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Merchants See Hope in Plans for Arena

Revival: Site next to Convention Center would bring an economic boon, they say. Critics wonder how much it would help depressed area.

September 03, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a window above the "Big and Tall" men's clothing store he manages, George Kalebdjian scans the surrounding neighborhood near the Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles. He doesn't much like the view.

Empty parking lots, boarded warehouses and a nocturnal dance hall line 12th Street between his well-maintained store and the futuristic Convention Center a block away.

But, in his mind's eye, Kalebdjian envisions the same street differently--with a new high-rise hotel, nice restaurants and armies of happy shoppers. Such an unfulfilled vision attracted the Repp LTD. Big and Tall shop to Flower Street four years ago as the $500-million Convention Center expansion was being finished.

"We knew this would be a tomorrow store, not a today store," said the clothier.

Tomorrow may be closer, he hopes, if a proposed 20,000-seat sports and entertainment arena is built at Figueroa and 11th streets, next to the Convention Center. The Los Angeles City Council is expected this week to start deliberating a nonbinding agreement with arena developers, who are also negotiating with Inglewood.

Economic benefits are keenly anticipated in the surrounding 70-block area in downtown Los Angeles called South Park, where a quarter of the land is vacant and the residential population remains just a third of the 15,000 called for in city plans.

But the extent that the arena can help revive South Park--and the rest of downtown--is being debated in government, academic and business circles. The discussions raise issues about investment environment, urban design, security, transportation, displacement and how to overcome the anti-downtown bias that many Southern Californians hold.

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The arena "could be anything from the savior to the final nail in the coffin," said Richard Peiser, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate Development at USC's School of Urban Planning and Development. "If it's done right, it could be the catalyst for really turning the area around. But there are also dangers associated with it, if it turns out to be surrounded by a sea of parking lots."

No doubt, the arena would attract some new investment to the Figueroa Street corridor, Peiser said. The test would be whether the other investment "makes a big splash instead of a small splash."

Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, is of the "big splash" school. She believes downtown Los Angeles will experience the same dramatic revivals in shopping and night life that new sports facilities spurred in troubled downtowns of Phoenix, Denver, Baltimore and other U.S. cities.

"The transformational impacts are clear. It is not just pie-in-the-sky hope," she said.

The first hurdle is the competition with Inglewood, which wants a replacement for the Forum built next to the Inglewood home of the Kings' hockey and Lakers' basketball teams. Inglewood City Manager Paul D. Eckles has criticized the South Park location as "a fringe area." South Park boosters predict the arena will attract a 1,200- to 1,800-room hotel and a large entertainment center, which in turn, could bring more meetings to the underused Convention Center and more street life to support new and existing eateries and shops. That could transform the no-man's-land near the Convention Center and provide links along Figueroa to the more lively parts of downtown to the north.

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Office workers from Bunker Hill and the 7th Street district then may feel comfortable enough to leave their cars at work and walk to dinner, a game, and a decaf latte or beer afterward. Passengers from the nearby Blue and Red lines would add to the evening crowds, as would people who drive to the arena for the projected 299 games and shows each year, planners say. The demand for new, local apartments might rise as people discover new conveniences downtown, the theory goes.

Even fervent advocates of the arena concede that such a change would not be automatic or easy.

"It's an uphill battle," said Michael Pfeiffer, executive director of the South Park Stakeholders Group, an organization of property owners and institutions in the area bounded by the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways, 8th and Main streets.

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Downtown Los Angeles still will face strong competition from regional shopping and entertainment centers in Santa Monica, Pasadena, Glendale and Universal City, Pfeiffer said. "I think we can compete, but it's going to take more than just the arena. It's going to take the hotel and related entertainment facilities."

Those attractions must offer something "absolutely" special, said Chan Wood, executive vice president and head of marketing for Pacific Theatres. "You are not going to drive from Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley, to go to a restaurant or store or movie you can find in your own backyard," he said.

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