CITY HALL — Members of the Unite Here! Local 11 union have filed a petition for a referendum to block the construction of a new hotel on Wilshire Boulevard after the City Council voted to allow it to move forward if the developer paid employees a so-called “living wage.”
The union representing hotel workers believes the council did not go for enough when it set the wage, arguing that it should have been higher.
The referendum process allows an individual or group to send a legislative decision of a local governing body back to its constituents for a direct up-down vote.
In this case, the target is a development agreement for a 285-room hotel slated for 710 Wilshire Blvd.
The project is both beloved by members of the preservation community for the promised $11 million rehab of the landmarked Santa Monica Professional Building and disliked by unions and local business people for a controversial living wage provision that the business community felt went too far and labor advocates decried for not going far enough.
“I think for us, we see the 710 Wilshire project as the first of many new developments in the city of Santa Monica that set a negative precedent in which future development could follow,” said Rachel Torres, a research analyst with Unite Here!.
Development agreements, a process that allows developers to exceed zoning restrictions in return for pre-negotiated community benefits, are both contracts and laws, and as such are subject to referendum.
Unite Here! has used referendums in other cities, but not Santa Monica, Torres said.
The proponents now have until May 20 to gather signatures from 10 percent of Santa Monica’s registered voters or approximately 5,820 people.
If they succeed, the City Council will have to decide as early as July whether or not to repeal their decision to allow the hotel or put the matter to the people on the November ballot.
The petitioners began gathering signatures over the weekend, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
The team behind the hotel, led by local property owner Alexander Gorby, was “puzzled” to hear about the referendum, said Ken Kutcher, a land-use attorney shepherding the project through the approval process.
“The project is not controversial,” Kutcher said. “It’s a good project, it will bring tax revenue and employment opportunities. It’s the first project of its kind to have a living wage requirement.”
The living wage requirement was one of the only portions of the development agreement that drew fire at City Council hearings on March 20 and 27. Members of the business community and Unite Here! filled the Council Chambers for the first reading of the law that would signal the council’s acceptance of the terms of the development agreement for the hotel.
Council members wrangled over the living wage, going through several motions before arriving at a wage rate between Gorby’s original proposal and that advocated by the unions.
The final vote — which promised a wage of either $11.29 or $12.54 per hour depending on whether workers received benefits — fell far short of the $15 per hour union representatives were hoping for and looked like an overstep to members of the business community.
The union decided that more dramatic action had to be taken after the ordinance passed on its second reading on March 27, Torres said.
“We knew that the vote on the second reading required immediate response,” Torres said. “There was no time to delay and contemplate how things are going to go.”
If the development agreement is discarded by the council in July or goes to the ballot box in November, it will not guarantee the union a higher living wage at the hotel, but it will have farther-reaching implications.
The development agreement for 710 Wilshire Blvd. required that at least two other future hotels be saddled with some kind of living wage provision. If they didn’t, hotel workers at the 710 Wilshire project would no longer be promised the higher wage rates.
Those agreements will be coming before officials in coming months. If the 710 Wilshire development agreement does not survive, the other hotels could have a living wage provision that their competitor does not have.
If it does not fail but the other hotels negotiate without a living wage provision, the question with 710 Wilshire’s living wage is moot.
Furthermore, City Hall could lose the chance at an $11 million restoration of the landmarked Santa Monica Professional Building.
That kind of opportunity doesn’t come along every day, said Carol Lemlein of the Santa Monica Conservancy, which has come out in support of the project at recent meetings.
“Over time, it was growing rather shabby,” Lemlein said. “One has to be worried about these buildings if they’re not put into an active use. They can be up for demolition.”
Although the process is complicated, landmarked buildings can be demolished. To date, at least four landmarked buildings have been demolished or substantially demolished in Santa Monica.