Here is a twist on the familiar story of neighborhood groups negotiating with developers: The two sides did not limit their discussion to traffic congestion. On the table were a surprisingly wide array of social and environmental concerns, including hiring guarantees, wage levels, job safety and affordable housing.
The story becomes even more interesting when we become aware of who was sitting at the table: On one end was LA Arena Land Company, a company whose principals include three billionaires: Los Angeles developer Ed Roski Jr., railroad and multiplex magnate Philip Anschutz, and media übermensch Rupert Murdoch. On the other side of the table was a coalition of neighborhood groups, environmental groups and labor unions representing thousands of poor people who live near the arena.
In short, the negotiations, which concluded in May, took place between some of the wealthiest people in the country and some of the poorest. Under the resulting deal, the business moguls promise to hire local residents for the majority of permanent jobs to be provided by the project, pay workers $7.72 per hour with benefits, or $8.97 without them, build at least 160 units of affordable housing, provide a fund for parks, create a "preferential parking district" for local residents and serve up a host of other community advantages.
The working poor who live near the glitzy sports arena could use some benefits. The novelist William Faulkner could have been writing about Los Angeles's working class, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods when he wrote the famous sentence: "They endured." Specifically, the low-income residents of downtown Los Angeles endure unskilled or semi-skilled labor jobs and low wages, and indifferent public transit. Politically atomized and outwardly timid, they do not seem to attract attention of the general public, except when gang violence threatens to spill over neighborhood lines.
The $300 million Staples Center has been very successful for its owners, and perhaps its fans, during its two years of existence. Situated next to the Los Angeles Convention Center, Staples Center is home base to five professional sports franchises, including the Los Angeles Lakers. The facility also hosted the Democratic National Convention last summer.
For people who live in the immediate neighborhood, however, Staples Center has been a swift pain. Parking is unavailable on game nights, and renters find themselves slapped with $60 parking tickets, "which is pretty major for a garment worker making below minimum wage," said Sandra McNeill, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a nonprofit group that works with poor people. One parent complained that she was unable to transport an asthmatic child to the hospital because post-game traffic was so thick. The lowest point came during the political convention, when some local residents found themselves prevented from entering their own homes by riot police.
Community leaders began assembling their coalition in May 2000, shortly after reading in the Los Angeles Times that a Los Angeles City Council committee was already studying a $1 billion expansion to the Convention Center-Staples Arena juggernaut. LA Arena Land wants to build a 45-story convention center hotel, a 7,000-seat theater, and an undetermined amount of retail space on two shopping streets that will flank the sports arena. The city, for its part, wants to expand the 1 million-square-foot Convention Center by another 250,000 square feet and two build two high-rise apartment towers with a total of 800 units and possibly another hotel, as well. The project has been described in the real estate trades as "the biggest mixed-use project ever proposed for downtown" Los Angeles.
The core group of what would become the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice was SAJE and Hotel Workers and Restaurant Workers Local 11. The latter group is one of the most active labor organizers in Los Angeles, with on-going labor actions against hotels in downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. The coalition was later joined by a number of other groups, including Esperanza (a community-based non-profit home builder), Los Angeles for a New Economy (another local group concerned with working conditions), and a local chapter of Environmental Defense.
The fledgling coalition called for a meeting with then-City Councilwoman Rita Walters, who in turn arranged a meeting with the developer. The first meeting, in September 2000, did not go smoothly, however. LA Arena president Tim Leiweke, who is also president of the Kings hockey franchise, was scheduled to meet with a group of organizers and local residents. Although a group of staff people showed up to represent the developer, Leiweke was not among them. A number of people apparently felt snubbed, and the meeting became raucous, some people directing angry comments to Leiweke's conspicuously empty chair.
Things improved the following month when Leiweke handed off the negotiations to senior vice president Ted Tanner, a former executive with Catellus and someone with more community-relations experience than the sports executive. Tanner had the grace to read his presentation entirely in Spanish, which he does not speak, and what he lacked in pronunciation was compensated by goodwill. At this point, the negotiations took on a positive tone, and the activists set forward a remarkably detailed set of demands on wages, housing, work and even open space for local residents.
In May, the developer and the neighborhood groups arrived at a set of concessions. "We didn't get everything we asked for, but we achieved a really solid agreement, and we were really pleased," SAJE's McNeill said. Tanner could not be reached for this article, but we suspect that "doing the right thing" was not the only factor behind the concessions. The developer is reportedly expected to ask for a $75 million subsidy from the city, and the strong support of the neighborhood — and the councilmember from the district — may sway an otherwise skeptical City Council.
Politically calculated or not, this set of concessions seems remarkable for the emphasis on what could be called the "quality of daily life," as well as the familiar mitigations for environmental impacts. Projects like Staples Center, which occur in a dense, urban context, have many human impacts. The Figueroa Corridor Coalition has provided a useful index of those impacts, and the way that developers of major projects might respond to the difficulty of building in our ever-densifying cities.