Six Who Made It Happen

David Wharton and Robyn Norwood are staff writers in The Times' Sports section

STEVE SOBOROFF

The vision came to him hundreds of feet in the air. Looking down at the Convention Center from a rented helicopter, Steve Soboroff was struck by inspiration. "That piece of property," he says. "God put it there for an arena."

Turning this notion into reality--the $400-million Staples Center--would require years of high hopes and dead ends, political infighting and uncommon cooperation. Millionaires, elected officials and civil servants all would play roles. As is probably the case with any undertaking of this magnitude, few of them now agree on precisely how and why things got done.

But pretty much everyone concurs the project began with one man.

An average-looking guy in khakis and a sweater, Soboroff is easy to talk to on a weekday afternoon. His office is just cluttered enough, with just enough pictures of his children, to resemble someone's den. Don't let the informality fool you. The man has an edge.

"If it needs to be done," he says, "I can get it done."

This attitude has earned him a measure of wealth in commercial real estate over the years. After his friend Richard Riordan became mayor in 1993, Soboroff began spending more and more time as an unpaid advisor, using his expertise to guide the Alameda Corridor project--a cargo-only rail route between the port and downtown--while serving on the parks commission and a committee that oversees spending for school repairs. Riordan also asked him to find ways to make the city more cost-effective.

The Convention Center seemed as good a place to start as any. The complex has struggled to draw lucrative conventions and requires a $40-million subsidy from the city's general fund each year. Soboroff teamed up with Charlie Isgar, another city advisor who was already working on plans for a new arena, something to draw crowds downtown.

Consider "the idea of downtown being a vibrant place," Soboroff said. "Put some life on Figueroa [Street]. Make it a place for people to go."

The proposal intrigued Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr., who wanted a new home for their Los Angeles Kings. But, in the ensuing months and years, it would draw mixed reactions from City Hall, where Soboroff and his gusto clearly rankled. Not only could he be impatient with politicians, he arrived with nebulous credentials, operating in a hazy area between developers and the elected.

"A man without a portfolio," Councilwoman Rita Walters calls him.

Soboroff shoots back: "Rita reminds me of my aunt. Nothing I do is ever enough for her."

The arena issue would grow even more clouded by an often bitter feud with Councilman Joel Wachs (the two men are arguably posturing for a confrontation in the 2001 mayoral election). "Soboroff wasn't necessarily acting on behalf of the city," Wachs says. "He was acting on behalf of what he thought was good for the city, and it was his opinion."

But Soboroff kept pushing. He argued that Anschutz and Roski, after pouring hundreds of millions into construction, would turn only a small profit--if any--on the arena itself. The real money would come from 30 acres of land they wanted to buy across the street. The Staples Center "entertainment district" could include a large hotel, restaurants and shops. Even critics concede it might lure more business to the Convention Center, and more people downtown.

"You're going to have a billion dollars of investment in the area around the project," Soboroff says. "Everything they do is going to be income-generating for the city."

That was the beauty of it for a man who considers himself the consummate deal maker. That was his inspiration. And Soboroff could see it all from a helicopter that day.

"It was waiting to happen."

*

-- David Wharton

ED ROSKI JR.

It was the deal of a lifetime, this plan to build a downtown arena, and Ed Roski Jr. knew what he had to do. While his partner, Philip Anschutz, had the serious money, Roski had expertise in Southern California real estate and a little something extra.

"My partner was in Denver, so I had to be more out front," he says. "I was the local guy."

Roski put a public face on the project. It was the broad, often smiling face of an ex-Marine, a battle-decorated veteran who remains tan and robust at 60. But it also was a face that--until this arena project and a subsequent bid to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles--was unaccustomed to the spotlight.

For much of his life, Roski quietly went about making the business that his father founded, Majestic Realty Co., into the largest industrial developer in Southern California. In the process, he gained a reputation as a hardball negotiator and, among those who knew him best, an adventurer.

Vacations were devoted to such exotic pursuits as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and biking across Mongolia, swimming with great white sharks off the coast of southern Australia and trekking into the Brazilian forest to study a native tribe. The public heard very little about this man until 1995, when he joined associate Anschutz in a venture to buy the Los Angeles Kings and move the team to a new arena.

The partners planned to build on surplus railroad land near Chinatown but were persuaded to do otherwise when Steve Soboroff presented his plan to spark a downtown renaissance. The argument appealed to their sense of civic duty and their business sense.

"Along with Disney Hall and MOCA and all the residential [housing] that is being built downtown . . . it's like a regional shopping center," Roski says. Like combining "a Macy's, a Sears and a Nordstrom. You get this great massing of projects and they start feeding off each other, drawing people from all around."

