Who Really Benefits from the SORO Hotel?
Two affluent developers want to demolish 12 rent-stabilized units and a restaurant to build a hotel in Pico-Robertson, but does the community really want this amenity?
Le Petit Jardin looks like a cross between a Parisian cafe and a Midwestern grandmother’s living room. A combination flower shop and restaurant, the floor space is dominated by tables-for-two covered in neat linen tablecloths, but the knick-knacks displayed throughout the interior give the place a well-worn feeling of home. Behind the counter, I see vases stuffed with decorative reeds and a ceramic statue of a cat and an owl. A Star of David mirror hangs in the hallway, gifted to the current owner’s late mother, who was friends with many local rabbis and members of the thriving Jewish community in the Pico-Robertson area. While I was visiting Le Petit Jardin, a couple came in to buy flowers for Shabbat dinner.
For 27 years, the restaurant has stood at 1456 S. Robertson Boulevard, run by Priscilla Sotelo Klisch’s family. The reason Le Petit Jardin looks like a home is because it is Sotelo Klisch’s home. She and her father live upstairs.
“When people come into our restaurant, they’re literally coming into our home,” she tells me.
Le Petit Jardin was originally known as the Star Deli and Donut Show and was run by two Holocaust survivors, Helen and Pearl. Sotelo Klisch’s mother, Celine, ran a flower shop a few doors down and stopped by the Star Deli for lunch every day, befriending Helen and Pearl in the process. When the women decided to retire, they offered Celine the business, which she ended up running alongside her husband, Raul, for the rest of her life.
“It was a passion project for my mom,” Sotelo Klisch told me. “She put all her life and energy into it. She passed away the day after Valentine’s Day, which is a big day for flowers. Up until the day she died, she was working here.”
Now, Le Petit Jardin and 12 rent-stabilized housing units face possible demolition due to the pending construction of a project known as the SORO Hotel. Proposed by developers Sinanian Development and Harkham Enterprises, the SORO Hotel is a six-story, 131-room hotel with a 945-square-foot ground floor. On September 9, the LA City Planning Commission is voting on whether to recommend that the project be approved. Harkham and Sinanian have faced considerable blowback from the Pico-Robertson community. Recently, grassroots organizations came together to send a letter to the developers expressing opposition to the project. The letter was signed by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the National Council of Jewish Women, and multiple local rabbis.
Ira Handleman, a consultant and spokesperson for the SORO Hotel project, did not respond to numerous requests for comment. However, he spoke to the Beverly Hills Press earlier this summer and claimed that the hotel would serve Pico Robertson’s Jewish community by respecting sabbath traditions, offering a kosher banquet, and providing community members’ relatives with a place to stay when visiting.
However, there is already a hotel — the Carlyle Inn — in the Pico-Robertson area, which Sotelo Klisch told me is usually empty. She also took issue with Handelman’s claims that Harkham Enterprises is in negotiations with her.
According to Sotelo Klisch, Edwin Palacios — the building manager for the rent-stabilized apartments — came into Le Petit Jardin without warning one afternoon. He told her, “Harkham is offering you 30k to leave.” He did not identify himself as the building manager or explain his relevance to Harkham Enterprises.
“Sending someone to intimidate me, when we don’t know who they are, what role they have in their company,” she said, “that is not a professional attitude and it is not discussions or negotiations.”
The aforementioned Unite Here/POWER letter requested that Palacios “cease contacting tenants individually regarding this matter.” Harkham’s offer was eventually upped to $35,000, and Sotelo Klisch has since spoken to Dan Harkham directly, but she still has nothing in writing.
During her first encounter with Palacios, Sotelo Klisch pointed out that Harkham and Sinanian still did not have permission to build. Palacios told her they would get permission soon, and implied that the SORO Hotel project was more or less a done deal.
However, it is very much not a done deal. Despite what Sotelo Klisch and other tenants have been told, Harkham and Sinanian still face considerable legal red tape — regardless of what happens on September 9.
The Questionable Legality of the SORO Hotel
The City Planning Commission’s original recommendations report regarding the SORO Hotel was tentatively in favor of the project. Written by Heather Bleemers and Oliver Netburn, it cited potential benefits such as increasing tourism, creating jobs, and spurring zoning changes that would strengthen existing commercial developments. The report recommended, among other things, approving a conditional use permit and making a Vesting Zone Change that would help facilitate construction of the SORO Hotel.
However, in the grand scheme of things the City Planning Commission does not hold that much authority.
Made up of individuals appointed by the mayor, the City Planning Commission lacks the legal authority to green-light projects. They can make recommendations to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), but how much sway an endorsement from the City Planning Commission has is dependent on a variety of factors. This includes the opinion of the city councilmember representing the district where a prospective project would be constructed. In the case of the SORO Hotel, that would be Paul Koretz, who has yet to take a stance on the issue (his office did not respond to a request for comment from Knock LA). The fact that the SORO Hotel is still a discretionary project is also important. A discretionary project can be vetoed for a variety of reasons as it makes its way through the bureaucratic process, so Harkham and Sinanian have a long way to go to get a definitive yes.
A project that is legally risky could be shut down by the recommendation of the city attorney. There is already some question as to whether the SORO Hotel would be in violation of the Housing Crisis Act of 2019. The act, which went into effect in January 2020, set a five-year prohibition of residential density reduction associated with “housing development projects.”
