A proposal to upgrade Exposition Park and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to pave the way for a return of pro football sailed through public approvals Thursday. But its progress masked quieter concerns about the project, which some insiders warned would deliver few tangible benefits to the Los Angeles city and county governments even as it would require them to invest in the park and stadium.
Critics of the proposal have not said much publicly, for fear of upending the long-awaited return of professional football to Los Angeles more than a decade after the Rams and Raiders left. But in many private and some on-the-record conversations, they questioned whether the terms were smart for the city and county.
Under the deal being discussed, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency would pledge $25 million to pay for public improvements to the area around the Coliseum right away and would reimburse the city for $112.6 million more in projects later if the stadium produced enough tax revenue to support them.
That is so-called tax "increment" money, meaning that it would be generated by the increased property taxes on the stadium; in this case, however, the city would not see the full benefit of that increase because it would funnel the money back into improvements around the stadium.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city and county leaders have pledged not to commit public money to the project, but critics complain that the increment financing as proposed represents a substantial public investment.
"We can't forget our basic obligations to our constituents," Councilman Ed Reyes said. "We could be forgoing opportunities to keep millions of dollars in the city and in the neighborhood."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, though emphasizing that he supported bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles, said he too was bothered by the proposed deal.
"It's clear to me that the NFL and their supporters are still looking for the county and the city to use ... public tax dollars to help finance this deal," he said. "Such an arrangement would be fiscally irresponsible and contrary to the promises that have been publicly made by most public officials involved in this project."
Local governments sometimes do forgo their tax increment, but only rarely and usually for projects that carry extraordinary public benefits. Yaroslavsky questioned whether this deal qualified.
"This is not a children's hospital we're building here," he said. "This is not a high school or university. This is a for-profit business. They ought to pay taxes.
"If everybody did this," he said, "we'd have no taxes."
Those concerns, along with those of preservation advocates who warn that the proposed renovation of the Coliseum could threaten its historic stature, rumbled along the margins of the stadium debate Thursday, but did not derail the project's speedy trip through the city and county bureaucracies.
The Community Redevelopment Agency's seven-member board, which argued for hours over a downtown high-rise proposal that was not even up for a vote, dispatched the stadium proposal in a few minutes, unanimously agreeing to the terms of the proposed agreement.
Later on Thursday, the City Council's special committee on the subject also granted quick approval. The full council is expected to take it up today so that the results of its work can be forwarded to National Football League owners who are meeting next week in Denver, where they are expected to consider selecting the Coliseum, a site in Anaheim or both for design and engineering studies. The speed of local decision-making, said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes the Coliseum and who is an ardent supporter of the proposal, was meant to "send a clear message to the NFL" that Los Angeles is ready for a team.
Parks and other defenders of the financing arrangement said the tax dollars would be spent in the surrounding area only because of the stadium construction, and emphasized that no general fund money from the city or county would help pay for the stadium. The projected $800-million stadium construction cost would be borne by the NFL.
Parks argued that the other benefits of the stadium -- potential development of hotels or restaurants in the neighborhood surrounding Exposition Park and the lure of future Super Bowls -- justify the forgoing of tax increment money.
"The community is going to get all that," Parks said.
The draft agreements circulated Thursday separate the public improvements into two categories -- "initial" improvements and "extended" ones. The first improvements, which come to $25 million, include widening streets and adding turn lanes near the Coliseum; demolition and site clearing, as well as removing asbestos as part of the stadium's renovation, would later be reimbursed by tax revenue generated by the football team.