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Critic's Notebook

More than simply football

Roski's proposed stadium would be part of a huge mixed-use complex.

November 10, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Are you ready for L.A. Live, San Gabriel Valley edition?

The downtown entertainment complex may get a cousin of sorts 23 miles to the east if billionaire developer Edward Roski Jr. has his way.

So far, coverage of Roski's proposal to build a 75,000-seat, $800-million stadium in City of Industry has focused on its potential to bring professional football back to the Los Angeles area after an absence of 15 years.

But Roski's plan doesn't just call for a stadium. It sees the football facility as the centerpiece of a 592-acre mixed-use complex including shops, restaurants, offices and an extensive network of surface parking lots.

And much like the Anschutz Entertainment Group's L.A. Live, which was designed to join its nearby corporate cousin, Staples Center, to create a neon-drenched sports-and-retail wonderland separate from the rest of downtown, the City of Industry plan imagines a determinedly self-contained commercial universe.

Roski has even recruited the lead architect on Staples Center, Dan Meis, to design the stadium -- and perhaps the larger complex as well. And though Meis' stadium design has much to recommend it -- more on that a bit later -- the plan as a whole relies on a number of outdated ideas about growth and mobility in Southern California.

Even as Roski's proposal remains speculative -- he can't start building until he strikes a deal with an existing franchise to move here -- it's not difficult to see why it appeals to Roski and NFL executives. As the developer points out, nearly 16 million people -- or one of every 19 Americans -- live within an hour's Sunday-morning drive of the stadium site.

The league is so intrigued by the location that it quietly asked Meis to design a stadium capable of accommodating not one but two NFL teams. That kind of dual residency makes particular sense for a football stadium, since pro teams play at home during the regular season just eight times a year.

Roski also argues that building the complex could create as many as 18,000 jobs. That angle undoubtedly helped the developer convince Sacramento lawmakers to grant the project a controversial exemption last month from state-level environmental review.

But Staples Center and L.A. Live, at least, are located at the center of the region's transportation network; their arrival arguably played a substantial role in promoting the maturation of downtown as a whole and the South Park district in particular. The stadium site, by contrast, is a classic greenfield location, a freeway-close, edge-city property tantalizingly untouched by development.

Although a Metrolink station lies a mile or so to the west, Roski's development team concedes that no more than a fraction of fans would come by train in the stadium's early years of operation.

And even if more fans arrive via Metrolink as time goes on, the location -- bound by the 57 and 60 freeways on two sides and a warehouse district on two others -- rules out the possibility that its development will forge or nurture any urban connections with the neighborhoods around it.

Though we often forget or sidestep this fact, the same qualities that make a piece of land ideal for development aiming to attract visitors from across a broad area in Southern California -- easy freeway access, wide-open spaces, precious few pesky neighbors -- also tend to make it a kind of planning black hole, a site that has little chance of succeeding in urban terms in any but the most circumscribed sense.

Separate from those larger questions, Meis' design for the stadium itself has some real strengths, though many of its details remain underdeveloped. Now working with the firm Aedas, Meis -- who as a partner in NBBJ helped design Staples as well as the NFL's Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati -- has turned a difficult piece of land to his advantage.

By proposing to sink the stadium on three sides into a hillside, he managed to cut down significantly on the amount of steel and other materials required to build it, turning early estimates of a $1.3-billion facility into an $800-million project. The architectural result is an asymmetrical bowl with a tall suite tower on the west, leaning out toward the field, with the three other sides nestled lower to the ground. Stacked concourses slice through the stadium at its four corners, and a tunnel runs underneath the eastern section of the seating bowl toward additional open-air plazas.

Early renderings released to the media, decorated with fireworks displays and searchlights, camouflaged some of the stadium design's sharp-edged appeal. The building avoids the saccharine sense of nostalgia that pervades so many new baseball stadiums. And it shows signs of the same design intelligence that make Paul Brown Stadium one of the NFL's best new venues.

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