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Football Stadium Plan Withdrawn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition that launched a drive to bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles on Friday abruptly announced that it has ended efforts to build a privately financed football stadium near Staples Center.

Tim Leiweke, president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, said the investors were unwilling to risk millions of dollars amid fractious local political infighting and an aggressive push by boosters of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to compete for a National Football League team.

The withdrawal significantly reduces any chance Los Angeles will get an NFL team in the foreseeable future. The venerable Coliseum stands as the obvious alternative for any team considering Los Angeles. But the league now appears to have dismissed that option.

The turnaround came one day after the group met with downtown business leaders and civic activists to detail for the first time the four-block site in the South Park area where it planned to build the stadium.

Although it had the backing of Mayor James K. Hahn, the downtown stadium plan had also drawn strong criticism from government officials and others who feared that taxpayer funds would ultimately be used to help pay for the $450-million, 64,000-seat facility.

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The tenor and intensity of the criticism had blindsided investors, backed by Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz, who along with Leiweke played a key role in the building of Staples Center.

“We just didn’t want to go through an ugly political process on this issue,” Leiweke said.

The Anschutz group’s withdrawal illuminates once again the divisiveness that makes it difficult to build--or even take the first steps toward building--a football stadium in Los Angeles acceptable to local interests and the NFL.

Just last week, the Coliseum Commission decided to allot up to $1 million to promote its venue as an NFL site--a move the Anschutz group claimed was particularly bewildering because the league has signaled it is no longer interested in the nearly 80-year-old facility.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as recently as last month said that the Coliseum is not an option.

Tagliabue was not available for comment Friday. But NFL spokesman Joe Browne said, “We’ve been down that road before and we have yet to see a viable stadium plan for an NFL team at the Coliseum.”

The position of some of the league’s 32 owners was pungently summarized by Art Modell, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, who said of the Coliseum: “Trying to put a new dress on an old hooker is not the way I want to go dancing.”

Turning the historic landmark into a state-of-the-art facility with posh suites and club seats would cost about $400 million.

Pat Lynch, the Coliseum’s general manager, has said he believes that a financing plan created in 1999, when the Coliseum was vying to land the league’s 32nd team, can be revived.

But skeptics say that financing plan is overly optimistic, noting that it is contingent upon receiving a $150-million subsidy from the NFL and the emergence of a developer willing to come forward with the money to underwrite the project. So far, no one has expressed interest in the job.

Coliseum proponents on Friday refused to be portrayed as spoilsports.

“I don’t think we caused this,” Lynch said of the Anschutz group’s withdrawal. “This is a free country. The better deal should always win.”

Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, who also sits on the Coliseum Commission, was out of the country Friday but said through a spokesman, “The fact that this is all it took to collapse the deal just proves it was not ready for prime time. It’s a failed attempt to build a stadium in search of an excuse for that failure.”

The Rams and the Raiders, who left Southern California before the 1995 season, have called the Coliseum home, the Raiders as recently as 1994.

And Coliseum advocates insist that with the right proposal, the Coliseum would once again be embraced by the league.

The Coliseum was considered the front-runner in the 1999 race to land an NFL expansion team. But Los Angeles lost that competition to Houston and Texas businessman Bob McNair, who paid a $700-million franchise fee.

Lines have long been drawn in the conflict between the Coliseum and downtown groups.

Months ago, Leiweke said, he had notified key Coliseum backers of the plan to build in South Park. He also told them that the competition would push the Anschutz group out of the picture--unwilling to let the NFL, or league owners, play one site against the other.

Friday’s development looms as a potential setback for Hahn, who said he has urged the Anschutz group not to give up on the South Park plan. He also suggested that they might be back: “What I heard from Tim is they’re going to sit back here for a while and let things play out. If folks at the Coliseum or Rose Bowl or somewhere else want to come up with a real proposal, they’re going to let someone else play for a while.”

Leiweke said Friday he would not rule out the possibility of reviving the plan. But, he said, “That’s not our intention today. We’re not playing games here.”

Just Thursday, Leiweke and one of his partners in the stadium proposal, Casey Wasserman, owner of the Arena Football League L.A. Avengers, had briefed a downtown business group on the plan. They had for the first time publicly disclosed the proposed site--land bounded by 11th Street and Pico Boulevard, and Hope and Olive streets.

The horseshoe-shaped facility would have been tiered--a Los Angeles first--and would have offered a view of downtown. Its facade would have resembled that of Staples Center.

In leading the push to build the arena, which opened in 1999, Anschutz and Leiweke demonstrated they had the clout and credibility needed to navigate L.A. politics.

Anschutz, one of America’s richest men, has built a sports and entertainment empire that includes ownership of the National Hockey League Kings and the Major League Soccer Galaxy and part ownership of the Lakers and five European hockey clubs. Besides Wasserman, other financial backers of the South Park proposal included supermarket mogul Ron Burkle and real estate developer Ed Roski.

The City Council last month gave its final approval to a downtown redevelopment district that included the football site.

The San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings quickly emerged as the most likely candidates for a move and the NFL offered its quiet approval. In meetings with Leiweke and Wasserman, the league indicated it would support the effort with a $150-million loan, perhaps even more, to subsidize stadium construction.

AEG already owns much of the land or holds options to buy other pieces in the four-block parcel. In recent months, it had invested $5 million in land or options; in the coming weeks, it was looking at further investment of at least $20 million.

The investors wanted the city to use its right of eminent domain to help piece together the rest of the land. The plan called for the Community Redevelopment Agency to buy all 20 acres, at a cost Leiweke estimated at $70 million to $100 million, to be paid with bond funds. The developers promised to pay that money back from a combination of a ticket tax, sales tax and excess property tax from the site.

Thus the AEG pitch: no public money, and a financing model based on the successful Staples development.

Within short order, however, the plan came under fire.

Critics on the City Council, in the press and elsewhere expressed concern that taxpayer money would be used to help pay for the plan.

The county Board of Supervisors voted to sue the city, arguing that the redevelopment plan that would ease the way for a new stadium ultimately strips tax revenue from the county.

The city of San Diego sent AEG a letter hinting at legal action if the group tried to woo the Chargers.

And, in perhaps the most important snag, the Coliseum Commission voted its $1-million allocation.

On Friday, as he readied for the Lakers’ victory celebration in front of Staples Center, Leiweke grew reflective.

“When people say, ‘You know, you went through two years of battles to get Staples Center done. What made you think this would be any different?’ ... The difference is we went through two years of battles and finally ended up negotiating a model that was acceptable to the city,” he said.

There is another key difference, he said. AEG needed Staples to provide a home for the Lakers and the Kings.

“We needed to get that arena done for the future of those two teams. We don’t own a team today,” he said. “It’s not like we have an NFL team that is in a difficult economic situation playing in a very poor facility. We don’t have a team. We don’t need to build a football stadium.”

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Times staff writers J.A. Adande, Tina Daunt and Sam Farmer contributed to this report.


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