Museum trustee says legal action possible in USC parking deal

A trustee of the California Science Center’s fundraising arm on Saturday said his organization is considering legal action to block a deal that would give control of the museum’s parking to USC, part of a larger pact that would turn over management of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to the private university.

A state lawmaker also warned at a public hearing on the 98-year deal that he would push for legislation to overturn the lease agreement if it hurt nearby public museums. The California Science Center is the stadium’s landlord, and its board of directors is scheduled to vote on the agreement Wednesday.

“We don’t want this where the process ends up being bad … because it’s just going to go through the legislative process and be circumvented all together,” state Sen. Kevin deLeon (D-Los Angeles) told the center’s board of directors.


DeLeon said giving away state-owned parking and its profits to USC could mean fewer visitors to the California Science Center, which recently acquired the space shuttle Endeavour, and to the California African American Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“You’ve got to get the best deal for the taxpayers,” DeLeon said in a subsequent interview. “You don’t give up assets for others to profit on.... It can’t be a 90/10 proposition.”

State Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) threatened a different response last week should parking revenue be given to USC: “We’ll go to court.”

Former state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who attended the Saturday hearing, gave the board a letter signed by more than a dozen state lawmakers opposing a transfer of parking to the campus.

Polanco said state law already says the Science Center “shall manage or operate its parking facilities in the manner that preserves and protects the interest of itself and the California African American Museum.”

The deal pits some of the Science Centers most vocal supporters and fundraisers against the institution’s own board of directors, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Marvin Holen, who is on the board of trustees of the Science Center’s fundraising arm, told the board his organization has already talked with its own lawyers about blocking the USC deal, which he said was brokered behind closed doors.

He noted that a summary of the agreement was released only two weeks ago, and no one has released the full legal contract. Even if a revised agreement is presented, he said, there needs to be time to review it.

“The issue of secrecy … has been endemic to the entire process,” Holen said. “We would strongly recommend you defer any action at your coming Wednesday, June 5, meeting, because the implications are so severe, and so damaging, to the children of Los Angeles.”

In a later interview, he said, “If we go to court, we have a very good case” in asking a judge to issue an injunction against the agreement. “We’re really just asking that this be deferred for a reasonable amount of time.”

Holen said the overall pact has its roots in a poorly negotiated agreement between USC and the Coliseum Commission, which is nearing financial failure. He said the state should let the Coliseum Commission fail so negotiations can start afresh. He noted that the existing pacts provide no share of profits to taxpayers for the operation of the Sports Arena or its successor, such as a Major League Soccer stadium envisioned for the site.

In a rare show of solidarity, veteran supporters of all three museums in Exposition Park said their institutions could be permanently crippled by USC’s demands.

Charmaine Jefferson, the African American Museum’s executive director, said the $23 million in state parking revenue that USC wants to take from the public is a critical funding source for the free-admission institution, which suffered a 50% cut in its state budget a decade ago that was never restored.

“So if, in fact, it is a time to give money to USC as an incentive … what is the benefit to the park?” Jefferson asked the Science Center board.

Jefferson and James Gilson, vice president of the Natural History Museum fundraising arm’, worried about how USC was given priority for stadium events and could even hold more of them, perhaps up to 33 a year. They said this could hurt museum attendance on their busiest days: the weekends.

“Attendance declines,” Gilson said, “and those who do come find their experience diminished.”

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said the Science Center board failed to make the negotiation process welcoming to the community. An earlier proposal in December also brought opposition.

“The last time we did this, you had kind of the same process, and it blew up,” Jones-Sawyer told the board. “You’ve definitely done the same thing again.”

Renata Simril, a Science Center board member who helped broker the deal with USC, defended the pact as one that would ensure that the university steps into the role of the Coliseum Commission and pays at least $70 million in renovations to the 90-year-old stadium.

“This is not about USC taking over Exposition Park,” Simril said.

The issue of potential conflicts of interest by Science Center board members was raised by Christy Seki, a Science Center foundation grant writer, who told the board that any conflicts need to be made “available to the public.”

Simril has been criticized for her time as a manager for a commercial real estate services firm that advised USC. Another Science Center board member, Robert Stein, wrote Simril in an email that “I am concerned that given [your] past real estate involvement with USC, that your judgment is flawed and decisions are misguided.”

Simril, now a Dodgers vice president, declined to elaborate about the exchange.

Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the state agency that oversees the Science Center, said Simril did not work with USC while she was at the real estate services firm and called questions about it “another misguided attempt to distract from the merits of the deal.”

A number of Trojans fans voiced support for the pact. “It would be a tragedy for such a wonderful structure to wither due to the lack of Coliseum Commission resources, and it should be restored to its deserved status,” said Amy Ross, a Silver Lake resident.

Melody Nishida of Culver City, who is on a USC Athletics advisory board, said parking guarantees were needed by USC in return for its investment promise.

“Los Angeles unfortunately is still a car-centric city, and parking is truly a precious commodity,” Nishida said. “With the financial commitment from the university, this crown jewel of Los Angeles will be the envy of universities and colleges throughout the country.”