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Arena Proposal Heats Up Race for New Facility : Sports: Developers unveil plans for 20,000-seat building next to Harbor Freeway. Four Downtown sites are competing for teams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The developers of a prime piece of property along the Harbor Freeway have unveiled plans for a 20,000-seat Downtown sports arena, heating up the race to build a cutting-edge facility for basketball and hockey games in Los Angeles County.

A partnership that includes Hillman Properties, one of the nation’s largest real estate developers, has met in the last two weeks with officials of the three local teams that might use such an arena--the Clippers, Lakers and Kings--to seek their participation in the privately financed project, which could cost up to $200 million.

As envisioned by the architects--who recently designed arenas in Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Portland--the Los Angeles facility would include 162 enclosed “luxury suites,” the high-priced seating relished by sport franchises these days but lacking in this area’s two aging pro basketball and hockey venues, the Forum in Inglewood and the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

Another showcase feature of the Harbor Freeway arena would be a two-story restaurant for box holders with glass walls overlooking the downtown skyline on one side and the basketball court--or hockey rink--on the other.

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“There’s a frenzy going on right now to build state-of-the-art arenas. We’re trying to go one step further, (to) the next generation,” said the project’s marketing director, John H. Semcken III.

But, he added, “The teams are going to control this deal. (If) we don’t get picked by the teams, we don’t do this.”

Officials of the Clippers, Lakers and Kings confirmed meeting with the development group, but withheld detailed comment on the proposal because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations to determine which teams--and location--might win the competition to get a showplace arena.

A flurry of competing projects include three others Downtown: one atop Union Station, another at the Los Angeles Convention Center and a third at “the cornfields,” old rail yards near Chinatown.

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In addition, “There are a couple of people who have some sites that they don’t wish to disclose,” said Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss.

Of course, impressive proposals for sports arenas and stadiums have been floated often in Los Angeles over the last decade, only to go nowhere in the area’s slumping economy.

But the push for action has gained momentum recently with the emergence of new majority owners of the Kings. They have echoed--with urgency--the longtime plea of Clippers management that some new arena must be built here unless the current ones, the Sports Arena and Forum, are overhauled to match the glittery sports halls sprouting up around the country.

“You see Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, Detroit, to name a few, all undertaking new indoor arenas,” said Joseph M. Cohen, the chairman of the Kings.

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“My instincts are that the timing is right for a new building in Los Angeles.”

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Lakers’ owner Buss, who owns the Forum, said he still considers it “superlative,” but noted that “you can take the most beautiful structure in the world (and) new innovations make it obsolete.”

So Buss does not rule out construction of a new arena at the Forum’s Inglewood site or even moving elsewhere--probably in a joint venture with the Kings, who currently lease the Forum from him. “I’ve looked at every (arena proposal) that’s been presented,” he said.

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Andy Roeser, executive vice president of the Clippers, acknowledged only that he met last week with the owners of the Harbor Freeway site.

Roeser has said in the past, however, that the team is intent on being the one to “step forward and get a new building"--in part because of the belief that, because of the cost, only one arena proposal will become reality.

Although the Clippers will play seven games during the coming season at the new Pond in Anaheim, Roeser said the team is committed to finding a “landmark facility” in the heart of Los Angeles. Burbank had been mentioned as a potential site as well, but city officials there say that project is dead.

“We’ve been through countless different sites that have been proposed,” Roeser said. “At some point you arrive at the serious players.”

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The newest player, the Harbor Freeway site, offers the allure of high visibility--an arena there would all but hang over the western side of the busy thoroughfare, directly across from Downtown’s upscale office district.

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The project, which would stretch between 4th and Maryland streets--now mostly parking lots--is a joint venture of Pittsburgh-based Hillman Properties and the local Smith & Hricik Urban Development Inc. The same interests had been planning to use the site for a $1-billion office-hotel project, the Los Angeles Center, but “all of us know what happened to the office market,” Semcken said.

Recruited to design the arena was the architectural firm Ellerbe Becket, which has been responsible for many sports projects, from construction of the America West Arena in Phoenix to renovation of New York’s Madison Square Garden.

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Semcken said the goal was to create a “destination entertainment superblock” including movie theaters and restaurants, to attract some of the huge work force that now deserts Downtown after dark, while drawing outsiders as well. The location also means there are thousands of parking spaces already within walking distance, in the area’s office towers, he noted.

To get any arena built, however, the proponents will have to survive a competition as fierce, and complex, as any NBA or NHL contest.

The Catellus Development Corp. has been working for several years to get an arena at Union Station. Ted Tanner, vice president for development, touts that location’s status as a hub of mass transit.

“There are many options in and around Downtown,” Tanner noted. “We think we have a very viable one.”

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Also in the race is the Southern Pacific Transportation Co., which owns the 45-acre rail yards at the edge of Chinatown. “We’re still in negotiations with the Clippers and some other people I can’t name at this time,” said David Steel, the company’s vice president for real estate.

“I think we have the best location,” Steel said, citing the abundance of open space.

But he and the others acknowledge that the competition probably will not hinge so much on the site as on deal-making--who can offer teams the best incentives. Up for negotiation are everything from ownership stakes in the arenas to shares of the various “revenue streams,” from food concessions to parking.

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Further complicating the situation is the fact that while it is possible to operate an arena with one team--as at the Pond, which showcases the Mighty Ducks hockey team--it is much more desirable to have at least two: one basketball and one hockey.

That creates an intriguing interplay among the three teams in question.

The Clippers, whose lease at the Sports Arena runs just three more years, have the greatest freedom to move.

But Lakers’ owner Buss has considerable leverage by having a say over two franchises--his own and the Kings, due to the long-term lease for that team to play at his Forum. Owning the Inglewood property could limit Buss’ options, though--if he moved the Lakers, he’d have to sell the Forum or try to make it work primarily on non-sports events, such as concerts and other shows. “It would require a substantial change of strategy,” he said.

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The Kings, meanwhile, have the advantage of being the only hockey team in the equation, even if they are encumbered by their Forum lease.

“We’re related by blood with the Forum, so you start with your relatives,” chairman Cohen said. “There are a lot of advantages in staying--the fans have been coming to Inglewood for 27 years. . . .

"(But) as much as we like Inglewood, it’s important we listen to sites like the Harbor Freeway site. . . . It’s central. They have some dynamic plans.”

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Semcken said at least one of the teams has told his group it wants to make a decision “by the fall,” so construction could begin in the spring--and a new arena be ready for the 1997-98 season.

“I think it’s a travesty we don’t have a state-of-the-art sports arena in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world,” he said. “If it’s not ours, the community needs to do it somewhere.”

New Arena Proposed A plan to build a 20,000-seat sports arena along the Harbor Freeway will have to compete with three other proposals for facilities Downtown. The map below shows the four competing Downtown sites for a basketball and hockey arean.


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