Some people are, lamentably, forced to live in substandard housing. They languish in stark Modernist buildings that are often segregated from the proverbial hustle and bustle of the city. They enjoy no amenities and they have a hard time making a living, even with public assistance, so they ask for more public assistance to give them the environment they need to prosper.
That's a tired old narrative that has undergirded the construction of a new venue for almost every major league team in the country, from the Baltimore Orioles, who moved into Camden Yards in 1992, to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will abandon the magisterial Igloo in favor of a truly hideous block come September. Just this past year, the Mets and Yankees got new homes built right next to their old homes, and the Jets and Giants will trade Giants Stadium -- a hulking galleon in a sea of parking lots (which are, in turn, surrounded by an ocean of swampland) -- for a fancier, more expensive craft that will ply the very same asphalt.
Here in California, now it now looks like Santa Clara will welcome the San Francisco 49ers to a venue that will, no doubt, be an improvement over the breezy Candlestick Park.
With the 49ers fate settled for the moment, let's turn to the longest-running saga in California sports -- a saga that so far has all but ignored principles of sound planning. The fantasy of getting a team in Los Angeles -- an expansion team? the Chargers? the Jaguars? the Trojans? (oops...that's a pro team that already calls L.A. home) -- has kept developers on their toes and architectural draftspeople in business over the past 15 years.
By my count, a good half-dozen schemes have cropped up to conjure up a suitable stadium in L.A. The one that's gotten its picture in the local blogs more often than any other is Majestic Realty's proposal for a retail-entertainment complex in the City of Industry, a rough noncity 20 miles east of downtown. Whether football fans will want to go someplace that is, essentially, a mall remains to be seen. But the EIR for the Los Angeles Football Stadium was certified two years ago, and last year Gov. Schwarzenegger unceremoniously threw out CEQA so that construction could proceed "as soon as an NFL team commits to move to Los Angeles."
Perhaps no one takes the Industry stadium very seriously, but I've been surprised that a project that contradicts every tenet of current urbanist thought has received relatively little criticism.
We've heard enough other ideas that, if built, would support an entire league in Los Angeles. One developer wanted to stick a stadium in a quarry in Irwindale, and others have wanted to bulldoze half the South Park neighborhood south of downtown L.A. Before he got preoccupied with his divorce, Dodger owner Frank McCourt toyed with the idea of building a friend for Dodger Stadium up in Chavez Ravine. Officials in Pasadena have talked about offering up the Rose Bowl, but that will happen over the dead, pearl-bedecked bodies of Pasadena's matrons.
Lost in this tour of L.A.'s less glamorous side is the Venue that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
As far as it goes, the Coliseum is a planner's dream: It's centrally located, near the intersection of two immense freeways and nearly in walking distance of downtown. It's co-located with major civic institutions, including the Museum of Science and Industry and USC. It already has a built-in tenant, which means that it would get used twice as much as the average NFL stadium and the area is already equipped to handle traffic and crowds. If Los Angeles has a center, Exposition Park is probably as close as it gets. And it's historic how many other extant stadiums have hosted two Olympic Games? Zero.
Moreover, in the decade-and-a-half that Los Angeles has been pining for a new football team, the Coliseum has, in spite of itself, become transit-oriented. Within two years, the Expo light rail line will stop a short punt away.
It makes too much sense.
The Coliseum has just one little problem. Well, three. They're called the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, and the State of California. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, a joint powers authority, consists of every level of government short of the United Nations (not that the state probably wouldn't like to sell its 1/3 -- that's 30,000 seats at fire-sale prices!). It ensures that the stadium doesn't cost the public sector anything, and it quite notoriously ensures that not a lot happens there in Exposition Park.
What Santa Clara did right -- or, at least, better than some other cities -- is drive a hard bargain. Opponents of Measure J claimed that the 49ers stadium could cost the city several hundred billion dollars, but its supporters, and over 60 percent of voters, seem to agree that its use of redevelopment funds and new hotel taxes means that it won't be a ripoff for the city. That would be a change from the countless white elephants that cities have built so that pro teams could make millions off stadiums disingenuously billed as civic amenities.
In Los Angeles, public sentiment has pushed would-be team owners a step further, by essentially making it clear that they won't stand for any public subsidy of a new stadium. On the one hand, this frugality fits with the Coliseum Commission's mission. On the other hand, it means that in order to make use of the county's single best venue, a team would have to invest a ton of money into a stadium over which it would have little control.
I don't blame any potential owner for being scared stiff about negotiating with the Coliseum's owners; it would be the mother of all public-private partnerships. It makes digging a hole in Industry (or filling one in Irwindale) look simple by comparison. Yet again, bureaucratic complexity leads developers to favor greenfield development on the fringes over infill in the heart of the city.
Unfortunately, urban planners don't get much of a vote in this issue because the bureaucracy is just too thick. And they probably don't have $500 million or so to renovate the Coliseum. But backers of an NFL team in both the public and private sector would be well advised to give the Coliseum another look, because it embodies almost every principle of progressive planning that you could imagine. And if it was done right -- with the private sector picking up the tab for lavishness -- maybe the public sector could afford new homes for people who really need them.