With a hard hat perched on his head and an orange safety vest enveloping his burly figure, Tim Leiweke leaned against a window 52 stories up. He peered north, taking in a vista from downtown to the San Gabriel Mountains. “It’s amazing, the view, eh?” he asked.
With the ease of an urban planner and the affection of a doting uncle, Leiweke pointed out symbols of downtown’s revitalization. There, he gestured enthusiastically: a Ralphs supermarket, the refurbished Eastern Columbia building, and finally, the light-filled and logo-emblazoned L.A. Live district that his company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has built.
But at ground level, Leiweke, the president and chief executive of AEG, was more reserved. The sleek, glass-encased tower in which he had been standing represents something dramatic for Los Angeles. The tower, which includes 1,001 hotel rooms to serve the nearby Convention Center as well as 224 luxury condos, is downtown’s first new skyscraper in 18 years. But it also represents a major gamble.
“It scares the hell out of me,” Leiweke said. “It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and we are going right into the eye of the storm.”
At a time when City Hall is reeling from financial woes, big public works projects remain stalled and private developments have been canceled, Leiweke as much as any other individual is driving the transformation of a major part of Los Angeles.
Those who praise him see Leiweke as an exemplar of what Los Angeles has long lacked -- a smart, savvy player who can link arms with financial backers, politicians and unionized workers with equal gusto. In an era when the city can do little development on its own, he and AEG have helped fill a major civic void, doing what many would consider city-building on mostly private land.
“No one has built a center like that in the history of this city -- or many other cities for that matter, and he has clearly been the leader,” said philanthropist and civic booster Eli Broad. Leiweke “didn’t do it himself, but it wouldn’t have happened without him.” Indeed, other major projects, including the Grand Avenue development that Broad has touted, have stalled in the recession.
To critics, however, Leiweke is a classic example of an influence peddler who curries favor with lawmakers through huge financial donations and gets, in turn, handouts in the form of tax breaks and a rubber stamp on his vision. The company received approximately $246 million in tax breaks on the L.A. Live project alone -- plus a grant of $5 million from redevelopment funds.
“There is a feeling that things are out of balance in the attention the city is paying to that area, to downtown in general and in particular to that area around Staples [Center] and L.A. Live,” said Dennis Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, which has tangled repeatedly with AEG. “And there’s a perception that AEG has kind of become the tail that is wagging the dog of the city.”
Under the radar
For most of the time he has lived in Los Angeles, Leiweke has been an under-the-radar figure, someone who can hang with celebrities, politicians and sports figures but rarely gets noticed, even in his own buildings.
That began to shift last year, after singer Michael Jackson died days before beginning an AEG-backed comeback show in London. The ensuing controversy, largely over the costs of Jackson’s memorial service, raised Leiweke’s public profile. It will rise further with the inauguration this month of AEG’s hotel skyscraper.
In the years since the last skyscraper opened downtown, in 1992, the area has become a residential hub while its fortune as a corporate center has waned.
Buildings that once served as worldwide headquarters now house branch offices. Gone are the business executives who in past generations used wealth and influence behind the scenes to guide the city.
Leiweke, 52, is among a handful of people who have stepped in to fill that void, articulating visions of what the city should look like.
For Leiweke and AEG, that has meant L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment district built around Staples Center. The zone’s sea of flashing big-screen TVs and corporate logos might not be for everyone. But with bustling foot traffic, it looks a lot like the vibrant destination critics have long complained downtown lacked.
Still, Leiweke is opening the nearly $1-billion skyscraper, which includes Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels, in the midst of a recession. And he worries that Los Angeles has done little to encourage tourists and conventions to consider the area.
“We are a city that has no plan of attack about how to defend ourselves for the No. 1 generator of our economy, which is tourism,” Leiweke said. “We have no plan. We spend no money; we have no infrastructure; we have no focus.”
What Tim Leiweke thinks Los Angeles is -- and isn’t -- doing for its future holds enormous weight. He maintains personal friendships with a number of politicians, including City Councilwoman Jan Perry, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They make regular appearances at company events and have benefited from AEG’s political machine, which has given more than $1.8 million to political candidates and causes over the last five years.
He and his company are among L.A.'s biggest boosters -- and its biggest beneficiaries.
All of which makes the tower, which Leiweke can see from the window of his office in the heart of L.A. Live, a symbol.
The meaning, however, is open to interpretation.
Arriving in L.A.
Tim Leiweke arrived in Los Angeles in 1996, hired by billionaire Philip Anschutz and real estate magnate Ed Roski Jr. (Though Leiweke is the public face of his company, he still answers to the reclusive Anschutz, who lives in Colorado.) Anschutz and Roski had recently purchased the L.A. Kings, and they wanted Leiweke to turn around the flailing organization and build an arena.
Leiweke, who had been working in professional sports since his early 20s, got on the phone and personally urged season ticket holders to renew subscriptions for the Kings’ first year without star Wayne Gretzky. He offered them a full refund if they were dissatisfied. And as Roski and Anschutz narrowed down possible sites for their arena, eventually settling on a downtown parcel that included parking lots as well as the Convention Center North Hall, Leiweke lobbied City Council members, rallied the city’s labor unions and pushed for public support.
Complex land deal
The result was one of the most complicated land deals that L.A. had ever seen, which gave the developer $58 million in city bonds and $12 million in redevelopment grants for what became Staples Center.
