Farmers Field or Blade Runner Stadium? 

The downtown NFL arena deal allows a sea of billboards, congestion and millions in public costs

Thursday, Sep 8 2011

Click here for "A Field of Billboards for Farmers Field," by Tibby Rothman and Jill Stewart.

Over the next few days, Gov. Jerry Brown may be asked to sign a special bill pushed by Los Angeles politicians, which would set aside state environmental laws to make life easier for Farmers Field, AEG's unprecedented attempt to squeeze 72,000 fans, a $1.2 billion NFL stadium and a sea of ultrabright LED billboards into a tight space in a dense neighborhood next to two of the world's most congested freeways.

Under intense pressure from AEG president Tim Leiweke, who has proposed building the stadium downtown, the state Legislature this week will decide whether to send Brown the new law written specifically for AEG's billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, to let AEG skirt the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Taking a hard-sell stance, Leiweke claims the Legislature must act before it adjourns late on Sept. 9, and cannot wait until lawmakers return on Jan. 4, or the stadium project could implode.

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY SIMONE PAZ - Farmers Field, upper left, portrayed with speeding freeway traffic -- and no billboards.
  • Farmers Field, upper left, portrayed with speeding freeway traffic -- and no billboards.

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The law, still being hastily cobbled together at press time by Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima and Assembly Speaker John Pérez — Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's first cousin — would "fast-track" court challenges to AEG's Environmental Impact Report (EIR), forcing citizens to go directly to the state Court of Appeals, which would have just 175 days to issue a ruling.

"The whole Superior Court process is eliminated, which is unprecedented," says David Pettit, National Resources Defense Council senior attorney. "Unless someone like us gets involved, and has the money to pay a litigator, you're out of luck."

Leiweke argued that AEG needed a special law so it can avoid time-wasting "frivolous" lawsuits by rivals — such as Majestic Realty. In return for getting around the state environmental act, Leiweke promised L.A. politicians he would build the most green-friendly stadium in the nation.

But the special bill appears to be aimed not so much at Majestic, which can afford to hire teams of top-flight attorneys for appellate court, but at ham-stringing neighborhood groups, local activists and other honest critics who might see the stadium's traffic congestion — and its up to 41 LED billboards and signs glaring into hundreds of millions of passing cars — as too much environmental degradation for the benefits.

Those key environmental issues were never investigated by the Los Angeles City Council during its several months of hearings and negotiations with AEG. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl concedes, "The transportation issue is the one issue no one's addressed."

Well, that and the sea of proposed billboards (see sidebar). Douglas Carstens, a well-known environmental attorney who has challenged the conclusions in several Environmental Impact Reports for L.A. developments, says, "I've seen carts put before horses before, but this is a whole new level of that. Sounds to me like the City Council bought a pig in a poke."

If legislators abide by Leiweke's wishes, Brown must decide whether to approve or veto the hotly debated environmental exemption by Oct. 9, his legal deadline for signing new bills into law.

Pettit, Carstens and other Sacramento watchers also are concerned that Pérez and Padilla may push the final wording of the law through shortly before midnight on Sept. 9, when the cameras have gone home, using a legislative tactic for reducing transparency and public debate, known as "gut and amend."

Using high-octane tactics, AEG has already pressed the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Villaraigosa to follow its oft-changing deadlines, implying the stadium project's demise if certain of its dates were not met.

Traffic congestion, infrastructure and urban livability experts say the 15 council members and Villaraigosa badly jumped the gun in early August by signing a "memorandum of understanding," or MOU, giving Farmers Field the city's blessing. They say City Council leaders Jan Perry, Eric Garcetti and Rosendahl needed far more information.

L.A. City Council members each earn $178,789 a year. They vote unanimously 99.993 percent of the time, with members often failing to read the fine print before making major decisions. They signed the MOU without knowing any public costs of environmental mitigation, and now, Carstens says, they "are going to find out later that traffic mitigation is going to cost millions," with taxpayers stuck with most of that bill. He warns that while City Council leaders insist "the MOU is not binding, it sounds binding to me, like the council already has made the commitment to build the stadium. Sounds like the Environmental Impact Report is an afterthought."

AEG spokesman Michael Roth promises that the EIR "will have the most extensive study of downtown traffic that will ever be done," and says the MOU was a business deal and was not meant to contemplate "things like 'signage' — but the EIR will contemplate things like that."

Robert Shanteau, a California consulting traffic engineer who helped create statewide standards for traffic signals that detect bicycles and motorcycles, is bothered that no City Council member seriously broached the subject of the massive costs to rebuild downtown roads and possibly freeway on-ramps and off-ramps. Those infrastructure needs were left out of both the MOU and the city's key analysis, the so-called "Comprehensive Economic Analysis of the Proposed Downtown Los Angeles Stadium and Convention Center Project."

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