It’s a developer’s dream — nearly 300 empty acres above downtown Los Angeles, close to three major freeways and visited by millions each year.
Could Chavez Ravine be the next big real estate play in town?
The new owner of the Dodgers, Guggenheim Baseball Management, is keeping tight-lipped about its plans for the parking lots and hillsides surrounding Dodger Stadium, which it will own jointly with departing team owner Frank McCourt if the sale closes as expected April 30.
The Dodgers disclosed some details of the McCourt-Guggenheim land partnership in the team’s bankruptcy case, but those documents were under seal — and the team quickly withdrew them after The Times asked the bankruptcy judge to release them publicly.
Real estate experts, however, say it’s likely the new owner is looking to do more with the land than simply park cars. They point out that the rich price paid by Guggenheim — at $2.15 billion, a record for a sports franchise — suggests it will need to add new revenue streams in addition to what is expected to be a lucrative television contract.
“There is probably a media or a real estate play,” said Stan Ross, chairman of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, who was quick to add that any development would likely take years to realize.
One doesn’t have to scout far for a glimpse of potential development plans. Four years ago, McCourt proposed a $500-million plan to ring the stadium with restaurants, shops and a Dodgers museum. The surface parking spaces lost to new buildings would be replaced by twin nine-story garages.
The plans never went anywhere amid the economic downturn and the team’s precarious finances, but it’s clear that McCourt wasn’t the only one to see new development possibilities.
Among those in the bidding for the Dodgers were real estate entrepreneurs Rick Caruso, Jared Kushner and Tom Barrack. And Magic Johnson, one of the nation’s most prominent urban developers, has a minority stake in the Guggenheim partnership.
Developer Ken Lombard, a former business partner of Johnson, said the Dodgers property is ideally situated for an urban development.
“You could create a community up there,” said Lombard, who runs the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping center. “You have the chance to do something very interesting, probably a mixture of residential and retail.”
There would be even more potential if the baseball stadium were to be relocated downtown, as many have suggested. AEG Entertainment President Tim Leiweke, who is leading plans to build an NFL football stadium downtown, said a downtown baseball stadium would be among other possible options if the football stadium were derailed.
Beverly Hills apartment developer Alan Casden, another unsuccessful bidder for the Dodgers, had made relocating the stadium a cornerstone of an earlier proposal to buy the team in 2003.
At that time, Casden criticized Dodger Stadium for convoluted parking lots, a poor seating plan and a location inconvenient for both fans and nearby residents who bear the brunt of traffic, noise and litter in their neighborhood.
Tearing down Dodger Stadium, the third-oldest major league ballpark, would likely draw opposition from preservationists. The Los Angeles Conservancy has not taken a position on the issue, but its executive director, Linda Dishman, has a soft spot for the 50-year-old stadium.
“My favorite thing is looking out from the top deck. It feels like you’re so close you can touch the skyline of downtown,” Dishman said.
At 50, Dodger Stadium is now eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If it achieved such a designation, the owner would find it more difficult to get city approval to destroy it, make substantial changes or sell naming rights.
In 2004, Chicago’s Wrigley Field was landmarked, a move the Cubs’ ownership opposed. The team was sold in 2009 and the new owners have asserted that the status costs the Cubs $30 million a year in lost sponsorship opportunities.
Even if the stadium doesn’t get official landmark designation, earning the backing to raze it or build additions on the parking lots such as condos or a shopping center would not be an easy feat, said Gail Goldberg, former city planning director.
Owners can be expected to look for “higher and better” uses for their property that will produce more financial rewards, she said. Their challenge is to convince local officials that their plans are good for economic development and to convince local stakeholders such as neighbors that the plan will improve their quality of life.
That the publicly unpopular McCourt is still involved is an added hurdle to building support for real estate development, she said.
“I think nobody wants to help him make more money,” Goldberg said. “As long as his name is out there, the public benefit [of development] would have to be extraordinary.”
Although the Boston native is giving up half his interest in the parking lots, Bankruptcy Court filings show that McCourt will retain complete control of five parcels comprising nearly 20 acres of land immediately adjoining them.
McCourt also owns an entire city block between College Street and Figueroa Terrace, just down the hill from the stadium. Purchased in 2008 for $9.1 million, the block holds a small house and a commercial building with the offices of the L.A. Marathon, which McCourt also owns.
The price McCourt paid is more than triple what the land sold for in 2004 and 2005; the block borders the 110 Freeway and its Sunset Boulevard exit, which could be an attractive feature should the city ever expand road access to Dodger Stadium.
Major roadwork and other large-scale improvements to ease ingress and egress to the ravine would probably be necessary for meaningful development to take place, architect and real estate advisor Ann Gray said.
“It’s not an easy site to get in and out of,” Gray said. “The paradox is that the only way to relieve traffic is to build more. It will alleviate the bottleneck at the start and end of games. Even great mass transit will not do that.”
With the exception of the Figueroa Terrace properties, almost all of McCourt’s holdings are zoned as agricultural or open space, as are the parking lots. To build on them, a potentially difficult rezoning would be required.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes Chavez Ravine, is taking a wait-and-see approach to development around the stadium, though he did voice support for McCourt’s plan in 2008.
“There is a critical path that we have to cross that speaks to our ability to create jobs while making it better for everybody, not just the people who come for three hours and then go,” he said.