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A High-Stakes Proposition for Downtown : Gambling: Mixed reaction greets business group's pitch for a large-scale hotel and entertainment development near the Convention Center--contingent upon approval of a card casino.

September 11, 1994|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A business group's plan to bring gambling into Downtown has drawn mixed reviews from the community--some calling it a big moneymaker for the city, others fearing increased blight and crime.

But most residents and business and political leaders, including Mayor Richard Riordan's staff, are open to holding forums to discuss the idea of a hotel-casino project across from the city-owned Convention Center on Figueroa Street.

"Any sort of project that comes to the city that has an economic benefit will be looked at seriously," said Tanya Mishell, mayoral spokeswoman.

Because no written proposals or drawings have been submitted to the city for review, Mishell said, Riordan has yet to take a position on the project.

A hotel-casino, project coordinator Carlos Siderman said, would be the first of three phases for a "mega-center of entertainment" that would help give a boost to the nation's eighth-largest convention center.

The City Council recently approved a Downtown Strategic Plan that embraces an entertainment-hotel project near the Convention Center, excluding the casino element.

"There's general agreement that the Convention Center would work much better if there was a hotel that was located in close proximity," said Don Spivack, director of operations for the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"We are interested in talking to anybody that seems to have a serious proposal that might get us that hotel," Spivack said.

That includes Siderman, whose Downtown firm, City Midland Development, has been hired by a group that calls itself the Convention Center Entertainment Complex. Siderman declined to give details about the organization's financial resources or its investors.

Siderman said the first phase of the plan features a 2,000-room hotel with a casino--similar to the card clubs in Bell Gardens and Commerce.

Siderman said that the casino is needed to help make the hotel profitable and that nothing would be built without it.

"You cannot open half of a Disneyland," he said. "You have to open when everything is ready, and gaming is a very important component of the project."

The hotel-casino would be built on about 345,000 square feet of property bounded by Figueroa and Flower streets and Pico and Venice boulevards, he said. Some lots in that area are already owned by a partner in the project, Carlos Vignali, but the rest have yet to be purchased. Vignali could not be reached for comment.

The second and third phases would stretch the eastern boundaries to Hope Street and would consist of a water theme park, a 500-unit housing complex for employees, a row of 14 restaurants, boutiques and a 20,000-seat sports arena that could also be used as an ice hockey rink.

But before the first phase can be built, the city's voters would have to overturn an ordinance that forbids gambling, with the exception of bingo games, in Los Angeles, officials said. State law requires that any gambling-related issue be put to a vote of the people.

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Siderman said the Entertainment Complex group will present details later this month on how it will mount a campaign to put a gambling measure before Los Angeles voters.

Siderman, along with state and local officials, said a gambling measure could be written in such a way as to allow a casino only at a specified location, rather than throughout the city. In this case, it would be across from the Convention Center.

Based on a wide range of responses from the community, it appears the prospect of a casino in Los Angeles could be a tough sell to the city's more than 1 million registered voters.

"I have really mixed feelings about it," said Charles Woo, president of the Central City East Assn. and owner of a Downtown toy business. "Personally, it's against everything I believe. . . . You can make the argument, since (card clubs) are already here, we should take advantage of them."

Echo Park resident Susan Borden considers the hotel-casino proposal "a lousy idea" that could contribute to crime around Downtown.

"It's not a stable source of income," said Borden, who serves as secretary for the Echo Park Improvement Assn. "To base an economy on gambling is really like giving up on having a productive kind of manufacturing center."

Robert Harris, co-chairman of a committee that produced the Downtown Strategic Plan, agrees but said he can see the golden opportunities for Downtown if gambling became legal.

"We've got a good plan in place," said Harris, a USC architecture professor who lives Downtown. "It doesn't include a gambling option, and yet if gambling were to come along, we'd figure out how to take advantage of it."

Steve Auth, president of Kaiser Bros. Oldsmobile-Honda, could be one of the Figueroa Street property owners affected if the casino-hotel project becomes a reality. The car dealership has remained at 1540 S. Figueroa St. since 1932.

Auth said a game room could help revitalize the Convention Center area.

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