seem to have been part of a prelude to mass shootings, the technology can be developed to create the exact opposite effect. Experiencing something from another perspective, the opportunity to “be” someone else, to experience their struggles, their concerns, their feelings and their hopes can create an immediacy which opens the shell of self and which is the very antidote to solipsism and the perfect precondition to developing empathy, compassion and kindness. While the description “compassion machine” might sound a tad too mechanical, VR can indeed – through creating a variety of experiences with sensitive and relatable and truly human content – lead to a greater understanding of other people and other situations, which can lead to eye-opening, which can lead to tolerance, and which ultimately can lead to, yes, compassion.

If used correctly, VR can lead to less school bullying, fewer neighbor-on-neighbor disputes, less police brutality and more understanding for the pressures and dangers police themselves face. And more sympathy for the everyday challenges we and our neighbors are confronted with on a daily basis.

As with our vision of a Municipal Autonomous Shuttle System, it remains my conviction that technology can help improve the workings at City Hall and the lives of our residents in a multitude of ways. We mayors, elected officials and decision-makers need to start thinking of more ways to harness the technology to do just that. VR is an exciting development, on the cusp of a virtual explosion into so many aspects of our lives. The time is now. Not just virtually. For real.

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