Unlike a shopping mall, the Staples Center would involve public money. The developers wanted the city to float $58 million in bonds to help pay for the land, which meant Roski had to answer to more than just his business instincts. When City Council members and Times columnist Bill Boyarsky asked tough questions about the terms of the deal, including how that $58 million would be repaid, he was taken aback.

"He thought he was doing something so incredible for the city," Soboroff says. "He thought they were going to rename a freeway after him."

Negotiations broke down on numerous occasions when the developers grew frustrated. One critical juncture arose in 1997, when skeptics wanted proof that the Staples Center had a long-term lease with the Lakers and Kings. Such a pact was considered vital to the arena's success, but Roski had negotiated a confidential deal with Laker owner Jerry Buss and refused to divulge any of the terms.

"When you're doing business, the deal between you and me is the deal between you and me," he says. "There's no need for Harry and Harry's brothers and aunts and uncles to know about it."

Says one of his top executives, John Semcken, who often served as a spokesman for the developers: "Principle got in the way, and sometimes principle is not a good thing for politics."

That's not how they saw it at City Hall. "He should have understood the political process better," says Soboroff, who was busy fighting his own battles. Councilwoman Rita Walters still sounds miffed when she says, "I guess business people are accustomed to keeping those things close to the vest. But that made it unnecessarily difficult."

Still, critics give Roski credit for sticking to the plan. Building the arena was important enough to make him change his ways--he and Anschutz eventually backed down on the lease issue, releasing an edited copy of the document that showed the Lakers and Kings had signed for 25 years.

"When you deal with the public, they have a right to know," Roski says. "We didn't understand that at the start . . . we had to learn."

*

-- D.W.

JOHN FERRARO

Fifty years have passed since John Ferraro was a hulking, 235-pound tackle at USC. But the grand old man of the Los Angeles City Council still keeps faded pictures and football helmets around his office, and still thinks of himself as a lineman toiling in the political trenches, unconcerned with the accolades that go to the glamour players.

The metaphor serves to explain his role in the difficult birth of the Staples Center. In more ways than one.

Some describe the council president as a savior, working behind the scenes to soothe tensions that arose between developers and the city. Others see him differently. They remain miffed by the secretive air that enveloped the negotiations, what they believe was an attempt to sneak the proposal through the City Council.

"It was a political process," Ferraro says matter-of-factly, sorting through papers in his City Hall East office. "Sometimes you forget . . . dealing with the government isn't simple."

It is, however, the forte of a man whose three decades on the council have earned him a reputation for diplomacy, a man of white hair who keeps a place in his heart for youthful games. Having fought to gain approval for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Ferraro jumped back on the sports bandwagon a decade or so later when an arena was proposed.

The suggestion that a new sports venue might revitalize downtown struck a chord with Ferraro, who says, "We needed something to spark that area and this was a great opportunity." When the project hit snags early and often, he sprang into action, smoothing over rough spots with memos and telephone calls. "He would continually speak with the principals at a high level," mayoral advisor Steve Soboroff says. "He would speak at a mature level."

Ferraro also assembled a team of administrators from various city agencies to wrestle with the myriad legal and financial elements involved with an agreement. "That was very important," says Ed Roski Jr. "It was a big deal and fairly complicated. He kept everybody moving forward when problems arose."

But back-room politics exploded into public controversy in the summer of 1997 when Councilman Joel Wachs, wanting better terms for the city, threatened to include the arena in a ballot initiative that would have required voter approval--and could have killed the deal. Wachs had been critical of the way negotiations had progressed, characterizing a series of closed-door talks and hastily called meetings as "the most secretive, flagrant violation of every good government law there is . . . the sleaziest."

The normally restrained Ferraro lashed out, accusing his colleague of grandstanding. Behind the scenes, however, he was still straddling the line between supporter and mediator, urging the developers to persevere, urging Wachs to negotiate without going to a ballot. By fall, the city had a better deal. Some say tremendously better. Others say only slightly. Either way, Wachs had scored a political victory.

That made Ferraro, the politician, smolder: "I knew somebody would take credit for doing it all." But Ferraro, the old tackle, was satisfied the city was on its way to getting a new arena.

Doesn't matter who gets the glory, he says, as long as his team wins.

"I learned that from playing football."

*

-- D.W.

