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No steele in Stadium Plan

Northridge Officials: Rejection of Developer Isn't Personal

July 02, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Ignore someone long enough and they'll go away.

The strategy appears to have worked for Cal State Northridge in dealing with Mark Steele, an energetic home-grown entrepreneur.

Steele rattled on loud and long about his $90 million proposal for athletic facilities only to have Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson dismiss him last week in a terse memo.

"Maybe they think I'm just a 34-year-old punk," an exasperated Steele said Tuesday night after only nine people attended a forum he held on his project.

Steele angrily told the scattered few that his attempts to build a multiple-purpose arena, football stadium and baseball stadium at Northridge were over. He said he will pursue an arena project elsewhere in the West Valley.

Personalities have nothing to do with the rebuke, university administrators say. Wilson and Art Elbert, vice president for finance, studied the plan and are skeptical Steele could follow through with his promise that the university would not be at risk financially.

Steele needed the university to secure financing from the state at a lower interest rate than he could get from a bank. The university's loan would have been guaranteed by a bank or pension fund, Steele said.

Another stumbling block is that the university master plan approved by California State University trustees in May leaves no room on the North Campus for the project, Wilson said. A biotechnology center will cover 28 acres of the 65-acre parcel and an entertainment industry complex that includes studios and sound stages will take up an additional 30 acres. An existing apartment complex sits on the remaining seven acres.

Two years ago, Steele, a graduate of Granada Hills High, was among four finalists for a development deal on North Campus. His proposal was to develop a 9,000-seat arena, relocate the football stadium and build other smaller facilities. Even then Steele needed Northridge to provide the property at no cost, plus help pay for the project.

The proposal lost out to a firm that planned to build a shopping mall on the property. That plan fell through because nearby homeowners complained.

Later in 1996, Steele tried to purchase a 16-acre parcel from Rocketdyne on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Canoga Avenue to build an arena, but he said the price was exorbitant.

Steele's latest proposal does not meet the university's goals of generating revenue at a low risk and increasing employment opportunities for Northridge students and graduates, Wilson said.

"It is essential for us to have strong academic ties to any venture we site at North Campus and that any development pursued be financially sound," she said in a letter to Steele dated June 1. "It is our opinion that [Steele's] projects do not fully meet these criteria."

Nor, apparently, does a football stadium in any form. The team will be left without a home after the 1999 season if construction goes as planned, begging the question: If not Steele, then who?

Certainly, not many tears will be shed over the demolition of 6,000-seat North Campus Stadium, a relic built as part of the Devonshire Downs racetrack in 1944. But plans for a new stadium--not to mention new facilities for other sports--are tentative at best.

Wilson is in the process of appointing a committee that will determine the most appropriate sites of stadiums for football and baseball as well as venues for soccer and track. A new softball stadium built on Zelzah Avenue north of existing tennis courts was part of the master plan approved in May.

The Big Sky Conference wants Northridge to play in a stadium that seats at least 10,000, although there are no specific requirements in writing.

"I would hope that the facilities committee would report to President Wilson so that she can bring a plan to the Big Sky meeting in November," said Northridge Athletic Director Paul Bubb, who will be a member of the committee. "There is a sense of urgency in terms of siting our facilities and adding them to the master plan."

Bubb said options the committee will consider are to build a stadium on the main campus near the location of the present baseball field or on the North Campus if the entertainment complex fails to materialize. Complaints by homeowners forced Northridge in May to delete from the master plan a stadium on the main campus.

"We removed any mention of a football stadium from the master plan to avoid a contentious issue with the community, but that isn't to say there is no room for discussion," Bubb said.

A third option, Bubb said, would be to upgrade another stadium in the area--probably at a junior college.

Or Northridge could drop football and focus on other sports.

"It's all a domino effect," Bubb said. "We need to decide where we are putting everything. Then determine how to fund it. The committee will put that process in motion."

The only certainty is that Steele's proposal will not be considered. Wilson made certain of that by discrediting him before appointing the committee.

Steele's plan to donate football and baseball stadiums to Northridge in exchange for being allowed to build and operate his Oasis arena on university property is history.

"I wish them luck coming up with these kinds of facilities on their own," he said.

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