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Approval process for Farmers Field continues despite a legal challenge

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The proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles cleared a key hurdle Thursday night when the city Planning Commission unanimously approved AEG’s plans for the 76,000-seat complex known as Farmers Field.

The meeting went on for 10 hours, after nearly 100 people spoke during the public hearing. Also on Thursday, a City Council committee reviewed the rising price tag for the Convention Center wing that would have to be demolished to make way for the stadium. That committee also heard a cautionary note about a pending lawsuit that could scuttle the entire project.

But on this night, the Planning Commission was not daunted.

“This is catalytic for the entire city of L.A.,” Planning Commissioner Robert Lessin said of the project, which AEG anticipates will create 12,000 temporary construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs — in addition to bringing professional football back to L.A.

The panel approved the environmental impact report and design plans for the $1.3 billion “events center” that’s expected to continue the transformation of downtown. AEG wants to tear down the Convention Center's West Hall, build the stadium on that site, and construct a more modern convention facility next door to attract large and lucrative meetings.

“For me as an architect, its an absolute invention,” Planning Commission President William Roschen said after the marathon meeting.

He said no city has done what AEG wants to do — place a stadium in the middle of downtown and create an entertainment “campus” around it. AEG also owns Staples Center and L.A. Live. The company hopes to attract new hotels to the area too.

The complicated agreement between AEG and the city spells out design parameters, traffic plans, air pollution goals, and “community benefits” promised by the company. AEG’s Bill Delvac said the company is investing $50 million into improving traffic flow, redesigning Gil Lindsey Plaza, and adding green space — including a dog park.

Planning Commissioner Regina Freer said she’d like to see AEG invest more in affordable housing in the area, pointing to one study that said rents would likely rise for mostly poor and minority residents of Pico Union and South L.A.

“I cannot imagine that there isn’t going to be an impact on affordability,” said Freer, one of the few commissioners to challenge AEG’s plans.

Delvac bristled.

“I will say we are doing all that we will do.”

The people who spoke during the hearing included members of the Play Fair Farmers Field Coalition, which has filed a lawsuit challenging a state law that expedites legal challenges against the football stadium. SB 292 allows all environmental concerns filed against Farmers Field to be sent directly to the state Court of Appeals.

“Overall, I’m disappointed,” said Coalition member Eric Ares, who wants to see AEG address affordable housing issues.

Earlier in the day, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is not involved in the lawsuit, told the Ad Hoc Committee on the Downtown Stadium that the legal challenge could be the death of Farmers Field. 

“In my view, if that litigation is successful, which it could be, that could take down this entire project," said David Pettit. "It could kill the entire project."

Ares says it’s going to take time to mitigate the impact of Farmers Field.

"We felt that it was unfair that special legislation be given to this huge billion-dollar corporation for the express purpose of expediting the process," Ares said.

The coalition is seeking a $20-million trust fund to protect affordable housing in the neighborhood, and it also wants protections against the anticipated increase in traffic. No hearing date has been set for the lawsuit. 

The agreement approved by the Planning Commission includes language from a state law that requires AEG to reduce traffic congestion and pollution around the stadium by persuading about a third of fans to take public transit. The company does not detail how it will accomplish that.

Some people at the Planning Commission meeting cheered plans for the new stadium, including a man dressed in a blue and yellow Rams football jersey and helmet.  One woman praised AEG’s record in the community. “They give jobs and scholarships for the youth,” said Carman Vaughn.

Labor union leaders, whose members have been struggling to find work, were especially happy.

“It’ll be a real shot in the arm,” said John Schafer of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

Under the agreement, 30 percent of construction jobs and 50 percent of the permanent jobs will go to people who live within five miles of the proposed stadium.

The City Council must approve the plan and is scheduled to vote on Sept. 28. Virtually every council member has expressed support for the project. 

The council committe meeting also held Tuesday was mainly focused on the cost of the new wing at the convention center. The West Hall would be replaced with Pico Hall, which the city’s budget officials now say will cost $314.6 million. That's up from the original estimate of $280 million.

Costs increased when Convention Center officials realized they needed a more functional space. One of those changes includes the addition of what would be the city’s largest ballroom, with capacity for 3,000 to 4,000 people. (The city's largest ballroom is currently at the JW Marriott at L.A. Live — another AEG property.)

The $34 million increase is affordable because of low interest rates for the municipal bonds that will provide most of the financing, according to City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana.

“Timing is everything,” Santana said. “Interests have continued to drop and now are at historic lows. As a result of that, it gives the city an opportunity to essentially build a more effective Convention Center than had originally been contemplated.”

Though the city will issue the tax-exempt bonds to pay for the project, AEG will back the bonds. That means if there aren’t enough funds, AEG will make up the difference. The remaining third will be paid for with special taxes generated from the development area.

Those are “basically new streams of revenue that result because this project is being built," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes the portion of downtown planned for the stadium. "We have a special taxing district around this area that’s been created so that we can recapture this new tax revenue and spend it back into the project."

The city could be on the hook for $13.5 million if costs increase. The CAO warned that if interest rates go up, the costs would jump another $27 million. The city and AEG would split that tab — if city officials want to proceed with the expanded Convention Center hall.

“The city would have to make a decision at that point," said Natalie Brill, chief of debt management for the City of Los Angeles. "Does it want to spend the additional funds — because building a Convention Center really only happens once every 30 to 40 years — or does it want to reduce the scope?” 

The Farmers Field plan, including the Convention Center expansion, will be considered by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Downtown Stadium on Sept. 24. 

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