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Los Angeles stadium plan draws mixed reaction in downtown’s shadow

Tim Leiweke had courted them all: lawmakers in Sacramento, politicians at City Hall, business leaders in the Valley and neighborhood groups on the Westside. And, of course, he had wooed folks in the pricey downtown condos that look out on Staples Center and his company’s glitzy entertainment complex, L.A. Live.

Everyone, it seemed, had heard his gregarious pitch to add an NFL stadium to the development — except the people living just a few blocks away in the blue-collar immigrant neighborhood of Pico-Union.

On a recent hot afternoon, the Anschutz Entertainment Group chief executive rolled up outside of a community center there in a black Mercedes.

Inside, Leiweke and two lieutenants sat down with a handful of residents.

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He spent much of the meeting typing on his BlackBerry, and at one point excused himself to help negotiate a player trade for the Galaxy, AEG’s Los Angeles soccer team. With the help of a Spanish-speaking company executive, he also talked about what AEG has meant for the community: thousands of jobs, donations for housing and parks, and reduced crime and prostitution. “We cleaned it up,” he said, and a silver-haired woman in the group nodded.

Leiweke’s ambitious campaign to build a $1.3-billion, 72,000-seat stadium has reverberated through the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the proposed stadium site in unpredictable ways.

Some in Pico-Union, a densely populated district of crumbling apartment buildings and well-worn bungalows, say their neighborhood has been bypassed by the wave of prosperity that in recent years has transformed downtown. They worry about more crowds and traffic — and a widening gap between their community and the swanky hotels and skyscrapers on the other side of the 110 Freeway.

But Leiweke’s visit, which came after a reporter asked why he had bypassed the neighborhood just down the street from AEG’s corporate headquarters, showed that others see promise in a stadium.

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Each morning, Aracely Galvez pulls on a pair of black Dickies and walks to work.

On the 10-minute trek from her Pico-Union apartment, she passes liquor stores and empty parking lots before crossing under the roaring freeway and emerging in another world.

There, a gritty stretch of 11th Street gives way to a reinvented L.A. of glassy condo towers and pulsing electronic billboards.At L.A. Live, Galvez makes her way to the kitchen of the ESPN Zone, where she cooks nachos and short ribs for $9.65 an hour.

Galvez wishes her job paid better — she can’t afford much more downtown than tickets to an occasional movie — but she feels lucky just to be working in this economy. And her commute is much easier than getting to her last job, on a graveyard cleaning shift at the Getty Center in Brentwood.

She welcomes a stadium, which she says would mean more opportunities that “can change the lives of the people here.”

Other stadium backers from across the economic spectrum make the same case: that an AEG-driven downtown transformation is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

But Policarpo Chaj is one of those who isn’t so sure.

He can see the silvery tip of L.A. Live’s 54-story Ritz-Carlton from the doorway to his Pico-Union storefront. “It is a contradiction,” he said of downtown’s skyline. “There you have these new buildings with all the new technology, and here you have families living in apartments that are falling down and filled with rats and cockroaches.”

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He came to the United States in 1993, after fleeing civil war in Guatemala. As is the case for many immigrants, Pico-Union was his first stop.

Much has changed since Chaj arrived. Transnational gangs that once terrorized the neighborhood have weakened their grip, and there is new city-subsidized housing. But Pico-Union remains one of the poorest parts of L.A., a fact made plain on weekend afternoons, when residents hawk food and used clothing on the street — an underground economy of people trying to get by.

Chaj doesn’t want flashy high-rises and upscale bars in his neighborhood, but he wishes city lawmakers would grant it the kind of attention and aid they’ve given AEG. A tentative deal calls for the city to issue nearly $195 million in bonds to relocate a wing of the L.A. Convention Center to make way for the stadium.

On the other side of the freeway, Meg Lodise lives in a two-story loft on Flower Street, a block from Staples Center. An attorney who works at a law firm on Grand Avenue, she too walks to work some days, past bustling cafes and soaring condominium skyscrapers. Tens of thousands now live on these city blocks that not long ago were often deserted at night and on weekends.

The revitalization was kindled in part by city incentives to builders and boosted by AEG’s 1999 opening of Staples Center and completion of L.A. Live about a decade later.

Lodise arrived downtown from the Westside six years ago. She loves the concerts in the park, loft-sponsored mixers and dinners at a growing list of new restaurants. She rarely ventures across the freeway but says she’s interested in exploring eateries there.

Adding a football stadium to the mix gives her pause. She recalls police flooding in to quell rioters after the Lakers’ championship victories in 2009 and ’10. And she is unnerved by news of violence at sporting events — including August’s mayhem at an NFL preseason game in San Francisco. Yet she loves the excitement of downtown’s big events and knows a stadium could spur more. Some might even rival last Christmas season, when she sat on her balcony with a friend and a glass of wine and listened to Stevie Wonder sing at an L.A. Live tree-lighting ceremony.

Those kinds of events vex Victor Citrin. On nights the Lakers, Clippers or Kings play at Staples Center, limousines idle outside his Pico-Union house.

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“The horns go off, and the cars sit there, spewing exhaust,” he said. “On this side of the freeway, our lives are being disrupted.”

Citrin moved here three decades ago and spent years fixing up an old hotel on 11th Street. He built living quarters inside, and outside, a garden.

Many mornings he sits there watching hummingbirds play. He’d rather his view didn’t also include a large, shimmering Coca-Cola bottle — a multi-story LED billboard on the west side of the Ritz-Carlton that he calls “obscene.”

He’s alarmed that a draft deal approved by the City Council calls for more bright signage: more than 40 billboards on the publicly owned Convention Center. AEG and the city should have gotten more community input, he says.

City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents Pico-Union and backed the stadium deal, says AEG hasn’t adequately taken the area’s concerns into consideration.

“It’s as if 70,000 people don’t exist on the other side of the freeway,” Reyes complained at a City Hall hearing this week, citing an early stadium parking study that excluded Pico-Union from its maps. But in an interview, Reyes said that despite such concerns, projects like the stadium are a rare “spark plug” for economic improvement in his district.

AEG officials say the stadium will put 23,000 people to work, with half the permanent jobs filled by residents of nearby ZIP Codes. They say the firm has helped Pico-Union in other ways, giving $3 million for low-income housing and $1 million for parks.

Leiweke’s session in Pico-Union was held at the Salvation Army Red Shield Youth and Community Center, which has also received AEG charity. The small meeting was by invitation only.

When residents asked about traffic, parking and how they would learn about job openings at the stadium, Leiweke assured them their concerns would be addressed and their voices heard during an environmental impact review.

“We’re sending you all of our consultants,” Leiweke said, adding lightheartedly: “Please don’t keep them very long, because they charge by the hour.”

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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