Tim Leiweke of Anschutz Entertainment Group stands atop the new 52-story… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
With a hard hat perched on his head and an orange safety vest enveloping his burly figure, Tim Leiweke leaned against a window 52 stories up. He peered north, taking in a vista from downtown to the San Gabriel Mountains. "It's amazing, the view, eh?" he asked.
With the ease of an urban planner and the affection of a doting uncle, Leiweke pointed out symbols of downtown's revitalization. There, he gestured enthusiastically: a Ralphs supermarket, the refurbished Eastern Columbia building, and finally, the light-filled and logo-emblazoned L.A. Live district that his company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has built.
But at ground level, Leiweke, the president and chief executive of AEG, was more reserved. The sleek, glass-encased tower in which he had been standing represents something dramatic for Los Angeles. The tower, which includes 1,001 hotel rooms to serve the nearby Convention Center as well as 224 luxury condos, is downtown's first new skyscraper in 18 years. But it also represents a major gamble.
"It scares the hell out of me," Leiweke said. "It's the hardest thing we've ever done, and we are going right into the eye of the storm."
At a time when City Hall is reeling from financial woes, big public works projects remain stalled and private developments have been canceled, Leiweke as much as any other individual is driving the transformation of a major part of Los Angeles.
Those who praise him see Leiweke as an exemplar of what Los Angeles has long lacked -- a smart, savvy player who can link arms with financial backers, politicians and unionized workers with equal gusto. In an era when the city can do little development on its own, he and AEG have helped fill a major civic void, doing what many would consider city-building on mostly private land.
"No one has built a center like that in the history of this city -- or many other cities for that matter, and he has clearly been the leader," said philanthropist and civic booster Eli Broad. Leiweke "didn't do it himself, but it wouldn't have happened without him." Indeed, other major projects, including the Grand Avenue development that Broad has touted, have stalled in the recession.
To critics, however, Leiweke is a classic example of an influence peddler who curries favor with lawmakers through huge financial donations and gets, in turn, handouts in the form of tax breaks and a rubber stamp on his vision. The company received approximately $246 million in tax breaks on the L.A. Live project alone -- plus a grant of $5 million from redevelopment funds.
"There is a feeling that things are out of balance in the attention the city is paying to that area, to downtown in general and in particular to that area around Staples [Center] and L.A. Live," said Dennis Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, which has tangled repeatedly with AEG. "And there's a perception that AEG has kind of become the tail that is wagging the dog of the city."
Under the radar
For most of the time he has lived in Los Angeles, Leiweke has been an under-the-radar figure, someone who can hang with celebrities, politicians and sports figures but rarely gets noticed, even in his own buildings.
That began to shift last year, after singer Michael Jackson died days before beginning an AEG-backed comeback show in London. The ensuing controversy, largely over the costs of Jackson's memorial service, raised Leiweke's public profile. It will rise further with the inauguration this month of AEG's hotel skyscraper.
In the years since the last skyscraper opened downtown, in 1992, the area has become a residential hub while its fortune as a corporate center has waned.
Buildings that once served as worldwide headquarters now house branch offices. Gone are the business executives who in past generations used wealth and influence behind the scenes to guide the city.
Leiweke, 52, is among a handful of people who have stepped in to fill that void, articulating visions of what the city should look like.
For Leiweke and AEG, that has meant L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment district built around Staples Center. The zone's sea of flashing big-screen TVs and corporate logos might not be for everyone. But with bustling foot traffic, it looks a lot like the vibrant destination critics have long complained downtown lacked.
Still, Leiweke is opening the nearly $1-billion skyscraper, which includes Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels, in the midst of a recession. And he worries that Los Angeles has done little to encourage tourists and conventions to consider the area.
"We are a city that has no plan of attack about how to defend ourselves for the No. 1 generator of our economy, which is tourism," Leiweke said. "We have no plan. We spend no money; we have no infrastructure; we have no focus."