BEVERLY HILLS — You could call it "90210: The Movie." Jack Lemmon could star as the neighborhood activist fighting the mysterious financier, a confidant of the Sultan of Brunei, who wants to build a colossal mansion next door.
A plausible pitch? Not if residents of a wealthy hillside neighborhood of Beverly Hills can help it.
Opponents of the mansion proposed on Tower Road in the city's northwest corner reacted with alarm last week to the sudden glare of national media attention focused on their neighborhood dispute.
Real estate investor-developer Stuart Ketchum said he would do his best to stamp out attempts to turn the local controversy into an amusing tale for national consumption.
Ketchum has become the spokesman for a group of residents fighting the large estate that London financier Robert Manoukian seeks permission to build as a part-time residence for himself and his family. Members of Citizens for the Preservation of Beverly Hills include such luminaries as actor Jack Lemmon and MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg.
Ketchum said his office received three phone calls from CBS News in New York on Wednesday, asking to do a story on the personalities involved. The Wall Street Journal gave the dispute tongue-in-cheek treatment the same day.
"I'm going to do my level best to stop it," he said. "I think it's terrible (what's happening)."
It injures the city to have this kind of interest, Ketchum said Wednesday at the fifth public hearing on the project, and the third before the city Planning Commission. The statement drew vigorous agreement from the planning commissioners and the estate's lawyers. (The Planning Commission scheduled yet another hearing March 17, at which a vote may finally be taken; the project would go before the City Council if either side appeals the commission's decision.)
Rejecting suggestions that residents' opposition to the mansion is based in part on xenophobia, Ketchum insisted that Manoukian is welcome in the neighborhood. The dispute is over what Manoukian wants to build, he said. "We need to get the emotion out of this and look at the project objectively."
Manoukian has advised the Sultan of Brunei--reputedly one of the world's wealthiest people--on various real estate acquisitions, including the Beverly Hills Hotel. He has owned the nearly four-acre property at 1146 Tower Road for five years and has been an intermittent resident of the city for 14 years. The controversy began last year when his representative, lawyer Murray Fischer, introduced the proposal for a 59,000-square-foot estate there.
The proposal calls for demolition of the three homes on the site. The initial plan called for replacing them with a two-story, 41,000-square-foot mansion in the classical style, with pediments, a copper roof, 14 bedrooms, a ballroom, gym and cinema. Also proposed were a six-bedroom gatehouse measuring 3,000 square feet and a five-bedroom guest villa of 8,000 square feet, along with a pool pavilion and subterranean parking.
The howls of opposition led to presentation of a scaled-back proposal at the Feb. 24 hearing. The main residence would measure 27,000 square feet, connected by a corridor to servants' quarters of about 8,000 square feet. Among the features deleted were the gate house and the ballroom.
Speaking in opposition to the mansion at the public hearings have been former Hollywood gossip maven Rona Barrett, Lemmon, Sheinberg, Ketchum and a host of less celebrated residents. Other opponents have deluged the city with postcards at the urging of Ketchum's group.
Except for the lawyers and consultants hired by Manoukian, few have braved the tide of neighborhood sentiment to speak or write in favor of the project.
Ketchum and others continued Wednesday to hammer away at the city's decision to exempt from floor-area calculations a partially exposed 10,718-square-foot basement, which would contain the main kitchen. The city Planning Department has said the city code does not require the basement of a home to be counted.
However, much of the hearing was given over to a two-hour presentation by Manoukian's representatives to rebut hours of public testimony from the week before.
Los Angeles lawyer Terrence Everett argued that public controversy alone is not enough to require a full environmental impact report as demanded by some residents and urged commissioners to "disregard the heated controversy and uncorroborated rumors."
Much of the criticism has amounted to people trying to tell the owner where to put his dining room, bathrooms and bidets in his own home, Everett said.
Everett also lashed out at the accuracy of a 3-by-4-foot model commissioned by Ketchum which purportedly shows the mansion as it would look in the neighborhood.
The model is "grossly out of scale and doesn't reflect the topography," he said. Nor does the model show the landscaping that will surround the home, he said.