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Frank McCourt's Dodger Parking Lot 

Is it OK if Frank still co-owns the vast acres encircling Dodger Stadium?

Thursday, Mar 29 2012
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To some people, getting Frank McCourt out of Dodgertown is like trying to pull a tick off a dog. Even if you sever the body, it still keeps a grip just under the hide.

Major League Baseball forced McCourt to sell the Dodgers, but he's got a hold on a piece of potential gold in Chavez Ravine — the series of vast parking lots that surround the home of the Dodgers. It was part of the deal with MLB: If he sold the team, he could keep the 21 terraced lots occupying 130 acres — the equivalent of about 100 football fields — and big enough to park 16,000 cars.

Under the deal with Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, Peter Guber and Chicago-based Guggenheim Partners — who together are now calling themselves Guggenheim Baseball Management — McCourt has won a huge concession: a permanent and somewhat surprising role in shaping the future of Dodger Stadium and of Echo Park in general.

The unexpected announcement confused the Los Angeles Times, whose editors ran an incorrect headline atop the front page stating that McCourt had won a "small land stake" in the deal. In fact, McCourt will be a key player, with a prominent role in the future of the stadium complex.

Though many wanted him gone for good, under the sales terms, McCourt will be co-owner of the surrounding lands. In essence, he purchased the Dodger acreage from himself along with his new partner, a still-unnamed affiliate of Guggenheim.

McCourt has dreamed of a major development that could substantially alter the deliberately scruffy, artsy Echo Park vibe. Locals fear that the tin-ear McCourt will champion something along the lines of The Grove in the Fairfax District, an upscale mall that’s anethema to Eastsiders — many of whom make a sport of dumping on cookie-cutter chain stores and Muzak drifting from outdoor speakers shaped like boulders.

The deal announced Tuesday evening, preempting by one day the scheduled final auction among three remaining bidders, solidifies earlier speculation that McCourt would try to develop the parking lots that comprise about half of the 250 acres of land outside the stadium itself.

The mere idea of McCourt's continuing presence in Chavez Ravine sets some people off. Keith Sackler, a Westside businessman who grew up in Santa Monica, has attended hundreds of Dodger games. As long as McCourt is around, Sackler says, he refuses to buy another ticket or snack on a single Dodger dog.

"McCourt has got to be gone 100 percent — gone from the Dodgers, gone from the city — before I'll go back," Sackler says. "I didn’t like the guy from the moment he blew into town. He used the Dodgers as a piggy bank. I'm concerned about what kind of voice McCourt will have if he retains the lot. A new owner can't deal with that. No way a new owner can reinvigorate the team if McCourt's still around.”

Planaria Price lives in Angelino Heights, close to Dodger Stadium. The idea that McCourt could retain a stake in the Dodger Stadium land makes her queasy. "He's already damaged the Dodgers' image," Price says. "That he might ... have dealings with the new owners is horrifying."

Her husband, big Dodgers fan Murray Burns, who last year received the Los Angeles Conservancy's Preservation Award for restoring to grandeur dozens of decrepit Victorian mansions in Angelino Heights, was more blunt. "He's just fucking everything up. Seems McCourt doesn't only want to destroy the Dodgers but also our neighborhood, because of his plans to keep the parking lot and build on it. Everybody got excited when he said he was going to sell — and now this."

Yet wealthy businessman Joey Herrick, who didn't make the final cut of bidders, says he's comfortable with the idea of McCourt co-owning the donut around the Dodger Stadium donut hole — as long as the plan doesn’t include tearing down Dodger Stadium, building condos at Chavez Ravine and creating a stadium elsewhere.

Dodger Stadium "is baseball hallowed ground," Herrick says. "We don't want to tear down the stadium and move it somewhere else and have Chavez Ravine built into condos and housing. A couple of the groups that approached us [who didn't make the cut] said that's where they were going. And we told them, 'You've got the wrong guys.'"

Herrick, a Van Nuys native and president of Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc., drafted investors, including former Dodger players Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey. "I thought $1.2 billion was a lot of money," he says, "but it wasn’t enough to get in the game." He predicted a $2 billion pricetag several days before the record-high purchase price was announced.

Herrick feels that if McCourt is allowed to keep the parking lots, things could work out OK.

He advises the new owner to make sure the leasing contracts with McCourt have every "t" crossed, but he's not a McCourt critic. He says fans were deluged with unsavory details from McCourt’s divorce. While the McCourts ended up in bankruptcy, Herrick credits them with renovating Dodger Stadium’s concessions stands and field level and installing new seats. (Herrick says the stadium, marking its 50th anniversary this year, still needs $100 million in upgrades.)

"At least when McCourt came in, he got us to the playoffs," Herrick says. "Frank McCourt does deserve some cred."

The fact that McCourt has ended up as co-owner of the choice land surrounding Dodger Stadium is remarkable, given that the record $2 billion being paid by Guggenheim Baseball Management will not only pay off McCourt’s huge debts but will make the currently bankrupt developer one of L.A.'s richest people. It appears he'll end up with about $500 million free and clear. As well-known Los Angeles developer Steven Soboroff tweeted: "Mega Millions jackpot grows to $476 million. Shocked Frank didn’t win that too yesterday. He had a great day ;)."

The deal creates a strange parallel to the way in which McCourt first catapulted to wealth in 1997 — thanks to a 24-acre parking lot he owned in Boston. He struck it rich when Massachusetts agreed to pay him $57.5 million after he accused the state of compensating him too little when it borrowed his land for use during construction of the Big Dig and other projects. As L.A. Weekly reported in "Dodger Dog"  in 2010, the payout — the costliest eminent-domain settlement ever in the United States — was especially staggering because McCourt got most of his land back from Massachusetts, plus new parcels awarded during a land swap.

Jose Sigala, president of the Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council, whose community includes the Dodger complex, is watching all of this — and worrying.

His group had scheduled a town hall meeting April 4 with whoever was left standing among the bidders.

Sigala and the Echo Park neighbors don’t know if Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, the Guggenheim folks or Frank McCourt will show up to their meeting. But community members are voicing two big concerns: What kind of new Dodgers owner will neighboring Echo Park, Elysian Park and Chinatown have to deal with? And what kind of troubles could flow from allowing McCourt to be co-owner of nearly half the land?

"I want to know who I can call if there are problems like public drinking, traffic, safety — and I want to know that they'll be addressed," Sigala says.

He has a more direct message for McCourt: "He must understand this sale is the start of something new. If McCourt keeps the parking lot, it doesn’t give us a clean break. It's what I want and what the fans want."

click to enlarge Frank McCourt
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Reach the writer at davidfutch@roadrunner.com

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