L.A. theater’s effect an open question

Times Staff Writers

With tickets sold out and limousines at the ready, the Nokia Theatre threw open its doors Thursday night with performances by the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks.

But it’s the performance of the theater itself that has planners and city leaders holding their breath.

The 7,100 seat venue -- combined with Staples Center and the Music Center complex -- positions downtown Los Angeles to be the region’s leader in big-ticket live entertainment. Planners and developers have bet some of downtown’s future growth on high-rise towers built around these two entertainment hubs.


Amid the gala opening, however, there remains significant doubt among some urban planners over whether huge venues can actually help the surrounding sections of downtown grow and thrive.

The Nokia Theatre is the centerpiece of L.A. Live, a sprawling $1.7-billion development that will include nightclubs, restaurants, an ESPN broadcast center and a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Downtown boosters are counting on the complex to help draw new residents and visitors to the growing community of lofts and condos rising to the north and east.

In the same way, they are banking on the lure of the Music Center and Museum of Contemporary Art to generate interest in the $2-billion, Frank Gehry-designed shopping, office and high-rise condo complex set to be built on the north side of downtown.

“Downtown Los Angeles used to be a place you pointed to when you were in the hills: ‘There it is, those big buildings. No reason to go down there,’ ” said Don Henley, the drummer who shares lead singing duties in the Eagles, as he prepared backstage for Thursday’s performance. “What’s going on now, here, is very interesting. You’re seeing downtown matter in new ways.”

Fans may drive downtown for the Eagles, Kobe Bryant and shows like “Avenue Q” -- but will they want to live near these large venues or even stay and walk around to experience other parts of downtown?

“If you put the Eagles in my backyard, people would come,” said a skeptical Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow at Chapman University who has written extensively about Los Angeles’ urban life. “The Forum was in Inglewood. Did that make Inglewood the center of the music scene?”

Until now, much of the revitalization of downtown L.A. has occurred organically -- with the conversion of historic buildings, old warehouses and postwar office towers into high-end condos and lofts. But downtown is seeing a boom in new residential construction, fueled by development in and around the city center’s two entertainment hubs.

Stan Ross, chairman of the board of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said a lot is riding on whether the Nokia Theatre can draw people downtown to see concerts, dine out and perhaps even to live.

“It’s a validation and a confirmation -- but it’s a beginning and not the end,” Ross said of the theater’s opening. “It has to be an acceptable destination. . . . I don’t think people make dramatic shifts until they feel comfortable.”

There was a sort of symmetry to the Eagles’ opening the Nokia. In the 1970s, the band was at the forefront of the “Southern California sound” that began in scruffy clubs such as the Troubadour in West Hollywood but eventually echoed worldwide. Henley sees the opening as the latest sign of a geographic shift east in the L.A. live-music scene.

“For us, our history began at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and, even before that, our first show in public was at the Westlake School for Girls” in Bel-Air. “There was the Troubadour, of course,” he said. “Los Angeles is always changing.”

For AEG Live, which owns both Staples and Nokia, as well as theaters near Dallas and in New York and a complex in London, the new facility is part of a push to create major venues with top-notch trappings for baby boomers who don’t want to sit out in the cold in stadium seats anymore -- and who have the money to pay for high-end digs (tickets for the Eagles went for as much as $265).

“They want smaller and nicer, and they will pay for it,” said Gary Smith, chief operating officer of Pollstar, the leading concert industry trade publication. Already, he said, the theater has Neil Young, John Fogerty and Aretha Franklin booked for its first season, and Smith’s company is moving its annual awards show there.

The theater’s outer shell echoes the metallic swoops of its larger sibling, Staples Center, and inside is built with attention to acoustic detail that promoters say will make it a prime place to hear music. Ready to serve as a key venue for awards shows, the theater has 5,000 square feet of LED screens inside and out, and the stage is 180 feet wide by 80 feet deep. (The Nokia will host the American Music Awards in November, and there has been talk of the Emmys and Golden Globes considering the site as well).

Out front is a 40,000-square-foot plaza that developers hope will become “Times Square West” on New Year’s Eve.

On Thursday evening, concertgoers checked out the new attraction and marveled at the construction all around.

Richard Irvine, 20, and his girlfriend, Jackie Martinez, 21, both from Rancho Cucamonga, were wearing Eagles T-shirts as they walked around. The couple said they sometimes grab a bite or a drink after a show downtown -- but they would not think of moving there.

“It’s too busy,” he said. “It’s too fast a pace of life.”

Ron Rhodes, 60, and his wife, Terry, 44, said they come from Riverside to Staples Center for events five or six times a year. But they doubt the Nokia will prompt them to explore downtown more. “We never venture out,” Terry Rhodes said.

“It’s just not our lifestyle,” Ron Rhodes said.

One of the biggest challenges for planners is incorporating a huge new project like L.A. Live into the rest of downtown -- and making it inviting to pedestrians roaming around the city center as well as motorists driving in.

Part of the problem is that developers tend to build projects so they are somewhat cloistered from the surrounding city, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of the planning department at UCLA.

As a result, she said, patrons simply drive in to see a concert and then drive out again, not stopping to participate in the night life of downtown.

“It’s still not well proven that these projects do much to rejuvenate downtowns, other than to bring some tax money to the city coffers,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, who recently completed a survey of cities that have built large projects in their downtowns, to see if they really help to revitalize the areas.

Like L.A., most cities require that these projects be open to a public street and have pedestrian access, but developers tend to shy away from too much openness, worried that suburban patrons will be uncomfortable in a grittier environment.

In developing its master plan for the neighborhood encompassed by L.A. Live, city planners sought to avoid that situation by requiring that all businesses face public streets, and that all restaurants offer sidewalk dining, said Kevin Keller, the planner who oversees the development in that part of downtown as well as in Hollywood.

Planners were well aware that most patrons would come from other parts of town to see shows at Staples, the Nokia and other theaters planned for L.A. Live, Keller said. But they expect people to park once they arrive and walk around from there.

The scene Thursday was definitely bustling, with police directing traffic, and concertgoers -- including a scattering of big names, including actor James Woods and singer Kenny Chesney -- learning the ropes of the new center.

“You’re always a bit apprehensive opening a new place. . . . We’re a little concerned about people getting [into the] building since everything is new, and also both the Eagles and Chicks will be full sets,” said Irving Azoff, the Eagles’ longtime manager, while sitting in the still-empty venue before the show. “We hope it doesn’t get too far behind schedule.”


Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.