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Questions for L.A.'s downtown stadium deal

With a proposed memorandum of understanding coming before the City Council, here are some questions that need answering before any decision is made.

July 28, 2011

Finally, in order to minimize the city's exposure, the memorandum contemplates a series of letters of credit, and construction and operational guarantees. The council should ask its negotiators to spell out the details of those guarantees in the public session to assure elected leaders and the public that the risks are shared by the city and AEG and that those risks are more than balanced by the project's realistically foreseeable benefits.

2. What are those potential benefits? The chief appeal of this proposal for the city is not the return of the NFL; it's reviving the Convention Center, whose old and badly designed space makes it difficult to lure certain conventions, especially very big ones. Under the proposal, the new stadium, which would be covered by a roof, would expand and modernize the contiguous square footage of the Convention Center, making it far more attractive to big conventions. If successful, the project could transform a Convention Center that today does not make enough money to cover the debt service on the bonds issued to build it into one that could, according to city estimates, generate a net gain to the city treasury of $210 million over the next 30 years.

Beyond that, of course, are the jobs that it would produce, in terms of both short-term construction employment and those jobs in the shops, hotels and other amenities that would surround and fill the stadium and expanded Convention Center. The city estimates that the project would produce 2,600 temporary jobs and 6,320 permanent ones.

But what if Los Angeles, even with a modern Convention Center, simply can't compete with San Diego's waterfront or Las Vegas' gambling or San Francisco's beauty? The council should ask how this set of estimates for the Convention Center is more solid than those it relied on when it built the existing facility, a decision that many of those involved with now regret.

3. What happens if the city approves the stadium and then AEG fails to reel in a football team? According to the memorandum, the project cannot move forward until an NFL team has signed a commitment to play in Los Angeles. The council should demand a binding, written agreement to that effect.

4. And what if a team comes to Los Angeles, only to quickly have second thoughts and relocate elsewhere? Council President Eric Garcetti is eager for a written agreement that would bind a team to Los Angeles for decades; such a long-term commitment may be impractical, but it's worth inquiring about.

5. What are the traffic and parking implications of the proposal? Construction of the stadium would eliminate about 1,600 parking spaces beneath the Convention Center's West Hall, which would be demolished to make room for the stadium. To replace those, AEG would build two new parking structures, paying for that with the $80-million bond it would be responsible for repaying. Even with those and other parking spaces in the south end of downtown, the stadium would not offer anywhere near the parking that is typical of other football venues, where tailgating has long been part of the pregame experience. This raises two questions: What are the plans for boosting public transportation access to the stadium? And what makes AEG confident that the NFL will be comfortable with this new model for football fans?

6. What happens if AEG's environmental impact report is challenged in court, and the entire project is held up as a result? This prospect has worried AEG officials since the moment the stadium idea was unveiled, and their main response has been one that the council should reject: The company wants a special protection from any lawsuit that it deems frivolous or that is filed by a competitor.

AEG is right to question whether California's environmental law, known as CEQA, is too vulnerable to such lawsuits, but the answer to that is CEQA reform, not one environmental law for most of California and another for AEG. The council should explore ways to rationalize the law, but it should not help AEG write a statute for itself.

The prospect of bringing football back to Los Angeles has energized some fans and excited some residents, just as the closeness between AEG and the city government has worried others. Those competing pressures should remind the council of the need for balance in this debate. The council should not tend exclusively to the interests of football fans; nor should it either give too much to a political benefactor or play to the populist benches by thrashing that benefactor for effect. This is the time for the council to do what often comes hardest to it: inquire deeply, judge fairly and then, once its questions are aired and answered, act decisively.

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