One could argue that the SORO Hotel qualifies as a housing development project, the legal definition of which is broad and somewhat imprecise but does specify that residential projects of two or more units and certain mixed-use projects qualify. Page F-11 of the aforementioned recommendation report states the SORO hotel is “defined as a residential project” and an initial study put out by the Department of City Planning outright calls the project a “mixed-use residential project.”
But the law is always subject to interpretation, and there is troubling wiggle room here. While the SORO Hotel toes the line of legality, mixed-use projects only qualify as housing development projects if two-thirds of the floor area is designated for residential use, possibly granting Harkham and Sinanian a get-out-of-jail-free card. A lot is going to boil down to who makes the calls behind the scenes along the way. If the powers that be decide to interpret the law in the developers’ favor, which Los Angeles bureaucrats have a history of doing, the project could potentially get approved in the near future. In the past two decades, Los Angeles has demolished over 27,000 rent-stabilized units.
In short, the impending vote by the Planning Commission is not a black-and-white issue, but it is concerning. A “yes” vote is not a clear-cut path forward, but would be a troubling development for Sotelo Klisch and the residents of the rent-stabilized units.
Mixed Messages to Tenants
For the past four years, Morthyn Brito has been hearing that the SORO Hotel project is happening soon and that he needs to move out. Brito lives in one of the rent-stabilized units at risk of demolition and described Edwin Palacios’ tactics as “aggressive.”
“He got most of the businesses to move out,” Brito told me. “There was a barbershop across the street, a clothing store downstairs. You’d think the whole thing would have been set up by now, but it’s not. Nothing has really been done.”
Brito has told Palacios multiple times that he would be willing to leave if he could be placed in another one of the apartment complexes Palacio manages, some of which are only a few blocks away.
“I really love this neighborhood. I’ve been in the neighborhood for eight years,” Brito told me. “I don’t really want to move, and now everything is a lot more expensive. I just wish he was a little more honest with me about the situation.”
At one point, Palacios seemed to be working with Brito to find him a similar unit in a different building. The price was significantly higher, and Brito requested reduced rent, on par with what he’s paying now. After a lot of discussion, Palacios abruptly ceased communications regarding the potential move.
“You offer me an apartment and then you ghost me about it? What was the reason?” Brito said.
According to Brito, Palacio convinced several other tenants to vacate their units over the years, ostensibly because the building would soon be demolished, but still sometimes fills empty units.
If the SORO Hotel project is green-lit, Harkham and Sinanian would have to comply with both the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and the Ellis Act. The Rent Stabilization Act stipulates that individuals displaced by no fault of their own are entitled to some degree of financial relocation assistance, the precise amount depending on factors like the size of the unit and the age of the tenant. The Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants in rent-stabilized units if they are going out of business, but also requires relocation assistance and specifies how much notice must be given prior to eviction. The majority of tenants are entitled to 120 days, but senior citizens and tenants with disabilities must be given at least a year.
If tenants vacate willingly, it’s a different story. Not only are they generally not entitled to relocation assistance, landlords can legally increase the price of rent to market value after tenants move out.
Brito was offered some money to move, potentially making Palacios in compliance with the Rent Stabilization Act, but he felt uncomfortable accepting for multiple reasons, including the paperwork he received.
“It seemed like a letter someone typed on a Word document,” he told me. “Something seems odd about it. It didn’t have information about how [the money] would get distributed. That’s just me being extra cautious, having lived here a long time.”
It is about more than the money for Brito, however. He simply doesn’t want to leave Pico-Robertson and would prefer to be placed in an alternative unit nearby. Other tenants, according to Brito, feel the same way.
“The two other people who have a lease here are an older man who’s 77 and a woman who lives down below me who’s in her 60s,” he said. “Everyone has lived here for a long time and there’s a lot of back and forth with them trying to build this damn hotel that no one even wants.”
What Does Progress Imply?
For Sotelo Klisch, it’s not just about one hotel — it’s about the potential implications of affluent developers encroaching on the neighborhood.
“If you give them permission to build this, it gives other developers the interest in developing,” she told me. “That’s destroying what this neighborhood has been so long.” She then expressed distress at how the Planning Commission and other city officials talk about the hotel in terms of progress, saying, “Progress? What does that imply?”
The Planning Commission’s recommendation report contains over 200 pages of public letters regarding the project. Less than 25 speak in favor of the SORO Hotel. The majority express horror and outrage that such an idea is even being entertained, and yet the report keeps citing the potential benefits of the project — job creation, a rise in tourism, zoning changes — but who really benefits here? The hotel may create jobs, but would these jobs pay a living wage? If the hotel does increase tourism, who gains the most from a potential influx of out-of-state visitors to the Pico-Robertson area? Given the vast public backlash, touting the project as inherently advantageous because it may check off a few potentially positive boxes seems willfully myopic.
While they have a long way to go, Sinanian and Harkham seem to think the hotel is a done deal, and LA does have a history of favoring affluent developers in these types of situations. The law, while purportedly objective, is always subject to the whims of those in power, who seem to be intentionally ignoring the majority of the Pico-Robertson community as the SORO Hotel moves through the bureaucratic process. The loose legalese employed in the Planning Commission’s report allows a small number of individuals to interpret city regulations at their discretion.