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Stadium Plan for Downtown L.A.: It's Clearly a Fumble

June 10, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long, arduous task of bringing professional football back to Los Angeles only seems to get more convoluted with each passing day.

In March, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, one of the country's biggest developers, announced it was in negotiations with the NFL to build a $400-million, 74,000-seat stadium in downtown Los Angeles that would one day serve as the home of the city's first NFL team since the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995.

A suspicious public wanted to know who would foot the bill. Last month, Mayor Jim Hahn said taxpayers would be in the clear and that the developer would cover the entire cost of the project.

Then on Friday, just as the city began to breath a collective sign of relief and turn its attention back to the Lakers, L.A. Coliseum officials announced that they would be spending up to $1 million to develop their own alternate proposal for a football stadium, infuriating AEG, which claimed it could derail its plan.

What is distressing in all of this, however, is not the bickering but the total lack of intelligent public discourse over the stadium proposals from the perspective of urban planning. This is partly by design. AEG, for example, has refused to disclose the exact location of the proposed stadium site and has yet to complete a formal design.

Hahn has not exactly pressed the company to do so. The assumption seems to be that all development is good development, that anyone willing to invest large sums of money in a decrepit downtown neighborhood should be greeted with heads bowed in appreciation--or at least get a supportive pat on the back.

Such an attitude toward a pro- ject that would have a significant effect on the physical shape of downtown would be understandable if a big development company could be trusted to create an original, thoughtful alternative to the kind of sports-retail-entertainment centers that are sprouting all over America. But AEG's proposal is nothing more than a generic formula--one unlikely to spark the kind of urban renaissance that its planners have promised.

Downtown Los Angeles, meanwhile, has been searching for a new identity since the mid-1920s, when its importance as a vibrant urban center first began to fade as the city expanded westward. Its revival will require the highest levels of planning, and an injection of bold, new ideas. Anything short is unlikely to turn around an area known largely for its dilapidated buildings and empty parking lots.

The stadium proposal should be understood as part of a much bigger plan, all of it currently controlled by AEG. The first phase, Staples Center, was completed in 1999. Last fall, the city approved the second phase of development, a 40-acre retail, entertainment and housing complex just to the north of Staples. It would include a 7,000-seat theater, a 1,200-room hotel, several blocks of retail along Olympic and Figueroa and 800 units of housing. (AEG has yet to set a date for groundbreaking on this phase of development.)

The football stadium would cover roughly 20 acres just to the east of the retail complex. And although the developer has refused to disclose its exact location, most reports place it between 11th and 12th streets around Hope Street. AEG has unveiled a very preliminary stadium design by the L.A. office of Seattle-based NBBJ Architects.

Nonetheless, the thinking behind the plan is relatively clear--and somewhat predictable. It embodies the kind of "pedestrian-friendly" planning formula that has become the norm among major developers in recent years. In a nutshell, the idea is to create instantly the kind of vibrant street life that exists in older, denser and more traditional city centers. The tactics are simple enough: Replace large, monolithic structures with a more varied, small-scaled play of forms and build lots and lots of retail along the street.

That pattern is already visible in the design of Staples Center, whose ground level includes offices, a restaurant and shops, which wrap around its base from Figueroa to 11th Street and are intended to give the structure a more human scale.

It is the development's second phase--the retail and entertainment complex--that is meant to provide the glue that will transform the area into a buzzing urban hub. Anchored by a vast pedestrian plaza, which faces Staples to the south, the complex would essentially be an open-air mall. Surrounded by parking structures, stuffed with a mix of chain restaurants and stores, it recalls recent developments, such as the Grove at Farmers Market in the Fairfax district of L.A. and Pasadena's Paseo Colorado.

Not surprisingly, AEG has vague plans to include even more retail space along the stadium's base.

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