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Farmer's Field's Fanciful Green Promise 

Thursday, Sep 15 2011
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AEG has promised to build a "carbon-neutral" Farmers Field football stadium that will add no extra emissions to the current load in polluted downtown Los Angeles. But there's no way to accomplish that, according to environmental lawyers, climate researchers and traffic engineers who've seen it all before.

Konstantin Vinnikov, a University of Maryland climatologist and atmospheric scientist, says the buzz phrase carbon-neutral is pure public relations.

"You can attach labels, as many as you want," he says. But in his extensive research into greenhouse global warming, the internationally recognized scientist has found little meaning behind green claims like the ones made by L.A. politicians and AEG president Tim Leiweke.

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Vinnikov, who has been researching climate change since 1961, says, "Most labels are nonsense, dreamed up by marketing departments."

That's what marketers did at MetLife Stadium, the $1.6 billion arena built for the New York Jets and Giants.

Long before it opened in 2010, the Jets/Giants investment partnership New Meadowlands Stadium Corp. and New York politicians promised New Yorkers a lot of environmental advances at the new stadium.

They swore that MetLife Stadium — built several miles outside New York City, in New Jersey — would be the greenest football arena in America. Then the owners, John Mara, Steve Tisch and Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV — saw the price tag associated with going fully green and cut back on such details as installing insulated windows in private suites, while sticking by other promises such as waterless urinals.

"Promises are cheap," says Santa Monica environmental attorney Doug Carstens, but California developers consistently promise "mitigation" to reduce the negative effects of huge projects, all the while quietly working on a Plan B with far fewer environmental fixes.

"When developers [like AEG] start shedding mitigation like crazy," Carstens warns, "then instead of revoking approval, public agencies tend to forgive and forget" — and city halls go along.

Nidia Bautista, Coalition for Clean Air policy director, says green is always good, but developers who claim to be carbon-neutral simply aren't being real.

"We'd like to see corporations take steps to green up their businesses," she says, "but that's a far step from calling yourself carbon-neutral."

Three bills are sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that could throw the California Environmental Quality Act into turmoil.

SB 292 would streamline the complaint process, give AEG a break on lawsuits associated with its stadium and make it extremely difficult for communities to sue to force AEG to protect the livability and environment near the stadium. AB 900 emerged in the eleventh hour of the 2011 legislative session last week, when other corporations cried to legislators, "What about my project? I want an exemption from environmental law." A last-minute third bill, SB 226, lets cities use decades-old environmental studies — from a time when far less density and environmental damage existed — to let developers ignore local zoning.

If Brown signs SB 292, a struggle will begin as city boosters strive to prove that Farmers Field will be all that they promise and doubters raise red flags.

Carbon-neutral refers to the amount of carbon dioxide generated by operating the stadium and the proposed new Pico Hall at the L.A. Convention Center. AEG insists the net amount of carbon dioxide generated will be the same as now.

But traffic engineer Bob Shanteau says that promise is extremely hard to fulfill, so AEG will resort to buying carbon credits — essentially, paying to help reduce emissions in another part of California, or even outside California, as penance for adding a big emissions load to downtown.

Shanteau asks: "Do they include the carbon dioxide emitted by all of the additional motor vehicles, buses and trains serving fans going to and from the games? ... Do they count the carbon dioxide emitted by the power plants supplying the electricity for the billboards, etc.?"

AEG has claimed it will one day persuade 50 percent of NFL ticket holders to take public transit to a Super Bowl. But under SB 292, the traffic-reduction requirement is vague and features a loophole that critics say makes it ineffective at best.

Under it, AEG must produce "trip ratio" data — essentially, the number of attendees divided by the number of cars that arrive — and then try to improve the trip ratio, with the eventual goal that Farmers Field attract 10 percent fewer cars than any other NFL stadium's trip ratio.

Who would measure this?

AEG would, by and large, collecting car-trip data for four years. After the fourth football season, L.A. City Hall — not state environmental officials — would decide if the data was accurate. Then, after the fifth season, if it became clear that AEG was failing to discourage enough cars as compared to other stadiums, the city would try to make AEG implement vaguely defined "feasible measures" to cut traffic. The year, by this time: Circa 2022.

Andrea Sarzynski, a University of Delaware policy expert who has studied car culture extensively, says stadium event-goers will take mass transit only if it's beneficial to do so.

To create that tipping point, L.A. may allow punishingly high parking rates for Farmers Field — already, AEG charges $40 to park at its $1 billion Ritz Carlton-Marriott skyscraper near Staples Center — coupled with low Metro transit fares.

But Sarzynski says it will take several years to shift significant numbers of NFL ticket holders to mass transit. "AEG may be fighting an uphill battle until the time when the L.A. region is better served by convenient transit," she says. "AEG would need to be working closely with transit providers and planners when they design the site and to ensure proper service to the site, once constructed."

Yet Metro, which has poured billions of dollars into mass transit, is losing market share to private cars in the region — and is known for its years of construction delays and cost overruns.

James Moore, USC professor and director of the school's Transportation Engineering Program, says no neutral outcome is possible when it comes to traffic.

"On the strictly technical question, 'Can one build a 72,000-seat event generator and then mitigate traffic impacts sufficiently that the transportation level of service experienced prior to construction of the facility would be attained after the event generator is completed?' the answer is no," Moore says. "The technology does not exist. It is not available at any cost."

Jennifer Regan, AEG's global sustainability director, says the firm will offer mass-transit users incentives such as reduced prices at stadium stores and food courts, and perhaps even free transit. She says that effort will be helped by Metro's Blue Line station a few blocks from Farmers Field, the Gold Line station from downtown to the San Gabriel Valley, and park-and-rides that might be created in outlying areas. She also cites the much-delayed Expo Line from Santa Monica — but whether it will be open by 2016 is unknown.

For all these reasons, AEG probably will buy carbon credits — essentially paying for environmental fixes in a far-off locale that don't benefit L.A. (AEG will be hard-pressed to clean up any polluters near downtown, where its own carbon load will affect the atmosphere and community, because, as Regan notes, "The 'market' is very small right now.")

SB 292 is a grab-bag of unproven ideas: reducing car trips, instituting on-site energy production using natural gas, installing parking-garage solar panels and, says AEG land-use attorney Dale Goldsmith, "something as simple as planting trees."

Vinnikov, the climate-change expert, says the promises boil down to political theater and platitudes offered amidst a jobs recession, bearing no relation to science. What's going on, he says, is that "If someone is going to build a stadium and employ people, that is what's important."

Reach the writer at davidfutch@ roadrunner.com.

Reach the writer at davidfutch@roadrunner.com

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