BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — With its movieland fame and glamour, Beverly Hills has become one of Southern California’s top tourist attractions.
And that realization may be a sore subject for some residents.
Cities that are enclaves of the rich and famous often maintain an air of reserve. Not Beverly Hills. Every day, vanloads of tourists flood the sidewalks of Rodeo Drive. They gawk at millions of dollars of jewelry in store windows, have their photos snapped in front of boutiques like Fendi and Cartier, and occupy tables at upscale restaurants, like Wolfgang Puck’s Spago or The Palm.
But some locals miss the hometown feel of Beverly Hills’ downtown, known as the Golden Triangle. There has been chafing at the triangle’s creep from upscale shopping district to tourist destination.
“It used to be the businesses in the triangle catered to the local residents,” said Phil Savenick, president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society. “That’s not the case anymore.”
And it’s only getting worse. The city is bracing for the arrival of an extension of the Los Angeles subway, with a new round of tunnel work slated to start later this year. And late last year, City Hall’s plan to add a loading zone for tour buses was met with grumbles from some small business owners.
In writing the city to oppose the new parking zone, psychotherapist Sandra Garfield complained in November that, “loud tourists would vastly disturb the many professional offices” on her block.
Clinical psychologist Robert Morris, whose office is also nearby, wrote, “the tour buses cheapen the feel of our city. At peak tour times, my patients remark that the city of Beverly Hills is becoming a theme park, with tour buses much like Universal Studios.”
The tour buses likely aren’t going away anytime soon. Tourism has increasingly proven to be a boon to Beverly Hill’s coffers. Sales and lodging taxes contributed $56.6 million in 2016, the last time that the city’s Conference & Visitors Bureau released its survey. Beverly Hills saw 7.4 million visitors, up nearly 23 percent from two years prior.
City officials say they don’t want to be known as a haven just for the rich. Rather, they want tourists of all stripes.
“We want everyone to feel they are welcome, that they have something they can enjoy in our city,” said City Councilmember Lili Bosse, who grew up in Beverly Hills.
She points out that there are now benches on Rodeo Drive where tourists, from looky-loos to serious luxury shoppers, can take a break. In 2017, Bosse pushed to expand the city’s appeal by creating a program called BOLD, for Beverly Hills Open Later Days, in which downtown stores stay open late on designated days in summer or during the holidays. The evenings typically feature entertainment like fireworks, live music or DJs.
“There’s something for everybody — coffee houses, hip places, hotels…great parks,” Bosse said.
Today’s retail scene is a far cry from the Beverly Hills of Bosse’s youth. Back then, she rode her bike around downtown and went to the Thrifty drug store, where ice cream cones were a nickel.
Savenick, too, pines for the Beverly Hills he once knew, the city where his parents settled after buying a house for $60,000 in 1957. (In December, the average Beverly Hills home sold for $2.5 million, reports real estate tracker CoreLogic, up 8 percent from the year before. For comparison, the median home prince in 2018 for Southern California was $581,500.)
Residents still talk of trying to keep what they refer to as the hometown “Mayberry” feeling of Beverly Hills.
For Savenick, it was growing up in an affluent place and having celebrity neighbors. He recalled one Halloween as a young trick-or-treater in which he knocked on the door of Jack Benny, one of the nation’s most famous comedians at the time. The entertainer invited Savenick into the living room and urged him to perform for some assembled guests. He sang “Jingle Bells.” Instead of candy, his reward was a silver dollar, which he still possesses.
As more of Rodeo Drive becomes high-end boutiques, there are fewer of the kinds of businesses — pet stores, toy stores, for example — that residents came to depend on.
“That is the part we are going to miss. Those are the things that matter to residents,” Savenick said.
He also worries about what the subway extension, the Purple Line from downtown Los Angeles, will do to Beverly Hills. Depending on how the station serving the triangle is built, it could cause traffic jams on one of the city’s most important thoroughfares, Wilshire Boulevard. He also fears the overdevelopment it could bring.
Beverly Hills’ school board has gone further in fighting the subway. It has sued to block the project, saying the route will damage Beverly Hills High School or make it susceptible to accidents from gas and oil pockets that will be encountered while tunneling. In October, school officials helped organize a staged protest by students.
The school district “succeeded in scaring some people,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, the Los Angeles County supervisor who represented Beverly Hills for years before he retired.
So far, though, it hasn’t been successful in stopping the project. Instead, the district’s legal fight, “has been a colossal waste of taxpayer money,” Yaroslavsky said.
For city officials and downtown business owners, however, more visitors can only help.
“We want to share our city with people around the world,” said Vice Mayor John Mirisch. And it has: The Conference & Visitors Bureau reports that four out of five summer visitors were foreigners.
High-end fashion stores like Cartier, Chanel, Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton were among the top producers of sales tax for the city in the second quarter of last year, right along with the Ferrari dealership and the new Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills hotel, where room prices can stretch past $800 a night.
Given the city’s bevy of luxury retailers and their continuing popularity, Beverly Hills business leaders say they don’t mind tourists who come to browse, not buy.
“I think any city would prefer foot traffic to no traffic,” said Todd Johnson, CEO of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. He insists, however, that, “residents are vital piece of the puzzle. It’s a collaboration.”
One entrepreneur takes full advantage of the tourists. Hedayat Golafzani parks his aging ice cream truck right on Rodeo Drive, a counterpoint to the expensive stores. He said he has been coming for 20 years and he has a thriving business from foreign tourists.
“They want to experience an American ice cream truck,” he said.
But not all residents are convinced as they rub elbows with outsiders.
“They need to make sure the locals are still shopping,” said Karen Lazar, who was toting a red Cartier bag on a recent afternoon as she strolled Rodeo Drive. A former store owner in Beverly Hills herself, Lazar said she was amazed at how out-of-towners have engulfed Beverly Hills after a visit to a local restaurant.
“I went to Avra last night,” she said, “and I wondered ‘Who are all these people?'”
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