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Staples Center Bows as L.A.'s Newest Palace

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After a hard-won victory at Los Angeles City Hall and 18 months of whirlwind construction and political fence-mending, the curtain lifts tonight on downtown’s Staples Center.

As it does, a few questions--some serious, some less weighty--linger among traffic experts, community leaders and union activists:

* Will the city’s wealthiest corporate executives, actors and movie moguls get their hands slapped if they fire up cigars in their $300,000-a-year suites, or will they mosey down their exclusive hallway to smoke by the indoor-outdoor fireplace in the $10,500-a-year Grand Reserve Club?

* Will the counter workers serving up McDonald’s burgers one floor below be satisfied with their hard-won promise of $7.51 an hour plus benefits, or will they press the famously anti-union company for labor representation?

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* Will the city’s downtown legal establishment, whose firms own a dozen of the ritzy boxes, turn out in force to hear Bruce Springsteen deliver working class anthems and watch Los Angeles Kings defensemen execute checks along the boards?

* And, finally, will 17,000 first-day fans really figure out where to park without overwhelming the threadbare streets of downtown?

These and other queries dog Los Angeles’ newest attraction, a 20,000-seat arena that has become home to three major league sports franchises and has helped the city win the right to host the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Tonight, Springsteen takes the stage in the arena’s first concert.

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Widely acclaimed for its architecture and applauded for its potential place in Los Angeles’ civic life, Staples Center has become a bragging point for the city’s political and business elite.

But even as its doors swing open, the arena has its skeptics--from those who lament the final local transformation of traditional working class entertainments into diversions for the elite to those who worry that the center’s economic impact has been oversold. Others are concerned about how its workers will fare and how its patrons will park.

Nowhere has the tension flared more intensely than over the issue of how the men and women who will work at the facility will be treated. Staples Center officials estimate that their new arena will provide jobs to 1,200 people--ranging from full-time executives and staff to gardeners, security guards and waiters and waitresses.

When the proposed center was on the ropes, battling for approval from the City Council in the face of substantial skepticism, labor was there for the arena. The hotel and restaurant workers union lobbied its council friends, and the county labor federation weighed in on behalf of the center.

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Labor’s campaign was motivated in part because its leaders believed they had a deal: They would support the project, and the center would be a union shop.

Not quite.

Although almost all of the 1,200 employees working at the arena will be members of organized labor, a few won’t be. Security guards are excluded, as are landscapers and, of course, the McDonald’s employees.

Labor did not take kindly to the news that some workers would not be represented by unions, and for a while its leaders engaged in a brittle, behind-the-scenes standoff with arena officials. When one local labor official wrote to Staples Center chief Tim Leiweke to inform him of the obligations imposed by the city’s “living wage” law, Leiweke responded with a crisp phone message.

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“We are complying with the living wage ordinance because we choose to, not because we’re obligated to,” he said. “I don’t like the tone of your letter, frankly.”

But Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the council’s most diligent guardian of the ordinance, stepped in, cooled tempers and paved the way for an agreement that all sides now say they can live with. Under it, not all center employees will be union workers, but they will all receive a minimum of $7.51 per hour with benefits or $8.76 without. Those are the minimums mandated by the living wage law.

Staples Center went along with this as part of the agreement that permitted construction of the facility. This provision will be discussed by the council in the next week or two.

“These are all going to be good jobs,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, leader of the city’s Living Wage Coalition, adding that for years, retailers and others have complained that they cannot afford to pay more than minimum wage and still turn a profit.

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“This is cutting right through that myth. That’s hugely important in this symbolic center at the heart of downtown,” she said. “These are new jobs downtown, real jobs for entry-level people.”

If Staples Center is both arena and symbol, however, not all it signifies is positive. Like most modern sports arenas, it separates ticket holders to an extent not seen in facilities such as Dodger Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl.

Holders of the luxury boxes (including The Times, whose box is one of the two most expensive in the complex) will park in their own parking area, enter through their own entrance and have access to their own restaurant. All of those are off limits to regular ticket holders, who council wags say occupy “the people’s level.”

“There’s something sad about that,” said Sister Diane Donoghue, executive director of Esperanza Community Housing Corp., which supported Staples Center but insisted on concessions for the community. “At least at the Forum, everybody was in the same room. There’s a classist aspect to this. . . . In another time, it was race. Now, if you can pay for exclusivity, you can have it.”

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Paying Attention to the Average Fan

Bobby Goldwater, the center’s general manager, strongly argues that the arena, though catering to its box holders, does not do so at the expense of others.

“We’ve paid a tremendous amount of attention to the average fan,” he said, citing such amenities as the numerous food vendors and an attractive outdoor deck accessible from the arena’s cheapest seats. Moreover, the center’s highly touted sound system, stores and 1,200 television monitors are available to all patrons, he noted, not just box holders or those holding premiere tickets.