JOEL WACHS

These days, Joel Wachs is known as the city councilman who helped Los Angeles get a better deal. But back in 1997, a headline in the Metro section of The Times hit Wachs like a runaway Zamboni:

Mahony Assails Wachs for Seeking Arena Vote

"I thought I would die. I just thought I would die," says Wachs, who'd seen himself as a defender of the taxpayer--but instead had run afoul of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, an L.A. icon.

"No politician in the world wants to be assailed by a revered, respected religious leader like that," Wachs notes. "I thought, 'Oh no, even my mother's going to be upset now.' "

But several things bothered Wachs about the original proposal to build the Staples Center. The city had offered to float $58 million in municipal bonds as a loan and the developers wanted to repay the debt with tax dollars generated by the arena. Wachs wanted the city to keep the taxes and be repaid from somewhere else. The councilman also was angered by the hush-hush tone of negotiations. So he took one of the biggest risks of his political career: He threatened a ballot initiative requiring voter approval of any public funding for professional sports facilities.

This made him popular at the market and synagogue and speaking to community groups, striking a chord of resentment against "billionaire owners and gazillionaire players"--the memorable phrase he used so effectively in a series of public debates. ("People start thinking of it as using tax money to pay for rich people's toys," he said.)

But the political heat was searing. If developers Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr. had scrapped the deal, Wachs would have been tagged as the man who killed the arena--a blow to a downtown anticipating new growth.

"I had calls from a lot of heavyweight people," Wachs recalls, "things like, the death of downtown was going to be at my doorstep . . . ."

A 1997 Daily News editorial, "Joel Wachs, Anarchist?" charged that he was "bordering on political terrorism" by seeking an initiative that could hold the arena project hostage.

"The Daily News was calling me an urban terrorist, The Times was calling me I don't know what." (Mahony's stake in the proceedings was a new cathedral under construction downtown.) "I was like, 'I'm going to be a pariah around here,' " Wachs says. "I think it turned out almost the opposite. I think almost everyone knows I was right. We did get a far better deal for the city."

The agreement was hammered out after Mahony took the unusual step, for a religious leader, of summoning both sides to a meeting. It includes an ironclad guarantee to repay the $58 million without using funds from sales, property or utility taxes generated by the arena. It also calls for Anschutz and Roski to pay several million dollars for a 55-year lease originally offered at $1 a year, and to purchase a small parcel the city had been prepared to donate.

Exactly how much money Wachs saved taxpayers is a matter of opinion. He puts the figure at $126 million; the developers estimate something closer to "tens of millions."

Still, some saw Wachs' campaign as merely a way to make hay with voters. Steve Soboroff--like Wachs, a mayoral candidate--is among the skeptical.

"Is the deal one half of one percent better for all the jibber-jabber that went on?" Soboroff asks. "Maybe. Is that worth it? My perspective is no, because I believe the transaction was seriously jeopardized.

"But that's the process. Say something's a problem when it isn't a problem, then solve it and take the credit."

On the other hand, even Staples Center president Tim Leiweke tips his hat.

"You see these arenas still being built around the country where the taxpayers are at risk," Leiweke says. "Give credit back to the City of L.A. and the political leaders. They were visionary in their protection of the taxpayers. And we found a way to ultimately make it work." The City Council approved the agreement in October 1997.

Sports fan Wachs always has contended that he is a great supporter of the project. "As I see it, as of this point, they've honored their deal," he says. "They'll be great for the city." Then he lowers his voice, a little glint in his eye:

"And they'll make plenty of money."

*

--Robyn Norwood

JOHN SEMCKEN

A stunning photo of an F-14 flying over the Grand Canyon adorns John Semcken's office at Majestic Realty in the city of Industry.

"That's me right there, in the red helmet," Semcken says. How he went from Top Gun to point man for developers Ed Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz on the Staples Center project--and later became Roski's top lieutenant for an NFL bid--is a story of risk-taking and persistence.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the prestigious Navy Fighter Weapons School's "Top Gun" program, Semcken wanted to become an admiral--until he served as the technical advisor for the Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun" in 1985.

"We took Tom up in the airplane and taught him how to salute and everything," recalls Semcken. "After the movie was finished, I was up here in Hollywood, experiencing a very different life than I was experiencing in the Navy. I just resigned and never looked back."

With a limited future in the entertainment industry, Semcken turned to commercial real estate. In a fateful decision, he picked downtown, starting with the Charles Dunn Co. in 1987.

"I didn't know how to get around, didn't go to USC, and figured the only way I could compete with people who grew up here would be to specialize in a very small place where there's a lot of business," he explains. "I focused on downtown Los Angeles.

"I love downtown. I grew up in New York and Chicago. And I realized people who grew up here didn't think much of downtown."

