In a move politicians hope will help Los Angeles "fulfill its destiny" as a business-friendly sports and entertainment mecca, a divided City Council on Friday gave the nod to a plan to build a $200-million downtown sports arena.
"The message out there to the world is, 'Hey, we're open for business.' It's way beyond sports," said Steven Soboroff, a senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan and a proponent of the plan by the owners of the Los Angeles Kings to put a 20,000-seat facility next to the Convention Center.
"The important part of all this is not the arena, it's what it signifies: The system can work," Soboroff said. "It's a little aggravation, it's a little tsuris [Yiddish for 'troubles'], but it can work."
Though not a binding agreement, the council's 11-3 vote outlines the framework for plans to use $70 million in public money to help acquire land and finance the arena, where the Kings hockey team and the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team would play about 90 games a year. The public investment would largely be through bonds the city would pay off over 25 years from a surcharge on arena tickets, parking revenues and taxes collected from the venue.
That long-term commitment, which could leave the city with mounting debt if the arena fails, soured one key lawmaker on the deal: Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents the underdeveloped neighborhood around the site. She surprised observers by joining two longtime critics in casting ballots against the proposal Friday.
"The risk to the city may be very small indeed, but a risk there is," Walters said. "I wanted this arena. I have been pushing for it, encouraging people to support it because of what I thought it would do for downtown. . . . Council members, I think this is very thin ice that we're about to tread on."
Not too thin to skate on for the Kings--or a city trying to make a comeback in the high-stakes game of professional sports, her colleagues countered.
"Few things worth getting are without risk," Councilman Mike Feuer said. "At the core of our jobs as elected officials is determining when risks are worth taking and when it's time to say having a vision of what could be is what ought to drive us. I choose to have a vision that sees Los Angeles as all that it can be."
Councilman Mike Hernandez suggested that the arena could play host to a gala New Year's Eve party, to end the era of Angelenos watching the ball drop on the other coast. Others said the city lacks facilities to compete for concert revenue with Inglewood's Forum, Anaheim's Pond and Universal Amphitheater, which is in unincorporated county area.
"We are a very fortunate city that we have the space and the opportunity to locate a facility like this at that critical area," said Marvin Braude, the council's senior member. "If we are to fulfill our destiny as a great city, as a prosperous city, we have to have that kind of a facility."
Arena supporters see it as a catalyst for economic development in the stagnant business district known as South Park, and an anchor for a sports and entertainment corridor that might eventually stretch from a renovated Coliseum--complete with a National Football League team--north to Dodger Stadium.
Business leaders and politicians also hope that it will provide a boost for the sagging Convention Center, which the city has had to subsidize to the tune of about $20 million a year, and finally lead to construction of a large hotel nearby so the center can accommodate larger, high-profile meetings.
"This arena proposal is about jobs, it's about customers, it's about visitors, it's about more jobs," said Karen Hathaway of the Central City Assn., which represents downtown businesses.
Even former Mayor Tom Bradley offered his praise in a letter to council President John Ferraro. Bradley termed the arena "a critical element in the pathway to a cohesive city with a strong economy, job growth and a decent quality of life for all its residents."
But a pair of residents complained that environmental review of the project has been "woefully inadequate" and said people from the neighborhood--including those who live in 188 residences that would be razed--have been left out of the discussion.
"We're not speaking in terms of numbers or dead, we're speaking in terms of families and people who are going to be displaced from their homes and work," said Richard Garay of the Pico-Union area.
Though Friday's vote approving a 150-page memorandum of understanding was a crucial step that clears the path for construction of the arena to begin by summer's end, it is not a binding agreement. Rather, it offers a blueprint for how such a transaction will be structured if the councildecides to give final approval.
Next, developers must submit plans to mitigate any environmental impacts and apply for a conditional use permit, then submit detailed financial documents and a specific lease agreement. Officials expect the matter to return to the council for an ultimate yea or nay in August or September.