Still, one distinct advantage of holding an expensive ticket is parking. Those patrons will have slots beneath the adjacent Convention Center. For the rest, however, it may not be so simple. Although arena officials originally believed they would have 1,500 spaces under the Convention Center, that number has been slashed, leaving just 475 spaces available there.

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So Staples Center parking gurus, who have spent more than a year on this issue alone, built their own lots and set up exclusive agreements with parking lot owners in the blocks near the arena. All told, the center has about 8,900 spaces, but some of them are four blocks away.

If the city Department of Transportation finds that the arena has created a traffic and parking impact of more than 10% in the area, center officials will have to take such additional measures as widening streets, installing more lights and, perhaps, providing closer parking.

Then there is the Jan. 8 problem. The Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, which typically draws about 100,000 people to the Convention Center, opens that day. Staples Center had promised in writing to stay dark on that Saturday in deference to the huge show that has been a fixture downtown for 95 years. But arena officials changed their minds and scheduled a Clipper game.

One could argue that attendance at a Clipper game might not create the same parking problems as, say, a Laker game, but auto show officials believe otherwise.

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With Staples, auto show officials say they lost 1,700 parking spots, some of which were eliminated just by building the huge arena. The parking lot in front of Staples, which would have been ideal for the auto show, will be closed until Clipper fans arrive for their 7:30 game.

“It’s going to be a huge public relations problem for Staples and for the city,” said Andy Fuzesi, general manager of the auto show. “It’s a very big problem. Someone will have to explain to the public why on the biggest day of the auto show, 2,000 spaces are going to sit empty all day.”

Although Fuzesi says he is working with the center to deal with the problem, he believes that there is only one solution: Reschedule the basketball game.

Goldwater thinks those concerns will prove unfounded.

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“We’ve been very sensitive to the auto show in particular,” he said. “There will be more than sufficient parking. It’s not like it’s going to be empty. There are going to be a lot of people here, but we think we have a good plan.”

Still, even some of the luxury suite owners say they anticipate potential parking and traffic snafus. George Mihlsten, the Latham & Watkins attorney and lobbyist who helped shepherd Staples Center through City Hall, plans to park at his office and walk 10 blocks to the arena.

“Parking,” said Councilwoman Rita Walters, who was a constant critic of the arena project, “is a definite wait and see. We won’t know until people start going.”

And last but not least, there is the question of who gets to smoke--and where.

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The center is charging $10,000-plus for the privilege of lighting up a cigar in its Grand Reserve Club, an elegant, paneled room on a luxury box level and the only place at the arena where officials intend to allow smoking. Luxury box holders who join the club even get their own wooden humidors.

Goldwater says all this has been cleared with the Fire Department, and it complies with state and local smoking bans because it is a club, not a restaurant or public space.

Fire Marshal Jimmy Hill is not so sure.

“There should be no smoking in that club,” he said, “or anywhere there are employees.”

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The Road to Staples Center

* From the San Fernando Valley or Pasadena, take the 9th Street exit off the Harbor Freeway (I-110) and take Francisco Street to Olympic Boulevard.

* From the Westside, avoid freeways altogether. Take such streets as Wilshire, Pico, Olympic or Adams boulevards.

* From the San Gabriel Valley, take the Los Angeles Street exit off the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10). Go straight on 17th Street, right on Olive Street and left on 11th Street.

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* From Long Beach or the South Bay, take the Adams Boulevard exit off the Harbor Freeway, drive one block west and turn north on Figueroa Street.

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Alternative routes will be broadcast on an advisory radio station at HAR-AM (1630) and flashed across electronic message boards on freeways and surface streets. Traffic-control officers near the arena will direct people away from Staples Center, where there is little parking, toward other lots.

Staples Center has scattered parking in a four-block radius. Those areas, with more than 40 entrances to 22 lots, are supposed to prevent long lines of cars. Parking rates range from $8 to $15, depending on proximity, with most spaces closer than a five-minute walk and none farther than eight minutes, planners say.

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Alternative Modes

Bicycles: Racks for 55 bikes will be available on the northwest side of the arena.

Mass Transit: Numerous MTA buses serve the major streets near Staples Center, which is just a block from the Metro Blue Line/Pico station and four blocks from the Metro Red Line. The trains run every 10-20 minutes. The last train from the Pico station to 7th Street/Metro Center leaves at 10:54 p.m. and the last train from the Pico station to Long Beach leaves at 11:27 p.m. For information on MTA bus routes call (800) COMMUTE or check the MTA’s Internet site at https://www.mta.net

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MetroLink: Trains from outlying areas of Ventura, Riverside and Orange counties run weekdays during peak commuting hours, but they also can be used for weekend trips. Groups can charter a train and buy special tickets that include a shuttle from Union Station to the arena. For more information, call MetroLink (800) 371-LINK.

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With the opening of Staples Center comes more traffic to downtown. A few navigating tips:


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