Helicopters are a fact of life in Los Angeles. Everyone knows how loud they can be, especially police helicopters circling overhead. But imagine living beside a regular helicopter landing site and you will begin to understand the frustration of one West Hollywood neighborhood.
Residents in West Hollywood West, an area made up of almost 1,000 single-family homes north of Beverly Boulevard, west of La Cienega and east of Doheny, already have two nearby helicopter landing sites to contend with—at the and at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“The Sofitel wants to be able to offer something unique,” said Mike Leary, a consultant working with the hotel on the proposal. “It’s a lifestyle choice that few hotels can offer.”
Lauren Meister, who lives 500 feet north of the Sofitel, hopes it will not be able to offer the service. She and other residents are putting up a fight.
“The noise is bad. It can wake you up at night,” said Meister, who has lived in her home on Westbourne Drive since 1997. “It’s an irritant. It affects our quality of life.”
The neighborhood got a taste of what it might be like for three months last fall when Ryan Kavanaugh, the media mogul behind Relativity Media, which is headquartered a few blocks west of the Sofitel, used the hotel’s landing pad for his helicopter. A Hollywood Reporter profile of Kavanaugh from September 2010 described flying helicopters as his “newest obsession.”
Residents complained about Kavanaugh’s noisy comings and goings enough to get California Congressman Henry Waxman involved. In early December, Caltrans issued a cease and desist order, as the hotel did not have the proper permits for nonemergency landings.
Shortly after that, the Sofitel started its proposal for a “heli-stop” that would be used for quick landings and takeoffs. It would not be a heliport where choppers land routinely. But if someone chartered a chopper, they would be able to legally land on the hotel's roof.
“The business community is in love with the idea, because it would bring wealthy people here,” explained Leary, who said he and the Sofitel are still in the exploration stages of the proposal. Once they submit their paperwork, it is a 13-month application process, which would require approval from both the Los Angeles City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Built in 1986, the 10-story Sofitel tried to get a heli-stop approved in 2007, but ultimately abandoned the idea. Leary was not involved in that proposal, so he said he doesn't know the specifics of why those plans were dropped.
But this time, the Accor Hotels-owned Sofitel intends to go through the entire application process, which according to Leary will likely cost more than $150,000.
In late January, area residents received a letter from Leary informing them of the hotel’s plans and inviting their input. Shortly after that, the hotel began conducting noise tests to determine the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, even though it is not required until later in the application process.
By the end of April, the Sofitel will release its plans on a website and then will begin holding neighborhood meetings. In the meantime, Leary said he is available for one-on-one meetings with residents.
Meister has not yet met with Leary, but has numerous concerns beyond the noise. She is worried about safety, mentioning that the Cedars-Sinai helipad is 1,000 feet away from the Sofitel’s. And the Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school, is 50 feet away behind the hotel.
Calls to the Maimonides Academy for comment were not returned. A spokesperson for Cedars said it did not have a position on the heli-stop.
Meister also worries about possible accidents in landings and takeoffs, pointing out a gas station across the street from the Sofitel. Leary responds that helicopter pilots are “incredibly disciplined people who go through extensive training to get their license.”
“What happens if celebrities start flying in and the paparazzi start chasing them in helicopters?” Meister asks. “Are we going to have one helicopter landing and three others circling around trying to get a shot of them?”
“Who lands is at the discretion of the hotel,” Leary said. “It’s a private facility.” He adds that the hotel is going to great expense to add this “sexy amenity,” so it is not going jeopardize its conditional use permit for the sake of controversial landings.
What about Kavanaugh? “Is he going to be flying in and out all the time like he was last fall?” Meister asks.
Leary said he cannot speak to Kavanaugh’s plans, but reports he would not be allowed to park his helicopter on the roof since that would violate the permit the Sofitel is seeking. “I can absolutely assure you this is not meant to be anyone’s toy,” Leary said.
If the Sofitel does get approval, will other hotels, especially those along the Sunset Strip, start trying to get helicopter stops to maintain a competitive advantage?
Leary points out that the Sunset Strip hotels do not have existing helicopter landing pads. Hotels taller than 80 feet and built in the last 30 years are required to have Emergency Landing Facilities, and the Sunset Strip hotels predate that.
According to the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, the only hotels that are approved for commercial helicopter landings are all Downtown, including the Biltmore, the Ritz-Carlton and the Bonaventure.
Additionally, Leary said, few hotels have the proper approach and departure angles for heli-stop use. The Sofitel’s proposal would have helicopters follow existing business corridors along La Cienega, San Vicente and Beverly, and would never fly north into residential areas.
As for hours of operation, the Sofitel is proposing 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but those are negotiable. “Everything is negotiable at this point,” Leary said. “This is an open discussion. We want to work with the neighbors so that everyone can be happy.”