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James Flanigan

An Ownership Change Could Lead to the Final Out at Dodger Stadium

March 05, 2003|James Flanigan

The story goes that in 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers were negotiating for the rights to build a stadium and play in Chavez Ravine, the late and legendarily shrewd team owner, Walter O'Malley, inquired about mineral rights on the 300-acre parcel of land.

The Los Angeles City Council was not amused. "What's he going to do," fumed one member, "play baseball or drill for oil?"

A tantalizingly similar question is floating around town these days, as the Dodgers find themselves on the block once again: What does the next owner want the team for? To play ball or to build up a real estate empire?

The vision is grand: A mogul would buy the Dodgers from current owner News Corp. and then assemble the financing to erect a new stadium near Staples Center, adding more than 3 million visitors a year to the 3 million annually who already flock to the home of the Lakers and the 1 million who visit the Los Angeles Convention Center next door. Real estate experts say that kind of density would, in turn, help launch the building of a long promised retail-entertainment complex and hotel in the same corridor.

A new stadium near Staples was proposed briefly last year to make way for a National Football League team to return to Los Angeles. But the idea fell through for many reasons, including the fact that football would fill such an arena only 12 or so dates a year.

Dodger baseball, by contrast, would guarantee 81 home games, plus the possibility of playoff games and use of the ballpark for other outdoor sports and concerts.

The benefits of a stadium downtown would be many, enthusiasts point out. For one thing, it would help fuel the use of mass transit, giving a boost to the subway lines and bus routes streaming into the area. "It would be an unbelievable opportunity for the city," says a leading figure in business, law and politics who, like practically all of the luminaries buzzing about a new Dodger ballpark near Staples, would speak only if not quoted by name.

Meanwhile, according to the scenario being bandied about, the site of the present Dodger Stadium and adjacent parking areas in Chavez Ravine would be redeveloped to accommodate new homes and offices.

If a savvy enough businessman could obtain the necessary approvals from the city to convert the land to residential and commercial use, it would give the site a value of about $1 million an acre, according to local real estate industry executives. Or, to put it another way, Chavez Ravine would suddenly be worth nearly as much as the Dodger franchise itself.

For now, the whole notion of a real estate play remains highly speculative, and getting the city's blessing would surely be an extraordinarily tough political challenge. The current stadium has many fans who love nothing more than to watch the sun sink low over batting practice at one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country. Preservationists undoubtedly would voice their opposition too.

Chavez Ravine, in the words of a longtime developer who has links to politics, "is the highest mountain in the city."

As for a new stadium adjacent to Staples, it has its doubters too. "I don't see how the economics would work," says Eli Broad, the billionaire who is a leading visionary of downtown development. Broad estimates that a new downtown home for the Dodgers could cost $400 million, and he asks where the money would come from.

Yet despite all this, the talk of a Dodger move is in the wind -- and it has been for months.

The name most associated with such a real estate gambit is Alan Casden, the head of Casden Properties Inc., who has developed or acquired about 90,000 apartment units, mostly in Southern California, since the 1970s. He is said to be interested in making a bid for the Dodgers, pitting him against a group of investors led by New York sports executive David Checketts. Neither Casden Properties nor News Corp. would comment.

An alternative prospect, according to a major broker of downtown real estate, is that a new Dodger ballpark will be built alongside Staples by Philip Anschutz and his Anschutz Entertainment Group. The firm, which is the majority owner of Staples, would then lease the stadium to the Dodgers under a long-term agreement.

Anschutz Entertainment Group had no comment, though a spokesman points out that News Corp. also owns a 40% interest in Staples. "We choose not to comment on our partners," he says.

Finally -- depending on how the local politics might evolve -- others surmise that if the Dodgers did wind up near Staples, Chavez Ravine could be turned into a vast urban park. Such a greensward would be funded by a bond issue that could conceivably put lots of money into the pocket of the team's new owner.

Such conjecture is entertaining, of course, but how realistic is it?

The undisputed facts are that News Corp. has the Dodgers up for sale, and that several interested parties are circling. The baseball club lost an estimated $40 million last year, and sports teams are no longer seen to be rising in value as they were in the last decade. What's more, any new owner of the Dodgers would have to invest more than $100 million just to refurbish Dodger Stadium, which is more than 40 years old.

All of this suggests that seeing the Dodgers as a real estate opportunity might, at the end of the day, be the real home-run strategy here.

*

James Flanigan can be reached at jim.flanigan

@latimes.com.

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