By the time he joined Roski's Majestic Realty in 1996, Semcken was convinced that downtown, not Inglewood, was the place for L.A.'s next arena.

"There was this whole period in the 1960s and '70s where they put arenas and stadiums in the suburbs and people would drive to this big concrete thing," he says. "Me, I wouldn't do that."

As early as 1991, Semcken pitched a downtown arena for a site west of the Harbor Freeway. He made presentations to former Kings owner Bruce McNall and McNall's successors, Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff, as the Kings reeled through a series of financial disasters before being bought by Roski and Anschutz.

The new owners were considering an arena site near Chinatown when Semcken made a presentation promoting another location. Roski listened carefully, then told a friend: "We don't like the site, but we like the guy who gave the presentation." Semcken signed on with Majestic.

When the choices for an arena site were pared down to the Convention Center and Inglewood--and even at the zenith of a political firestorm sparked by City Councilman Joel Wachs and Times columnist Bill Boyarsky over full disclosure of the deal and how much public funding was involved--Semcken backed downtown.

"By moving nine miles northeast from Inglewood, you get a million more people within a 10-mile radius," he says. "The Forum, the five-mile radius hits the water. Nobody lives there. But if you move that radius just nine miles, your 10-mile radius is still over land--and over a lot of population, especially the Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and La Canada areas."

Semcken became chief spokesman for the developers, both in the media and in a series of public debates with Wachs.

"I'm not a politician, so I don't know how to speak to the masses," Semcken says. "Joel Wachs is a master."

Wachs, hitting a home run when he talked about the public subsidy of "billionaire owners and gazillionaire players," almost felt sorry for Semcken.

"He and I would really go at it," Wachs recalls, "and he must have thought I was the worst guy in the world."

In the end, both won when a new arena deal was struck.

*

--R.N.

TIM LEIWEKE

Tim Leiweke climbs yet another concrete stairway amid the construction work at the Staples Center, then pauses to catch his breath.

"I don't have to run anymore," the arena's president says with bemused satisfaction. "I just give tours."

Behind him, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters and an entourage follow as Leiweke points out detail after detail.

The arena is in the final stages of construction, the home stretch of an 18-month sprint to finish in time for the upcoming hockey and basketball seasons. And after months of difficult negotiations with the city, with skeptical officials such as Walters, the building has earned some good will in the community, thanks in large part to Leiweke's public relations efforts over the last year or so.

So now he can relax, right?

Not quite. Running the Staples Center means dealing with four professional teams--the Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Avengers of the Arena Football League--not to mention ice shows and concerts, the Grammy Awards next February and the Democratic National Convention next summer. Leiweke also serves as president of the Galaxy of Major League Soccer.

And that's not all. Since moving to Los Angeles from Denver to become president of the Los Angeles Kings in 1996, he has accumulated enough titles to fill a resume for an entire career.

"I think we have eight different companies now," he says. "Staples, the Kings, the Galaxy, Envision, Sports One, the Forum . . . . There's the board of directors of the Lakers, but that doesn't require much time. And there's the training center for the Kings and Lakers."

Envision matches companies with arenas, stadiums and events in deals such as the one that matched Staples Inc. with the downtown arena. Sports One is a marketing partnership among the Dodgers, Kings, Galaxy and the Staples Center. The training center is a new practice facility in El Segundo for the Lakers and Kings, who won't be able to use the busy Staples Center for workouts.

Leiweke also serves as the public face of the arena, a role he inherited from Ed Roski Jr. as the project moved from the proposal phase to construction. Roski--busy trying to woo the NFL back to Los Angeles--has slipped into the background while his partner, Philip Anschutz, remains a notable media recluse.

City officials have given Leiweke high marks for becoming an important player in the quest to build downtown. "This is a huge deal and, if we do it right, it's going to have a huge impact for all of L.A.," he says. "So I will go spend all the time necessary to make sure that everyone in the city, in particular the leaders, feels very comfortable with the job we do."

It's a role he seems to assume effortlessly--though it's reasonable to wonder how long he can sustain it.

Four years ago in Denver, Leiweke abruptly resigned as president of the Nuggets basketball team during a difficult arena deal. He told a packed news conference that he was "burned out" and his health and family life were suffering. "I don't want to die before I'm 40," he said then.

"The Denver situation was hard," he says now, at 42. "I've learned some very valuable lessons in my career. There were times when I let it get to me. Here, it hasn't.

"I have a great wife and a great daughter, and they have done a remarkable job of making me understand that this is just a little footnote in my life, and they're going to be there at the end of the day."

Just as soon as he's done giving those tours.

*

--R.N.

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