Santa Monica Lookout
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Santa Monica Hotel War Heats Up

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

June 14, 2013 -- In a flyer distributed across Santa Monica by foot Thursday, Miramar officials leveled their first direct attack against the owner of the Huntley Hotel, who has been bankrolling opposition to the 86-year-old competitor’s proposed redevelopment.

The flyer calls Huntley owner Sohrab Sassounian a greedy Beverly Hills millionaire who is stiffing the City of vital tax dollars and using local neighborhood groups to fight his battle to stop the neighboring Miramar’s $225 million redevelopment.

“After more than a year of being ruthlessly smeared by the Huntley Hotel and its high-priced team of Downtown L.A. lawyers and consultants, we believe it is important to set the record straight and reveal the Huntley's misinformation campaign for what it is,” said Alan Epstein, lead negotiator for MSD Capital, which manages the property for computer billionaire Michael Dell.

Epstein called the campaign “a cynical attempt to thwart competition and deprive Santa Monica residents of the substantial new and much needed revenue that would flow from the Miramar Plan.”

The flyer, which has two blurry sepia headshots of Sassounian, accuses the Huntley of “spending millions of dollars to trick you in their fight to reduce competition and pocket more money for themselves.” It also accuses the Huntley’s owner of orchestrating “the takeover of local neighborhood groups in order to change the City of Santa Monica.”

The Huntley didn't take long to fire back.

In an email to The Lookout Thursday, Huntley Vice President Shiva Aghaipour called the Miramar flyer “shameful” and “a personal attack on a well-respected Santa Monica business owner.”

The flyer, she said, is “a cynical attempt to deflect attention away from the enormous groundswell of local opposition to their massive expansion plans. This smear campaign against the owner of the Huntley is not only false but is in fact intimidation designed to squelch participation in the public process.”

The battle between the two hotels began after the 86-year-old Miramar applied for an extensive overhaul to its four-acre campus, replacing two buildings with three structures that include a 21-story tower across the street from the Huntley's 19-foot tower.

Sassounian, the flyer says, “doesn’t want competition from a redeveloped 5-star hotel across the street from his 3-star hotel.”

Thursday's flyer, the first of its kind to come from the Miramar, marks a change in the tone of a war that has largely, until now, been waged through proxy battles.

Last month, Save Santa Monica, a group organized by the Huntley's political consultant Sue Burnside, flyered neighborhoods just before a preliminary public meeting for the Miramar project's environmental impact report (EIR).

“Let the City know that you will be watching for tricks and gimmicks,” the flyer reads, “and you want the City to require Michael Dell to follow the rules and meet the City's height and density limits.”

Save Santa Monica's flyer, which referred to Dell’s use a loophole in the State's tax law to save about $1 million a year on the Miramar's property tax, spurred residents to turn out in droves to the May 16 meeting, which nearly dissolved into chaos.

The Miramar’s flyer accuses Sassounian of using the same loophole for even greater personal gain, paying only $156,000 in property taxes last year. “The Miramar almost pays more in property taxes every two months than the Huntley pays in a whole year,” the flyer stated.

The flyer also cites an August 22, 2012 article from The Lookout News linking Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (SMRG) -- a political action committee that strongly opposed the Miramar redevelopment -- to the Huntley and Burnside.

It also makes reference to former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber's comment about the Huntley's lawyers from Latham & Watkins.

“You always know people have a weak case when they hire Latham & Watkins to make their threats,” Gruber wrote in 2006, when the firm was representing opponents of preserving the Annenberg Beach House.

Huntley officials said the Miramar’s flyer was money poorly spent. “It’s truly unfortunate that the Miramar would rather spend their time and money on attack pieces instead of working with residents to design a project that will fit the community and be a benefit to the entire City,” Aghaipour wrote.

Epstein said that the Miramar stands by the flyer. “We note that the Huntley has not denied any of the allegations we made,” he said.

“Frankly, it makes no sense to us why the Huntley is undermining new hotel development downtown,” Epstein added, referring to plans for other luxury hotels Downtown.

“We welcome new hotel investment, and believe that it will make Downtown Santa Monica an even more attractive travel destination, benefiting all local business owners,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

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