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L.A. Convention Center to Get Major Hotel Tower

Times Staff Writers

The remaking of downtown Los Angeles will gain a crucial missing piece today when developers unveil plans for a 1,000-room hotel complex -- including a five-star Ritz-Carlton and a four-star Marriott Marquis -- for the Convention Center.

Rising 54 stories, the $750-million project would be one of the largest buildings in Los Angeles at 2 million square feet.

The proposed 124-room Ritz-Carlton would be the first five-star hotel downtown and, with the largest ballroom in the city, the planned 876-room Marriott Marquis would fill a void as a business meeting hub at the Convention Center. The hotels are to be topped by 216 luxury condominiums.

The project, scheduled to open in 2010, would anchor L.A. Live, the 27-acre sports-entertainment complex considered the linchpin of downtown’s redevelopment.

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It has taken two decades to land a major convention hotel, but the agreement by Marriott International Inc. with local developers to operate two luxury inns in the same glitzy Las Vegas-style high-rise raises hopes for reestablishing the city center as a top tourist and convention magnet.

“All of this is really a wonderful story about the emergence -- and reemergence -- of downtown Los Angeles as a strong economic center and a strong weight to the region’s economy,” said Stuart Gabriel, a USC professor and director of its Lusk Center for Real Estate.

The complex -- with its upper stories to be sheathed in glass -- is being jointly developed by KB Home, which is building the condos, and AEG, which is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, the developer of Staples Center.

It is being designed by San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler.

“This is what we’ve been hoping and waiting for,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “This will make Los Angeles a very attractive travel and business-show destination. To the average Joe on the street, it means people will be coming in and spending money here.”

With the recent construction of -- and future plans for -- thousands of condominium and apartment units, downtown Los Angeles has been evolving into an increasingly desirable housing market. The new homes have spurred the opening of dozens of restaurants and retail shops to serve the new residents.

But concerns about its homeless population and uneven redevelopment plan have caused many to cast a wary eye on downtown’s revitalization.

Christian Gann of Dallas has made about half a dozen business trips to the region, but the 34-year-old account manager sees an only half-completed makeover. In his forays around downtown, he finds some areas are nice and tidy, while others are rough around the edges: “The area could be cleaned up.”

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Downtown has long suffered economically in large part because of a dearth of hotel rooms and things to do in the area.

L.A. today doesn’t even crack the top 10 list of convention cities, and its largest show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo with 60,000 visitors, is ranked 29th among the major conventions. In fact, L.A. hosted only four of the top national conventions in 2005, ranking behind Indianapolis and Rosemont, Ill., according to Tradeshow Week magazine.

Business has been lost to city-financed renovations to convention centers in Anaheim and San Diego that added rooms and improved meeting facilities. Los Angeles can claim only 650 hotel rooms within immediate walking distance to its Convention Center, compared with Anaheim’s 4,500 and San Diego’s 3,200, said Michael Collins, executive vice president of LA Inc., the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We became the only West Coast convention center that didn’t have a hotel right nearby,” Collins said. “There is no way that a salesperson can spin their way out of that fact.”

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Even with the addition of the Staples Center sports complex in 1999, the city was unable to boost overnight guests without rooms to hold them. So to induce visitors, AEG embarked on the $2.2-billion L.A. Live project that would combine entertainment, dining, retail and residential living within a stone’s throw of the Convention Center. Among its attractions will be a 7,000-seat Nokia Theatre Los Angeles for live performances, a 15-screen Regal cineplex, an ESPN broadcasting center and the Grammy Museum. AEG said it was in discussions to bring to the site another hotel and additional condo and apartment units.

Yet, persuading a recognized convention hotel operator to plant its flag was seen as imperative in transforming the region into a must-visit place.

“The fact that Marriott is making a big bet down here is further demonstration of the vitality of this marketplace,” said Mark Tarczynski, a broker with CB Commercial.

Marriott acknowledged that the location is in the midst of a turnaround. But the plans underway convinced executives to sign on nonetheless.

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“There are things that give us confidence, especially if you look at what’s already been accomplished,” said Steve Joyce, Marriott’s executive vice president for the Americas.

Plans for a Convention Center hotel were begun last year when AEG opened talks with Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp. and ground was broken at the site at Olympic Boulevard and Georgia Street by developers Apollo Real Estate Advisors and Wolff Urban Management Inc.

Then, Westwood-based KB Home, one of the nation’s biggest home builders, announced its intention to build luxury condos in the vicinity. Within months, KB joined with AEG to buy out the Apollo-Wolff team and take over development of the site to create a luxury hotel-condo project.

The new team reopened the bidding process. Hilton and Marriott were among four hotel operators to make bids, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.

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“We’re sorry we’re not able to work with Hilton but Bill Marriott put the best deal on the table and gave us the Ritz-Carlton brand,” said Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG. “To have a high-end hotel in downtown L.A. is a huge statement.”

The project has attracted controversy because nearly half its cost will be financed by city subsidies and loans. The City Council approved the subsidies, which would come through rebates of hotel taxes collected by the city, despite opposition from operators of existing downtown hotels, including the landmark, five-tower Westin Bonaventure, the city’s largest hotel with 1,368 rooms.

Bonaventure officials didn’t return calls Monday seeking comment.

Spurred by the development around the Convention Center, the 900-room Wilshire Grand Hotel, a leading downtown convention and business hotel five blocks away, is undergoing a $40-million renovation. “We want to remain a player down here,” said hotel spokesman Marc Loge.

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The addition of the two Marriott brands “is not competition,” he said. “What’s good for one of us is good for all of us. We have a great Convention Center, but just barely the hotel rooms now to serve them.”

Already, things are picking up for the downtown facility. So far this year, convention officials, touting the coming hotel and entertainment-related attractions, have booked $165 million in meetings dating to 2025, compared to $31.8 million booked two years ago. LA Inc.'s Collins said he was anticipating another 20% increase in bookings next year.

Times staff writer Cynthia Cho contributed to this report.


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