Ron Kaye: Big city, small city

This tale of two treasures of the greater Los Angeles area — two National Historic Landmarks, two venerable stadiums built at the same time 90 years ago — says a lot about the role of politics and leadership in determining the fate of our communities and institutions.

Both the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are aging structures, relics of a bygone era in many ways, facing unprecedented new challenges.

Competition is coming with construction of a brand new state-of-the-art stadium to house two National Football League teams either in the city of Industry or, more likely, in downtown L.A. a short distance from the Coliseum.

No more Super Bowls, no more World Cups, fewer if any big concerts and other major special events that help pay the bills for any facility that is costly to operate.

For the Coliseum, everything is not coming up roses these days.

It reeks of scandal, with its top executives caught with their hands in the till, contracting with businesses they held a stake in, charging all kinds of questionable expenses to the Coliseum and, worst of all, running the stadium into the ground with deficits and no business plan.

The Coliseum — home to the Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984, a World Series and Super Bowls — faces an uncertain future, with USC pressing to take control away from the city-county-state commission that runs it — a conflict-prone joint ownership that has a lot to do with why the Coliseum lost two National Football League teams and has so many problems.

Then, there’s the Rose Bowl, the pride of Pasadena.

It was formally dedicated on Jan. 1, 1923 — five months before the Coliseum was opened — with the first Rose Bowl game, which USC won 14-3 over Penn State.

Like the Coliseum, it has been the site of many great events, including the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cups and national college football championship games, as well as the annual New Year’s Day game.

But rather than sitting content with past glory, officials began planning for the future three years ago when momentum first began to build for a new NFL stadium in the region.

They issued $152 million in bonds to provide for badly needed renovations, including wider tunnels, safety improvements, modernized bathrooms and concession stands, a rebuilt press box, a new scoreboard, a state-of-the-art video board, and thousands of premium seats that will sell for high prices to help pay for the renovations.

With the plan in place, 30-year leases were signed with the Tournament of Roses for the Rose Bowl game, and with UCLA to continue playing its home football games at the stadium.

“We anticipated the NFL coming back to Los Angeles and that there would be a great new venue with all the bells and whistles of a modern stadium,” said Darryl Dunn, general manager of the Rose Bowl.

“Our thought process was there was a significant chance we would lose some of the special events we had been getting, so we would have to do something. We knew we had a great college football venue and built our economic model based on that, knowing that we had an old stadium with a lot of infrastructure needs.”

Now, the Rose Bowl’s future seems as secure as the Coliseum’s is not.

It isn’t just the difference in how publicly owned stadiums are run, and it isn’t just the difference between how Pasadena and Los Angeles are run.

You can see similar things in Burbank and Glendale and nearly all the suburbs that surround L.A.

Compare the paved streets and sidewalks in your community to the potholes and broken concrete in L.A.

Compare Old Pasadena, Brand Boulevard or beautiful downtown Burbank to the coldness of glass and steel skyscrapers with few pedestrians on Bunker Hill, or the mix of hip new lofts amid the squalor of Skid Row in downtown L.A., where billions of dollars of the public’s wealth have been spent to subsidize development without real planning.

Look at how lower business taxes and other incentives have been used by neighboring cities to lure business and investment away from L.A., with its over-regulation and slow-moving bureaucracy.

The lessons in this are not lost on growing numbers of community activists and civic leaders in L.A. who are pressing to devolve more power to the neighborhoods and break up what has become an ineffective City Hall machine.

Size does matter and smaller cities are more agile and efficient. They have healthier civic cultures and stronger, more responsive leadership.

The Rose Bowl and the Coliseum are just two examples of the differences between thriving suburbs and the first big city in the West, which has come to resemble Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, with poverty rates and underemployment rates approaching 25% of the population.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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