Rob Light, managing partner and head of music at Creative Artists Agency, met Leiweke when he went to look at architectural models of Staples Center, then in the planning phase. Leiweke, Light said, “struck me as the most confident man I’d ever met. He talked as if he was already putting the first hoe into the ground. It was going to get built. He was a force of nature.”
Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said Leiweke and Anschutz carefully targeted their pitch to developers and people in sports and entertainment.
“They were able to capture the different sectors, not because they integrated them, but because they sliced them up,” said Guerra, who consulted for the company from 1998 to 2001. “They had different talking points for different sectors. Very few people can do that.”
After the center was built, AEG sold land around the arena to hand-picked developers, who began building condo and retail projects. The area, known as South Park, is now one of downtown’s most successful neighborhoods.
More than four years ago, when construction crews were about to turn the first shovel for L.A. Live, Leiweke likened his project to New York’s Times Square, saying that the award shows, live broadcasts and fan fests planned for the site would help establish Los Angeles as the “event capital of the world.”
AEG has managed to bring some high-profile events to the Nokia Theatre, including the Emmys and the “American Idol” finale. And people are going to the zone -- and, by extension, to downtown.
On a weekday afternoon, tourists and Angelenos alike circle the property. Weekend nights bring large crowds, drawn by a confluence of sporting events, musical acts at Nokia Theatre and several clubs on the property.
But the 30,000-square-foot Grammy Museum, an integral part of L.A. Live, has struggled to find an audience. (At a premiere of “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” the film of the pop star’s last rehearsals, ushers handed out free tickets to the museum.) Some buyers backed out of the tower’s condos as the economy foundered, and hotel bookings have lagged behind projections.
That has meant that Leiweke has been rolling up his sleeves to sell the venue, giving tours of the hotel tower to pretty much anyone with an interest and using unusual methods to lure events to L.A. Live.
He enlisted celebrities Steve Carell and Ryan Seacrest to film videos supporting his effort to bring the National Hockey League draft to L.A. It worked.
The showmanship, said Leiweke, is necessary because L.A. is losing conventions and championship games to Las Vegas and other cities that invest civic funds to sell themselves.
“Every other city that we would be in, the city would come to us and say, ‘Are you guys OK? Can we help you?’ ” Leiweke said. “I told the mayor, ‘You are damn lucky it is us. Because if it were anyone else, they would be out of business.’ ”
Dealing with other cities, where a solid base of businesses and families supports philanthropic causes and rallies behind political causes, said Leiweke, makes him realize how much is missing in Los Angeles.
“We are not a community,” he said. “We are a series of communities that happen to be in a city. But the reality is that people in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, think very differently about downtown than people that live in and around downtown. There’s a disconnect in L.A.”
That’s one reason, Leiweke said, his firm has been so politically active and gives money to sometimes unpopular causes, including a 2007 telephone utility tax opposed by many of AEG’s partners. “At some point or another, you have to get involved and make it a better system.”
Leiweke largely sidestepped questions about whether the company’s donations have bought it untoward influence.
“I would think that any logical human being would sit back and say, ‘This is a company that doesn’t need to make political donations to get influence,’ ” he said.
“The more relevant question is do we have more of an impact and get more of a reaction from the politicians because of the billion dollars” the company has spent on the hotel tower, he added. “Of course we do. And by the way, I think that’s OK, because . . . we are going to employ hundreds and hundreds of people.”
But the criticism has not abated. After Jackson’s death, Leiweke went on television to announce that his company would host a public memorial service for the pop star -- and was criticized by some of the singer’s fans, who asserted that Leiweke and AEG shared culpability in Jackson’s death.
Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich demanded that AEG repay the city for costs associated with the memorial, and as the two men publicly quarreled over the amount, Trutanich tried to block AEG’s installation of mega-signs at L.A. Live.
Trutanich, in an interview, called Leiweke “a very personable guy. . . . He does a good job for his company, and I likewise want to do a good job for my city.”
AEG eventually recouped its investment in the Jackson tour, mostly by selling rights to “This Is It.” But the events took an emotional toll. Leiweke said it took weeks to “finally, kind of, get back to functioning properly.”
So the glass-and-steel tower soaring over L.A. Live can also be seen as AEG’s hope for rehabilitation, if not redemption. That was on view during a well-choreographed series of fundraising efforts in December and January, culminating in a black-tie event benefiting the City of Hope hospital.
Like so many Leiweke-orchestrated events, the benefit had a dual purpose: to raise money for cancer research by honoring AEG’s chief executive, and to inaugurate the L.A. Live hotel ballroom.
At a VIP party on the tower’s pool deck, Leiweke posed side by side with Villaraigosa and Schwarzenegger, while servers passed trays of Diet Coke -- Leiweke’s favorite drink and the product of an AEG partner.
Later, downstairs, he tried to deflect some of the praise the mayor and governor had heaped on him. “I just went out and gave speeches and fought the city attorney,” he said.
Then he looked around the ballroom, where guests included five members of the City Council, the mayor and the city controller, and suggested that with so many politicians in attendance, AEG could work out a deal to reimburse the city for costs associated with the Jackson memorial. “We could do a quick session and agree to terms,” Leiweke joked.
And he reminded another guest, Magic Johnson, of a pledge the former basketball star had made:
“He’s promised me I will be working at a Starbucks if this hotel goes to hell in a handbasket.”