Growing up Beverly Hills

Jan.January 12, 2017 07:00 AM
Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch in his offi ce

The Mayor of Beverly Hills is a local boy with deep roots in the community. John Mirisch grew up in town and attended Hawthorne Grammar School and the famed Beverly Hills High. His grandfather Walter Mirisch was a movie producer who brought such classic hits as “Some Like It Hot,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “West Side Story” to the silver screen.

He describes the Beverly Hills of his youth as like Mayberry R.F.D, a wholesome fictional small town depicted in a spin-off of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which aired in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is easy to see that small town vibe on the City Council.

In the clubby world of Beverly Hills electoral politics, five City Council members are each elected to four-year terms by local voters. The council members choose the mayor and vice mayor each year, and there’s an unwritten rule that the top two posts will rotate among them. Mirisch was first elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009, and again in 2013, when he served his first year-long stint as mayor. He was vice mayor in 2015.

But Mayberry R.F.D. never had a dispute like the development battle that has marked Mirisch’s current term. In November 2016, Israeli-American entrepreneur Beny Alagem was stymied in his attempt to revise a previously approved project at the ballot box, failing to win voter support to raise the height of a new condo tower next to his Beverly Hilton hotel. The ballot measure, which combined the two previously approved condominium projects, would have made it, at 375 feet, by far the tallest building in Beverly Hills.

As mayor, Mirisch has been a vocal critic of the initiative. And political opponents point out that he hasn’t publicly criticized a large neighboring project by Chinese developer Wanda. Indeed, he helped negotiate an agreement with the City of Beverly Hills for Wanda’s $1.2 billion development in which the developer would pay upfront fees of $60 million — rather than $30 million — if the City Council approves its mixed-use One Beverly Hills project. Mirisch told The Real Deal that his objection to the Hilton ballot measure stemmed from the developer’s deliberate attempt to circumvent the city’s planning process, while Wanda has played by the rules.

When TRD recently sat down with the mayor in his office, he told us that he planned to run for a third City Council term, adding that he believed he had “a unique voice that represents a lot of the residents of Beverly Hills that needs to be heard, and is not necessarily reflected by other candidates.”

Here are his thoughts on future development in Beverly Hills, the contentious ballot initiative and growing up in the film industry.

You were raised in Beverly Hills, in a family that produced Hollywood movies. Was that as glamorous as it sounds?

Not for a kid. It wasn’t uncommon to have family in the movie business. I was just kind of a normal kid. My parents were divorced, and I grew up dealing with that.

What was your first job?

It might have been doing background research for my stepfather, who’s a movie producer. He was interested in various subjects and I would look into potential ideas for movies. Then I worked in film distribution. I was eventually hired as a trainee by 21st Century Fox in Germany. I worked in France for awhile with United International Pictures, a joint venture between Paramount and MGM. I ran their office in Sweden for about eight years.

Do you speak Swedish?

I do, and I have my Swedish citizenship.

What brought you back to the U.S.?

My ex-wife. She’s Polish, and I met her in Sweden. She didn’t want to live in Sweden, and I didn’t want to live in Poland, so we found common ground in the U.S. If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably still be in Sweden. We’re divorced now, and I have a nine-year-old, Vincent.

What inspired you to get into politics?

When I moved back to Beverly Hills, I saw a lot of changes that weren’t for the good. There was a lot of overdevelopment. I started a blog that was a bit satirical, and one thing led to another. People said you may as well step up and do something about it. I’d never been interested in politics before that.

What is your vision for the long-term development of Beverly Hills?

The secret of our success is our residential quality of life. We have a General Plan, which I worked on, that lays out the vision for the future of Beverly Hills. It is a generally low-rise, human-scale community, which values and honors our unique history as we look to our future.

Beverly Hills City Hall

How do you feel about the defeat of Beny Alagem’s ballot initiative, which would have made his tower next to the Beverly Hilton the tallest in Beverly Hills?

I’m very proud of the residents of Beverly Hills that they were able to withstand the barrage of propaganda, false advertising and glitzy campaigns and see to the core of things. I was always opposed to that project because I felt like it was out of keeping with the neighborhood. I felt it was a case of greed run amok. The fact that they were trying to circumvent our process by using an initiative loophole was really not appropriate. They probably spent between $8 and $10 million trying to get this through. It goes to show the kinds of profits they thought they could achieve.

You’ve been criticized for championing the Wanda project while opposing the revisions to the Hilton project. Do you feel your treatment of these companies has been evenhanded?

I wasn’t championing the Wanda project, but I’ve given them credit from day one because they respected our process. Wanda didn’t change the footprint of their building at all, and yet we were able to negotiate a better deal for the city to provide recurring revenue for generations. My objection to Hilton was not only to the project itself but to the way they were trying to do it. They weren’t doing it in a kosher way. If Alagem had gone through the process, we could have renegotiated the development agreement with the city.

The Beverly Hills Courier has published editorials and news stories implying that you have improperly favored Wanda in this business dispute, and that Wanda paid for a recent business trip you took to China. What is your response?

I’ve described their coverage as hysterically hysterical. Wanda didn’t pay for my trip. I went with a bunch of mayors and it was paid for by the Sino-American Friendship Association. I did meet with Wanda when I was there. Part of my job is to meet with people who want to invest in Beverly Hills. It would be kind of foolish, and also maybe a case of malfeasance, not to meet with a group that wants to invest almost $1 billion in our city. A lot of officials are courting investment from Wanda in their cities, including [Los Angeles] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti.

Did you meet with Alagem to discuss his project coming up to the vote?

I met with him to try to suggest a compromise, but they weren’t interested. They decided to go for broke. They were suggesting just stacking one building on another. That’s not an acceptable practice. This is not Legoland.

The Hilton project is partially financed through the EB-5 program. Do you feel this is an appropriate use of this investor visa program?

In the case of the Hilton ballot measure campaign, there was a lot of xenophobia [directed against Wanda]. The irony is that the Hilton hotel is partially financed with Chinese funding. In that way, I found it quite disturbing and hypocritical. In general, I’m not sure that EB-5 financing is appropriate for the construction of hotels. The idea of EB-5 is to create jobs that otherwise would not have been created.  It’s essentially selling a green card, and I’m not really okay with that.

Former Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker registered as a paid lobbyist on behalf of Wanda. What’s your take on whether that’s proper for a former mayor?

I think it was a tempest in a teapot. His lobbying had little or no effect on the decision. It was an attempt by opponents of the project to take something that was irrelevant and use it to put a pin in the project.

We’re coming off the back of the presidential election. Who got your vote?

I didn’t vote for either of the major candidates. But it’s my hope that President-elect Trump will be able to change a culture in this country that has put special interests first. We have a large problem with the role of money in politics in general. Part of the reason the Hilton project caused so much intrigue was that it was a very blatant attempt — they weren’t even hiding it — to buy an election.

You just told us that you’re planning to run for a third term. What do you hope to achieve?

A real estate broker once told me, ‘Preservation in Beverly Hills is taking a picture of something before tearing it down.’ We’ve been working to change that and to put an emphasis on historical preservation, and I hope to continue that.

Are you interested in running for other political offices?

I’m not actively even considering running for any other office, though I wouldn’t rule anything out. If I ever do decide to run for something else, it could very well be in Sweden, my other home.

What would you like to do after holding political office? Would you go back to the movie industry?

I continue to feel connected to and love the entertainment industry, so that would be a possibility, though I’m very open to any number of various challenges, including those related to public policy.

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