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The L.A. Live Playbook
Part one: How did people at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole force a billionaire developer to play ball?
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Dawn of the New Downtown
It was the year 2000, and Staples Center had just opened in Downtown Los Angeles. It was a state-of-the-art arena, the first new sports venue to be built in town in over 30 years. Fans packed it night after night to watch Shaq, Kobe, Luc (Robitaille, not Mbah a Moute), and all the other greats of the hardwood and ice. The Clippers were still the Clippers, but even they seemed buoyed by their relocation from the run-down L.A. Sports Arena. That June, the franchise drafted Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, who along with Lamar Odom formed a young core as dynamic as any in the NBA.
If Staples was a radiant jewel in the heart of Downtown, the area around it was anything but that. Next door to the arena was a convention center that couldn’t draw major trade shows. Beyond that were parking lots, old apartment buildings, and gated storefronts. The neighborhood was called South Park, and while a lot of people lived and worked in South Park, other than the arena, it wasn’t a tourist attraction. It didn’t gush green for hoteliers and restaurateurs and investors.
So, Phillip Anschutz and Tim Leiweke, respectively the chairman and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which owns Staples Center, set to developing the area around Staples into an entertainment district. It would be LA’s answer to Times Square, with hotels, retail, restaurants, luxury condos, movie theaters, a performance venue, and an office tower with major corporate tenants. The 27-acre, $2.5 billion project would be called L.A. Live.
For the most part, L.A. Live would be developed on former parking lots, so no one would be physically displaced by the project. Most of that work had been done by Staples Center, which forced over 250 people out of 188 units. The L.A. Live site sat on some of the poorest census tracts in Los Angeles County, and its population was predominantly Latino, with many residents undocumented.
Standing in AEG’s way was the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice (FCCEJ) — an organized coalition of several labor unions, more than twenty community organizations, and hundreds of South Park residents. Community members made their case against the proposed development in Planning Commission hearings at City Hall. The coalition also threatened to challenge the project under the California Environmental Quality Act, which could have delayed groundbreaking and construction by months.
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The coalition wasn’t rich or well-connected, but it had momentum. Labor was more powerful than it had ever been in LA, a historically antiunion stronghold that for much of the 20th century was one of the whitest cities in the United States outside of the South. Union campaigns to naturalize and politically inform the heavily Latino immigrant workforce in the late nineties had made organized labor formidable. The nineties had also seen the rise of community organizations in LA. These nonprofits had secured a series of hiring commitments from subsidy-thirsty developers, scoring major victories that set a precedent for future negotiations.
Rather than face a drawn-out legal process full of bad press for the project, AEG met the coalition at the negotiating table. About a year after the plans for L.A. Live were first unveiled, on March 13, 2001, AEG signed a legally binding contract committing to provisions for the construction of affordable housing and parks, local hiring and job training, and living wages. In exchange, the FCCEJ coalition — the unions, community orgs and residents — all agreed to support the project. The city would subsidize the project to the tune of about $90 million in pre-coronavirus 2020 dollars.
It was a watershed moment in neighborhood organizing: the first-ever community benefits agreement (CBA) between a community and a developer. It created a model for other communities to win concessions from developers when major projects were on the table. It opened the floodgates for billions of investment dollars to pour into Downtown over the next two decades, transforming not just the character and makeup of the neighborhood, but the cultural orientation of the whole city. And it paved the way for Staples Center to become, in the words of Tim Leiweke, “probably the most profitable building in the world.”
Up next: What were the terms of the agreement?
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Best tweets about the Clippers’ Forum announcement
The Clippers officially bought the Forum, finalizing a deal that was first reported weeks ago. On Monday, the Clippers issued a press release welcoming The Forum Presented By Chase “to our family.”
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