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Community, Developers Agree on Staples Plan

Deal: The proposed entertainment and sports district could become a model for urban partnerships.

May 31, 2001|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending the threat of widespread opposition, the developers of a major hotel and entertainment center around Staples Center have agreed to an unprecedented package of concessions demanded by community groups, environmentalists and labor.

The developers--including billionaire Philip Anschutz and media mogul Rupert Murdoch--agreed to hire locally, provide "living wage jobs" and build affordable housing and new parks. The deal is scheduled to be announced today after months of confidential negotiations.

The billion-dollar project is seen as vital to the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. Known as the L.A. Sports and Entertainment District, it would be anchored by a 45-story hotel with at least 1,200 rooms at Olympic Boulevard and Georgia Street. The project also would include a 7,000-seat theater for musicals, award shows and other live entertainment. Restaurants, nightclubs and retail stores would be built around a plaza.

A 250,000-square-foot expansion of the adjacent Los Angeles Convention Center also is in the plan, as well as two apartment towers with a total of 800 units and a second smaller hotel.

The deal brokered with the coalition of activist groups, unions and residents, which will become part of the development agreement, is believed to be the first of its kind nationwide to take such a broad array of community concerns into account, according to economic and community development experts. Union and neighborhood leaders are hopeful that it will serve as a blueprint for similar projects, particularly when hefty public subsidies are involved.

"I've never heard of an agreement that's as comprehensive as this," said Greg LeRoy, director of the Washington-based Good Jobs First, a national clearinghouse that tracks the public benefits of economic development projects. "What's unusual here is that [housing, employment and open-space provisions are] all together. . . . It's really a model."

The development partnership, led by the Los Angeles Arena Land Co., also owns Staples Center. That project received Los Angeles city approval in 1997 on the condition that the developers eventually build the massive complex to help the Convention Center attract more business.

But community opposition posed a serious threat, in part because the hotel project likely will require a city subsidy that could exceed $75 million. While scattered resistance may yet emerge, the developers now can claim the backing of the groups most affected by the development, including 29 community groups, about 300 predominantly immigrant residents of the neighborhood and five labor unions.

"I think the City Council has to be pleased with that . . . because those are the people who will be most impacted," said John Sheppard, land use planning deputy to Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents the neighborhood and arranged the first meeting between community groups and Arena Land President Tim Leiweke last fall.

Next week's city elections added urgency to the mix. Marching orders for Ted Tanner, senior vice president of Staples Center and Arena Land--the main developer--were to secure all city entitlements by the end of June. Getting the community on board, and avoiding a protracted fight, was "extremely important," he said.

The city Planning Commission approved the plan May 23. It is scheduled for a vote before the Community Redevelopment Agency next week and then moves to City Council.

The approach on both sides of the table stands in marked contrast to the way things went down when Staples Center rose from the ground just two years ago. Then, the community was neither organized nor informed enough to act, and Staples officials now concede they were insensitive to community needs.

Still, the new deal did not come easy. Many coalition members are more accustomed to protest than to the 100 hours of labor-style negotiations that ultimately produced the package. Early relations were rocky. When Leiweke canceled plans to attend the first meeting with residents last October, organizers placed his name placard on an empty chair, addressing him angrily in his absence.

But the tone changed over time as mutual trust built. By March, Tanner--who had been anointed lead negotiator by Leiweke--delivered an update to residents in accented Spanish, and was met with applause.

Tanner said the difficulty in negotiations was in striking a balance--to meet the demands of the coalition without burdening the development or its tenants with costly conditions not required elsewhere.

"Our goal in continuing negotiations was to win true support and advocacy for the project," said Tanner, an architect who early in his career sat across the table from community groups on urban planning projects in Philadelphia. "Their goal was the same--to see if we could make this project better and improve benefits for the community."

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