Putting the $ into L.A. sports scene

Planned arena centerpiece of entertainment, hotel complex

A unified vision of Downtown Los Angeles anchored by sports facilities along Figueroa Street and lashed together by its historical roots in the entertainment industry is poised to bring about major change in a city that is still trying to shed its image as the dictionary definition of urban sprawl.

Centerpiece of the Figueroa corridor project is construction of a $250 million arena next to the Convention Center that would serve as home to the Kings hockey and Lakers basketball teams, as well as booking roughly 100 concert dates a year. Another $230 million would rebuild the Memorial Coliseum, less than two miles south of the arena, in the hopes of drawing a National Football League team back to the city. The two sports venues are being considered companions to baseball’s Dodger Stadium, which sits atop Chavez Ravine, about two miles north of the arena.

“We see the project as the entertainment capital of the entertainment capital,” says John Semcken, a VP at Majestic Realty, the company run by Kings owners Edward Roski and Philip Anschutz, who plan to build the 20,000-seat arena with private money — although $70 million would come from the city for land and ground leasing, to be recouped through arena revenues. The Kings plan to settle in for a 25-year stay, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss signed on to the deal last June for a similar term.

Semcken says a contractor and architect will be named this month for the facility, which is targeted to witness its first slap shot and monster jam by October 1999.

Such rosy projections are met with disbelief from officials in the city of Inglewood, who are planning construction of a new arena across from the Forum — the Lakers’ and Kings’ home address since 1967 — on land owned by R.D. Hubbard and Hollywood Park. While the moving vans may not be far off, longtime Inglewood city manager Paul Eckles isn’t ready to concede defeat until the sweat hits the court in L.A.

The Los Angeles group has said “their goal to have an arena built is 1999, but no one is taking that seriously,” says Eckles, who adds Inglewood hopes to have its arena ready in ’99 and is currently in talks with Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “If we can beat the timetable of the Downtown arena, it would give us an advantage in terms of selling luxury boxes.”

But Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, re-elected Tuesday to a second four-year term by city voters, tells Daily Variety that this is a project on which L.A. is staking its future.

“We’ll beat ’em,” Riordan promises. “We’re moving heaven and earth to get the pieces of this together. Los Angeles is a different town than it used to be.”

And if it wasn’t different before the Figueroa corridor project, L.A. indeed will be a changed city after the second stage of the arena plan, which calls for the construction of restaurants, shops, movie theaters and an 1,800-room hotel that city planners hope will change the great big sucking sound made by the Convention Center — to the tune of about $20 million in taxpayer-financed losses a year — into a profit center capable of hosting as many as three major conventions at a time. Though the hotel isn’t a requirement of the deal, Semcken says Majestic already has developers lurking in the lobby waiting to check in.

Buzz over the project has been having an effect on Downtown real estate prices. “We’re starting to see properties going as high as five times what they used to be going for,” says Grubb & Ellis senior VP Ray Lepone. “There will be a rapid escalation in speculation.”

Lepone sees the key to the plan’s success being its ability to condense into a smaller area of the city a greater number of activities, including those brought in by such cornerstone projects as the Disney Concert Hall on Grand Street. “In the ’80s, we argued over density,” Lepone says. “But in a viable city, you almost can’t have too much congestion. It’s like you don’t want to eat dinner with the only two people in a restaurant, no matter how good the food. You also go for the action.”

Still, urban density creates traffic. And while this is a concern to planners, Majestic’s Semcken says the project’s environmental impact report showed such worries would be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the roughly 350,000 people who work Downtown on any given day would be commuting out of the city by the time the arena would be increasing traffic on roads that lead into the city.

There’s also talk, with a nod to the old Red Line, of connecting the various points of interest by streetcars that would run the length of Figueroa.

And not all traffic is considered detrimental; one of the ways city planners are hoping to increase density without adding drivers is by getting people out of their cars and onto the sidewalk. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is coordinating a project called Angel’s Walk, a self-guided walking tour that includes plaques that point out the location of famous movie shoots. Movies under consideration include “Blade Runner” as defined by the classic lines of the Bradbury Building, and “Lethal Weapon,” which saw Mel Gibson dive off the Grand Avenue ramp of the Harbor Freeway in an effort to nab the bad guys.

“One thing we’re certain of is that Hollywood draws people to L.A.,” says an MTA spokesman. “Why not announce to the world what L.A.’s all about?”

The future is not as certain for the 73-year-old Coliseum, site of the 1932 Olympics and the first Super Bowl, though it’s far brighter than it was a year ago, when the NFL was auditioning new stadium plans with instructions that the Coliseum, abandoned by the Rams in 1980 and the Raiders in 1995, need not apply.

That was before City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, in whose district the Coliseum sits, tied a redevelopment ribbon around the old stadium and connected it up Figueroa to the new arena. Unlike previous renovation projects promised to the Rams and Raiders, developers began falling in line behind this plan. And in mid-September, Hollywood Park’s Hubbard and Dodger owner Peter O’Malley, the two leading candidates for an NFL building permit, both announced they would suspend their efforts while the Coliseum pleads its case.

Renovation plans call for a level of luxury boxes extending around the stadium that would reduce seating capacity from 92,000 to 68,000 (but could add temporary seats expanding capacity to 80,000 for Super Bowls).

Included in the facelift are $300 million in renovations to Exposition Park (which surrounds the Coliseum), $260 million of that going to build a state-of-the-art science museum that city administrative officer Keith Comrie says would rival San Francisco’s Exploratorium. There are also plans to add secured, covered parking garages and a shopping center. The adjacent University of Southern California has expansion plans in the area, too.

“I’m told property values have already begun to increase around the Coliseum,” said Ridley-Thomas, pointing to a study that predicted the stadium could bring the city 1,000 jobs and $65 million per year, and an additional $12 million every time the city hosts a Super Bowl. “There’s a lot of goodwill here. This is a project that can happen if we simply stay on point.”

Still, the Coliseum will need to convince the NFL before the end of the year that a deal is feasible, according to league spokesman Greg Iaello. Iaello says that although the league’s TV contracts expire following the 1997 season, and bidding for NFL rights is expected to be unaffected by the absence of a team in the nation’s second largest media market, the league wants a plan in place this year that would lead to a team in L.A. “Our focus is still on the Coliseum, but it’s no secret that other people are still interested,” says Iaello, citing Hubbard, O’Malley and the Disney Corp.

Spokesmen for Hollywood Park and the Dodgers say they intend to honor their pledge to let the Coliseum take its best shot at the NFL. Disney officials did not return phone calls.

NFL owners who saw the city’s Coliseum presentation at the league meetings in Palm Springs last month questioned the financing for the project, which offers no public money in the mix, but suggests that $150 million can be raised for the renovation through sales of personal seat licenses bought by season ticket holders. “The league needs to see a public-private partnership along with the fans contributing,” Iaello notes.

But a City Hall source say that if all other parts of a deal are in place, including an owner and a team, that public financing would be found.

“If push comes to shove, there’ll be subsidies from the state, the county and the city,” the source says. “We wouldn’t let this thing fail.”

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