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SPECIAL ISSUE: TAKING CENTER STAGE (THE STAPLES CENTER)
| THE PLAYERS

Six Who Made It Happen

They Didn't Always Agree, but These Figures From the Public and Private Sectors Each Found a Way to Leave Their Mark on the Project

October 10, 1999|DAVID WHARTON and ROBYN NORWOOD | David Wharton and Robyn Norwood are staff writers in The Times' Sports section

STEVE SOBOROFF

The vision came to him hundreds of feet in the air. Looking down at the Convention Center from a rented helicopter, Steve Soboroff was struck by inspiration. "That piece of property," he says. "God put it there for an arena."

Turning this notion into reality--the $400-million Staples Center--would require years of high hopes and dead ends, political infighting and uncommon cooperation. Millionaires, elected officials and civil servants all would play roles. As is probably the case with any undertaking of this magnitude, few of them now agree on precisely how and why things got done.

But pretty much everyone concurs the project began with one man.

An average-looking guy in khakis and a sweater, Soboroff is easy to talk to on a weekday afternoon. His office is just cluttered enough, with just enough pictures of his children, to resemble someone's den. Don't let the informality fool you. The man has an edge.

"If it needs to be done," he says, "I can get it done."

This attitude has earned him a measure of wealth in commercial real estate over the years. After his friend Richard Riordan became mayor in 1993, Soboroff began spending more and more time as an unpaid advisor, using his expertise to guide the Alameda Corridor project--a cargo-only rail route between the port and downtown--while serving on the parks commission and a committee that oversees spending for school repairs. Riordan also asked him to find ways to make the city more cost-effective.

The Convention Center seemed as good a place to start as any. The complex has struggled to draw lucrative conventions and requires a $40-million subsidy from the city's general fund each year. Soboroff teamed up with Charlie Isgar, another city advisor who was already working on plans for a new arena, something to draw crowds downtown.

Consider "the idea of downtown being a vibrant place," Soboroff said. "Put some life on Figueroa [Street]. Make it a place for people to go."

The proposal intrigued Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr., who wanted a new home for their Los Angeles Kings. But, in the ensuing months and years, it would draw mixed reactions from City Hall, where Soboroff and his gusto clearly rankled. Not only could he be impatient with politicians, he arrived with nebulous credentials, operating in a hazy area between developers and the elected.

"A man without a portfolio," Councilwoman Rita Walters calls him.

Soboroff shoots back: "Rita reminds me of my aunt. Nothing I do is ever enough for her."

The arena issue would grow even more clouded by an often bitter feud with Councilman Joel Wachs (the two men are arguably posturing for a confrontation in the 2001 mayoral election). "Soboroff wasn't necessarily acting on behalf of the city," Wachs says. "He was acting on behalf of what he thought was good for the city, and it was his opinion."

But Soboroff kept pushing. He argued that Anschutz and Roski, after pouring hundreds of millions into construction, would turn only a small profit--if any--on the arena itself. The real money would come from 30 acres of land they wanted to buy across the street. The Staples Center "entertainment district" could include a large hotel, restaurants and shops. Even critics concede it might lure more business to the Convention Center, and more people downtown.

"You're going to have a billion dollars of investment in the area around the project," Soboroff says. "Everything they do is going to be income-generating for the city."

That was the beauty of it for a man who considers himself the consummate deal maker. That was his inspiration. And Soboroff could see it all from a helicopter that day.

"It was waiting to happen."

*

-- David Wharton

ED ROSKI JR.

It was the deal of a lifetime, this plan to build a downtown arena, and Ed Roski Jr. knew what he had to do. While his partner, Philip Anschutz, had the serious money, Roski had expertise in Southern California real estate and a little something extra.

"My partner was in Denver, so I had to be more out front," he says. "I was the local guy."

Roski put a public face on the project. It was the broad, often smiling face of an ex-Marine, a battle-decorated veteran who remains tan and robust at 60. But it also was a face that--until this arena project and a subsequent bid to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles--was unaccustomed to the spotlight.

For much of his life, Roski quietly went about making the business that his father founded, Majestic Realty Co., into the largest industrial developer in Southern California. In the process, he gained a reputation as a hardball negotiator and, among those who knew him best, an adventurer.

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