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Council Breaks With Union, Backs Hotel's Proposal

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By Jorge Casuso

December 9, 2021 -- In a major blow to the politically powerful hotel workers union, the City Council on Tuesday approved new uses at the Shore Hotel, which has been embroiled in a bitter unionizing battle.

In a 4 to 3 vote, the Council approved an appeal of a Planning Commission decision that paves the way for the hotel to open a cafe space, an 80-seat restaurant with a bar and patio and massage service for guests.

The Council also gave the Shore -- located across from the entrance to the Pier -- the go-ahead to create a 14-room "micro hotel" the Commission had recommended for approval.

In what marks a major break from the past, the four newest Councilmembers rebuffed the staunch opposition mounted by some community groups and Unite HERE Local 11 and backed the local family-owned hotel.

"It would be easy to make friends, so to speak, and just fall in line with how the community at large, seemingly, or special interests feel about this issue," said Councilmember Lana Negrete.

"I'm not speaking or doing anything that's appeasing the large groups that call in, and I know that's not the popular thing," Negrete said.

Negrete's vote marks a strong shift for the Council that appointed her in June to replace Kevin McKeown, a staunch supporter of the union, which has been a major player in local politics for two decades.

Much of the opposition -- reflected in the three opposing Councilmembers' votes -- centered on the record $17.3 million in fines and fees imposed by the California Coastal Commission ("Santa Monica Hotel Hit with Biggest Fine in Coastal Commission History," May 8, 2019)

The fines came after the Commission determined that the hotel's owner had pulled a "bait-and-switch" by opening a luxury hotel with a permit for a moderately priced hotel.

"I believe we have over the years supported people who were not approaching us in good faith," said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. "I think we have a right to look at how people have acted."

Councilmember Gleam Davis said The Shore set aside 72 affordable units only because "they were forced" to do so by the Coastal Commission.

"This is not something being done out of the goodness of their heart, but something that they are legally required to do," said Davis, who was a member of the Planning Commission in 2008 when the hotel presented its plans for a moderately priced hotel.

"They needed to do it," Davis said. "The question is, 'Do we really trust them?'"

The three opposing Councilmembers -- who included Kristin McCowan -- also questioned the benefits of adding another restaurant and cafe to a bustling area replete with options, especially since the hotel will lease the spaces.

"Cafe, restaurant, massage do nothing to improve coastal access," Davis said. "This is not an amenity poor area. This is Downtown Santa Monica. These are meant to generate profits for the hotel."

The arguments failed to persuade the Council majority, who stressed the need to help local businesses in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown.

"This is a local family business that we can trust, that we can hold accountable," said Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, one of three Councilmembers elected in November on the "Change" slate.

Councilmember Phil Brock, who headed the slate, agreed. "They are owned by locals and committed to local hiring," he said.

Brock noted that the Farzam family had for years owned and operated the two low-priced hotels that were demolished to pave the way for the new Shore Hotel.

"They have three hotels in Santa Monica," Brock said. "The hotels are better than before they got there. They are embedded and wed to the Santa Monica community."

De la Torre, like the other supporters on the Council, praised the Shore for hiring locals and agreeing to hire more local youth.

"The positives outweigh the negatives, in terms of jobs being created for the natives," he said.

Brock noted The Shore, which has been the target of a bitter unionizing battle, pays higher wages than union hotels in Santa Monica.

"I would love all the hotels in Santa Monica to be union," he said. "In actuality, they (The Shore) are paying higher."

Local 11, which has accused the hotel owner of firing workers who attempted to unionize, is part of a coalition of politicians and environmentalists who challenged The Shore's permit before the Coastal Commission.

They included Congressmen Ted Lieu, State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who represent Santa Monica; the Sierra Club, and Surfrider Foundation.

At Tuesday's meeting, Counciilmember Negrete said she was taken aback by "so much tension around the issue."

"Why do we not want this hotel to be successful?" Negrete asked. "I was quite surprised at how many people spent so much time, money and effort against this hotel project."

It is, she said, "as if they were doing something that was physically harming people."

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