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Dream of NFL team spurs anger and skepticism

Times Staff Writer

For a city in a political slump, the idea was like a Hail Mary pass geared toward a game-winning comeback.

Lynwood’s former mayor had been hauled to federal prison, and the FBI and district attorney’s office continued to poke around town. The city was growing but revenues were not.

Some leaders saw a measure of redemption from an unlikely source: the National Football League.

Lynwood is considering a proposal to tear down neighborhoods in the working-class town -- 100 homes, perhaps many more -- to build a development centered around a 70,000-seat football stadium. It’s a longshot idea that is getting shrugs from the NFL and has been met with skepticism from land-use experts who doubt that Lynwood could ever attract a team.

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Still, the proposal by a developer is roiling a city in which many residents cast a wary eye on City Hall.

There have been protest marches and recall efforts launched -- even though no one has actually made an official pitch to the football league.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said there are only two Southern California locations the league is considering for a team: a site in Anaheim near Angel Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum.

McCarthy said he can understand why a city would be interested in getting into the race -- despite the extremely low odds.

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“Having an NFL team in your city -- literally and figuratively -- puts you on the map,” he said. “If you ask any football fan, they are aware of a small town named East Rutherford, N.J.”

Lynwood joins Irwindale, Irvine, Carson, Pasadena and other cities that have attempted to lure the NFL to their towns in the years since professional football left Southern California.

Few would disagree that growing, working-class Lynwood could use a boost. Early last year, its former mayor, Paul Richards, was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison for municipal corruption. The FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office have ongoing investigations in Lynwood, which have spread a mantle of suspicion over City Hall.

Officials in the city of nearly 100,000 also say Lynwood will struggle financially unless it catches up to nearby towns that bring in more tax revenue.

“We are at a crossroads,” Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez told a rambunctious crowd in December at a public meeting in City Hall. “Every year, the citizens of Lynwood spend over $200 million in the cities of Downey, shopping at the Stonewood Mall, the city of Lakewood, shopping at the Lakewood Mall ... and Cerritos, shopping at the Cerritos Mall. We help keep their streets paved and their trees trimmed.”

So a few months ago, the city agreed to entertain a pitch from a developer. John McDonald of Imperial Partners LLC envisioned a development that could be home to NFL and convention center events, hotels and retail stores.

In a letter to the city’s redevelopment director, McDonald said the project would be built west of the 710 Freeway, bounded on the north by Imperial Highway, on the west by Atlantic Avenue and on the south by the 105 Freeway. The site occupies about 250 acres of mostly residential and commercial properties.

The City Council voted to begin negotiating an agreement with McDonald and his partners.

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In an interview, McDonald said the project would require only about 100 homes to be acquired and demolished, saying the developer would find new homes for the displaced residents. He said a major development could go forward even if an NFL stadium did not happen, but added that a professional team would be the dream.

“Oh God, it would be phenomenal” to have an NFL team, McDonald said. “From the standpoint of the economic impact it would have on Lynwood, Watts and all the areas around here, it would be phenomenal.”

Many residents in the area disagree, saying the footprint of the proposed development would require far more homes to be leveled than have been projected.

“Who would want to come to Lynwood to see an NFL game?” said Rebecca Wells, 47, a longtime resident whose home on Lugo Park Avenue would be in the proposed development’s path.

Added Tony Martinez, a resident of Lynwood for 28 years: “L.A. can’t even get an NFL team!”

Councilwoman Maria Teresa Santillan said the public outcry is heightened because city officials have not been forthcoming about the plans. Unlike the other council members, Santillan had to abstain from the vote because her home is in the path of the proposed development.

“One hundred homes?” Santillan asked. “There is no way that these council members and developer can say that there is about 100 homes. I along with a group of residents counted 900 plus homes, not crossing Atlantic Avenue.... I estimate that 1,200 parcels are affected, the majority being single-family homes.”

Lurking under the surface of the debate is the issue of corruption.

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Richards’ conviction and the continuing district attorney probes have left some residents distrustful of City Hall. City leaders insist that their negotiations are transparent that everything is preliminary.

But critics say the city has generated opposition by chasing an impossible dream. Already, the developer has missed a deadline to pay Lynwood $500,000 and is asking for an additional 68 acres for the project.

On Tuesday, four council members deadlocked on canceling their exclusive agreement with McDonald.

Considering the city’s recent history, Santillan said, “people think Lynwood is going back to its old ways.”

Supporters of the NFL idea say a football stadium would take advantage of the city’s central location and give it a leg up in the competition with neighbors for tax revenues.

“What I fear is that the surrounding cities are out in front of Lynwood,” Alfreddie Johnson said in a previous interview. “We are the hub and epicenter of a lot of things, and yet we have not taken advantage of it. That bothers me tremendously. We’re in a foot race right now.”

But Lynwood?

“That’s an awful big development for a small town,” said Joel Kotkin, a Southland author and commentator on urban issues. Why not just build a major retail center, he asked. “You don’t need 250 acres for that.”

Kotkin said he questioned how much of an economic difference an NFL stadium would make for Lynwood because the sport is seasonal. And he said Southern California does not need another convention center.

“This seems so beyond anything feasible within the realm of imagination, you begin to wonder what these people are imbibing,” said Michael Dear, a professor of geography at USC.

Mayor Louis Byrd, a 74-year-old former USC football player, said the whole debate has been disappointing. He said he was excited about the idea of professional football in his hometown but dejected by the public outcry.

“The NFL may be too big a dream for the city,” Byrd said.

hector.becerra@latimes.com


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