Wanda's Real Estate Chief Fights Back in Beverly Hills Spat: Opponents Using "Deplorable Tactics" (Exclusive)
The Chinese developer is hitting back against accusations that it is using foreign money to undermine a Beverly Hills project that would compete against its planned $1.2 billion hotel and condominium next to the Beverly Hilton.
The executive overseeing Chinese developer Wanda Group's $1.2 billion tower, planned for a lot next to the Beverly Hilton, is hitting back at accusations that his firm is using foreign money to influence an American election with the goal of undermining a rival project.
"The Beverly Hilton and some of the proponents of Measure HH [see below] have resorted to xenophobic language in order to try to discredit us and the One Beverly Hills project," Rohan a'Beckett, deputy GM of Wanda Beverly Hills Properties, tells THR. "We are disappointed that such deplorable tactics are being utilized in a city that prides itself on its civility and openness."
On Sept. 22, Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel workers at the Beverly Hilton, filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the Federal Election Commission accusing Wanda of using foreign money in its campaign to defeat a Beverly Hills city ballot measure known as the Hilton Initiative, or HH. It's a proposal that would allow Beverly Hilton owner Beny Alagem (who also is building the Waldorf Astoria next door) to combine two previously approved towers — measuring eight and 18 stories — into a single 26-story tower directly adjacent to the Hilton; the proposal includes the creation of a 1.7-acre public park. Opponents of the plan, which include Wanda Group and Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch, have lambasted Alagem for a lack of transparency and the use of a ballot measure, which they see as an end run around the city's land-use approval process. The FEC filing — which Alagem had nothing to do with, according to company spokesperson Marie Garvey — is the latest salvo in a bare-knuckle political brawl that has pitted Alagem against Wanda, owned by Wang Jianlin, the world's 19th-richest person.
Australia native a'Beckett, who worked for an Australian developer in Shanghai for seven years and speaks fluent Mandarin, largely has remained behind the scenes — until now. He says early overtures by Wanda to find common ground with Alagem were rejected: "It was clear that they did not want any competition."
Wanda is seeking approval from Beverly Hills' land-use committee for its own 15-story project on the site where a Robinsons-May department store once stood, just across Merv Griffin Way from Alagem's site. Wanda is asking the city to approve a change to its original plan; the new proposal would allow for 193 condominiums and 134 hotel rooms.
The fight between Alagem and the Wanda Group has fostered three separate lawsuits in addition to the complaints to the FEC and CFPPC and has roiled the Beverly Hills City Council. A number of councilmembers have questioned whether Mayor Mirisch has overstepped the traditional role of his office by inserting himself so publicly in the ongoing debate and supporting one project over the other.
Rachel Torres, a research analyst and spokesperson for Unit Here Local 11, told THR that over a year ago union leaders reached out to the Wanda Group to discuss not only its new building but also their plans for the unionization of the hotel component. According to Torres, Unite Here Local 11 never heard back from the Wanda Group. "We believe that things should be transparent and regulated, and as we started to look into [One Beverly Hills] we felt that this was a necessary investigation that needed to take place."
A rendering of the 26-story tower proposed by Alagem, whose plan includes park space facing Wilshire.
But a'Beckett says that the Wanda Group never was contacted by the hotel workers' union and suggests that the lawyer representing Unite Here Local 11, Gary Winuk of the Kaufman Legal Group, may be working for more than one client. In August, Winuk filed a separate complaint with the FEC accusing former Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker of violating a city policy that prohibits former officials from accepting paid lobbying work that relates to projects they voted on while in office. In 2008, Brucker voted to approve the project at 9900 Wilshire Blvd., now One Beverly Hills, when it was under different ownership and had different plans.
"For months, Mr. Winuk has refused to identify his client, despite numerous requests to do so. There is only one entity that benefits from Mr. Winuk's attempts to derail the One Beverly Hills project and bully opponents of Measure HH," says a'Beckett. "The union may be Mr. Winuk's client on this scurrilous accusation, but he has refused to identify his client from his past accusations."
When contacted by THR, Winuk declined to disclose the name of his original client. Says Winuk: "The relevant issue is whether there is an ethics violation and if so what is the appropriate measure for the city to take?"
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.