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Developing Chavez Ravine is likely in play for new Dodgers owner

Real estate experts say the rich price Guggenheim Baseball Management paid for the team probably means it is looking to do more with the land surrounding Dodger Stadium than simply park cars.

April 16, 2012|By Roger Vincent and Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times
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It's a developer's dream — nearly 300 empty acres above downtown Los Angeles, close to three major freeways and visited by millions each year.

Could Chavez Ravine be the next big real estate play in town?

The new owner of the Dodgers, Guggenheim Baseball Management, is keeping tight-lipped about its plans for the parking lots and hillsides surrounding Dodger Stadium, which it will own jointly with departing team owner Frank McCourt if the sale closes as expected April 30.

INTERACTIVE: Breakdown of Dodger property

The Dodgers disclosed some details of the McCourt-Guggenheim land partnership in the team's bankruptcy case, but those documents were under seal — and the team quickly withdrew them after The Times asked the bankruptcy judge to release them publicly.

Real estate experts, however, say it's likely the new owner is looking to do more with the land than simply park cars. They point out that the rich price paid by Guggenheim — at $2.15 billion, a record for a sports franchise — suggests it will need to add new revenue streams in addition to what is expected to be a lucrative television contract.

"There is probably a media or a real estate play," said Stan Ross, chairman of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, who was quick to add that any development would likely take years to realize.

One doesn't have to scout far for a glimpse of potential development plans. Four years ago, McCourt proposed a $500-million plan to ring the stadium with restaurants, shops and a Dodgers museum. The surface parking spaces lost to new buildings would be replaced by twin nine-story garages.

The plans never went anywhere amid the economic downturn and the team's precarious finances, but it's clear that McCourt wasn't the only one to see new development possibilities.

Among those in the bidding for the Dodgers were real estate entrepreneurs Rick Caruso, Jared Kushner and Tom Barrack. And Magic Johnson, one of the nation's most prominent urban developers, has a minority stake in the Guggenheim partnership.

Developer Ken Lombard, a former business partner of Johnson, said the Dodgers property is ideally situated for an urban development.

"You could create a community up there," said Lombard, who runs the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping center. "You have the chance to do something very interesting, probably a mixture of residential and retail."

There would be even more potential if the baseball stadium were to be relocated downtown, as many have suggested. AEG Entertainment President Tim Leiweke, who is leading plans to build an NFL football stadium downtown, said a downtown baseball stadium would be among other possible options if the football stadium were derailed.

Beverly Hills apartment developer Alan Casden, another unsuccessful bidder for the Dodgers, had made relocating the stadium a cornerstone of an earlier proposal to buy the team in 2003.

At that time, Casden criticized Dodger Stadium for convoluted parking lots, a poor seating plan and a location inconvenient for both fans and nearby residents who bear the brunt of traffic, noise and litter in their neighborhood.

Tearing down Dodger Stadium, the third-oldest major league ballpark, would likely draw opposition from preservationists. The Los Angeles Conservancy has not taken a position on the issue, but its executive director, Linda Dishman, has a soft spot for the 50-year-old stadium.

"My favorite thing is looking out from the top deck. It feels like you're so close you can touch the skyline of downtown," Dishman said.

At 50, Dodger Stadium is now eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If it achieved such a designation, the owner would find it more difficult to get city approval to destroy it, make substantial changes or sell naming rights.

In 2004, Chicago's Wrigley Field was landmarked, a move the Cubs' ownership opposed. The team was sold in 2009 and the new owners have asserted that the status costs the Cubs $30 million a year in lost sponsorship opportunities.

Even if the stadium doesn't get official landmark designation, earning the backing to raze it or build additions on the parking lots such as condos or a shopping center would not be an easy feat, said Gail Goldberg, former city planning director.

Owners can be expected to look for "higher and better" uses for their property that will produce more financial rewards, she said. Their challenge is to convince local officials that their plans are good for economic development and to convince local stakeholders such as neighbors that the plan will improve their quality of life.

That the publicly unpopular McCourt is still involved is an added hurdle to building support for real estate development, she said.

"I think nobody wants to help him make more money," Goldberg said. "As long as his name is out there, the public benefit [of development] would have to be extraordinary."

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