It had all the celebratory air of a ribbon cutting last week when honchos from Staples Center shared the stage with the mayor of Los Angeles and a key councilwoman to announce plans to invest $300 million in a new football stadium on the south end of downtown.
Tim Leiweke, president of the entertainment empire owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, deemed the occasion “a bright moment in time,” and the public officials followed suit. Mayor James Hahn pronounced himself “really excited about bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles,” while Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district encompasses the destitute South Park neighborhood, proclaimed that “Downtown is back” and predicted that “The entire city will benefit from this investment.”
It was left to Casey Wasserman, grandson of MCA mogul Lew Wasserman and owner of the L.A. Avengers, Staples‘ bargain-basement arena-football tenant, to explain just how far the deal was from done. The league officials have expressed genuine interest, he said, but there’s still no football team signed up — the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers are the most likely candidates. No site has been named, and the NFL has yet to commit the $150 million in financing that the stadium developers say they need to close the deal.
Moreover, Wasserman said, the clutch of millionaires backing the stadium plan are depending on the NFL to designate Los Angeles as the site of at least two and possibly three Super Bowls within the next 12 years. In addition, Wasserman said, they hope to draft “one or both” of the city‘s major college teams to fill out a schedule that will require 32 dates a year to break even.
But this was not an occasion for doubts and caveats. The Memorial Coliseum, a facility renovated just six years ago with more than $100 million in public funds, was not a consideration, Leiweke said, as the NFL is simply not interested in the site. And disputes over public financing had already been resolved by the developers’ commitment to finance the project from their own pockets. “The controversy has been completely neutralized,” Leiweke said.
That was a remarkable statement from a man whose crowning achievement was the construction of Staples Center, which was nearly scuttled by public aversion to spending tax dollars on a private sports facility. In fact, as Leiweke described it, the new project depends on $100 million in public bonds to buy the land, a debt to be repaid out of sales and property taxes generated at the stadium over the next 20 years.
It was just such a financing structure that former Councilman Joel Wachs targeted when he vowed to stop Staples Center itself with a public initiative in 1997. Wachs only backed down when the developers — principally Anschutz, through Leiweke, and Ed Roski, another partner in the proposed stadium — agreed they would repay $58 million in land loans from their own revenues, not from tax proceeds.
But if the backslapping congratulations seemed a bit premature at the Staples Center news conference Thursday, that was only in keeping with the rapid-fire pace of disclosures last week. Developers and public officials were first stunned to learn that the deal was in the works, and then jockeyed for position to cash in on the half-billion-dollar project.
The weeklong disclosures about the stadium plans showed once again that when it comes to redevelopment in downtown L.A., city officials are prone to secrecy, as if they understand their schemes won‘t withstand public scrutiny.
The only public official with advance knowledge of the stadium plan, it turns out, was Mayor Hahn, who said he first learned that Wasserman and Leiweke were assembling downtown property as early as last December.
Hahn said at the news conference that he attended the Super Bowl in New Orleans in February in part to speak with league officials about the deal. He said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was encouraging, and said local officials there estimated that hosting the annual championship game brought the city more than $250 million.
But if Hahn was privy to plans for a major new project in the heart of the city, he decided not to share the news with other stakeholders downtown, allowing Leiweke and company leeway to make their initial moves in stealth.
Landowners in the South Park neighborhood learned of the project only when brokers for Anschutz moved to buy large chunks of property. “It came out of the blue,” one prospective housing developer in South Park said of an Anschutz bid on his property. “I went to the Mayor’s Office, the CRA, the Planning Department, the Department of Building and Safety — none of them had heard anything about this.”
The developer asked to remain anonymous, as Anschutz could soon be a neighbor, but said the new project injects a degree of uncertainty across the redevelopment zone. “Nothing is going on in terms of development until this is all resolved.”
Public officials were also caught unaware. Over the past nine months, staff from the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency had fashioned a new redevelopment project covering 879 acres, bordered by the 110 freeway to the west and the 10 freeway to the south. The focus of the project was to develop 13,000 new housing units — thereby adding actual residents to the mix of new office and entertainment buildings in the effort to rejuvenate the central city.
There was no mention of the stadium during the first full hearing on the project at the City Council on May 1. And according to Don Spivack, deputy administrator of the CRA, planners there never even considered the prospect of a football stadium.
Tim Leiweke finally broke the ice on the impending deal May 2, when he presented plans for a billion-dollar sports and entertainment district to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. The complex would include a theater and at least one hotel — which developers say will require city financing — and now the new stadium.
The news came as a shock to Spivack, who first told a Times reporter, “A stadium is not part of our plans,” and then stopped talking, referring all calls to the Mayor‘s Office. Observed Tom Gilmore, a developer with extensive interests in the historic core downtown, “The CRA ended up with a giant omelet on their face which they really had nothing to do with.”
Even Councilwoman Perry, whose district encompasses both Staples Center and the proposed stadium, was kept in the dark about the plan until she read about it in the sports pages. And while she supports the project, Perry seems nonplused by the sudden turn of events. “It takes the whole conversation sideways,” she said during a break in council chambers last week. “The whole question of redevelopment is now about the football stadium.”
Perry also found herself the target of a turf war waged by Councilman Nick Pacheco, whose district lies to the east of downtown. Pacheco had proposed that he take over some of Perry’s downtown domain as part of the redistricting process already under way; days after the stadium became public, he proposed a new map that would give him claim to South Park.
“He changed his mind about the boundaries as soon as the Staples plan came in,” said Perry aide Sylvia Robledo. “First he wanted Little Tokyo, then he wanted South Park. It‘s all about getting what he perceives to be rich areas.”
Pacheco said last week that he is simply seeking to cure the gerrymandered district boundaries drawn the last time the council adjusted for population. His plan to pull South Park into his Eastside district is one of several proposals now being weighed by a council committee.
County officials reacted sharply to the news of a planned stadium. The county is always wary of redevelopment projects, as much of the revenue to finance new construction is derived from siphoning off county taxes.
The county had already compiled a detailed critique of plans to include the Staples-sponsored sports and entertainment complex as part of the redevelopment zone. But when the prospect of a football stadium was added in, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky pressed to sue. A lawsuit was filed this week.
For all the consternation generated by the sudden unveiling of the stadium plan, the stealthy nature of the project has succeeded so far in stifling the sort of public debate that has doomed past efforts to revive football in L.A. When Ed Roski and several other parties last floated bids to lure the NFL, in 1999, a variety of sites were proposed, but city officials said emphatically that the Coliseum was the only site compatible with the scheme of L.A. development.
Councilwoman Perry said much the same last week, but with an air of resignation. “It’s the obvious first choice,” she said Thursday. “There‘s less impact on traffic, fewer conflicts with town homes and condominiums.” But Perry is not ready to battle over logistics. “They’re going to spend their money where they want to,” she said after the Staples Center announcement.
Nor has anyone addressed the fundamental question of whether a large stadium, likely to sit empty most of the year, represents a genuine asset in an urban setting. “Is a football stadium an economic and pedestrian engine?” Tom Gilmore mused in an interview. “The jury‘s still out on that.”
And while the team from Staples Center demonstrated strong support last week, that reckoning may yet take place. “Right now we’ve got an established redevelopment district,” Councilman Eric Garcetti commented last week. “Somebody‘s got to show us that the stadium is going to be better than what we’ve got planned.”
Garcetti, who is chairman of the council‘s economic-development committee, said he had no problem with the conduct of the Staples team so far, but said that the stadium is now a matter of public interest. “It’s critical that this get a full hearing,” Garcetti said. “This is going to be a group process or it‘s not going to happen.”