Remaking Sodo: Hansen, teams, city look at L.A. Live
Investor Chris Hansen would like to create a Seattle version of L.A. Live, a thriving entertainment district by Staples Center. The Mariners and Seahawks also want to enliven the stadium area. But Port and maritime workers worry about freight mobility, congestion and loss of industrial lands.
Seattle Times staff reporter
LOS ANGELES —
Corporate logos, ads, movie trailers, music videos and promos for upcoming events come at you in an amped stream of flashing lights on dozens of big screens.
Fans in Lakers or Clippers jerseys grab dinner and drinks at the many restaurants, sitting outdoors next to a central plaza that’s lively with pregame crowds. The vibe is effervescent. Even the plaza paving is flecked with mica so it glitters in the early evening sun.
L.A. Live is the entertainment complex across from Staples Center in Los Angeles. There’s nothing like it in Seattle — yet.
Investor Chris Hansen’s proposal for a new basketball and hockey arena in Sodo has been highly publicized and debated. Less well-known are his plans to create a smaller, Seattle version of L.A. Live, a complementary district of restaurants and bars adjacent to the arena that would draw sports fans and other visitors and create a destination that won’t be deserted when the home teams are out of town.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently led a delegation of business and political leaders to Los Angeles. Part of their mission was to experience L.A. Live and consider how such a venture might work in Seattle, a city that Chamber President Maud Daudon characterized as “more REI than L.A. Live.”
Hansen hasn’t submitted any detailed plans for the project and it would be subject to its own city reviews and approvals, separate from the arena. It definitely wouldn’t be as big as the L.A. version. Hansen owns only about two acres outside the arena property, compared to the 23-acre L.A. Live complex.
And critics question whether the location, at the southern end of the stadium district, would actually attract fans from the Seahawks and Sounders whose stadium is closer to the bars and restaurants of Pioneer Square. They also wonder whether the festive atmosphere is possible to re-create in a cold and rainy Seattle winter, when an NBA team would play.
The prospect of an entertainment complex in Sodo already is stirring the same concerns as the arena proposal itself — that additional development so close to Port of Seattle container operations adds to already congested traffic, threatens freight mobility and jeopardizes industrial lands immediately south and west of the stadiums.
“Any vision Chris Hansen has for Seattle has to fit Seattle,” said Daudon after touring L.A. Live. “It has to fit the stadium-district plan being developed by stakeholders and it has to be very mindful of the freight and maritime activities that are already there. Forty percent of state jobs are connected to international trade. We cannot afford to be inattentive.”
But a re-energized neighborhood around the stadiums already is in the works. In December, the Mariners and Seahawks and their public governing boards released a consultant’s report full of ideas to make the area more lively and inviting.
Their proposals include a public park atop a low-profile parking garage, new retail development, a hotel, a sports hub to attract fans and 2,000 new apartments or condos.
Now the city has formed a Stadium District advisory group that includes representatives from Hansen’s development company, the Seahawks, Mariners and other neighborhood business and community groups to continue the planning effort. The committee could recommend new zoning around the stadiums to allow apartments, condos and office buildings that would add full-time residents and activity to the area.
Hansen’s first priority is securing an NBA team.
The NBA Finance / Relocation Committee will meet next week to consider whether to recommend the sale of the team to a Hansen-led Seattle group, or force the team to stay in Sacramento.
Commissioner David Stern said Friday that the earliest a vote by the Board of Governors could be held is May 6.
Building an arena is next. But from the time he first announced his plans to return the Sonics to Seattle, Hansen has described an adjacent entertainment complex.
In a recent interview, he described his vision and said he agrees with Seattle leaders that it has to reflect its surroundings.
“L.A. Live is meant for the Los Angeles market. And it’s adjacent to its convention center, so it’s serving a more grandiose purpose,” Hansen said. “We want to create a small, concentrated gathering place that serves fans from all the sporting events.”
The Seattle version could be built of brick, to echo the historic buildings of Pioneer Square. “We want it to have a Seattle feel,” Hansen said.
From decay to renewal
L.A. Live arose next to Staples Center — home to the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers, the WNBA’s Sparks, the NHL Kings and top touring musical acts — at an edge of downtown Los Angeles where no one wanted to be at night.
The neighborhood was mostly abandoned manufacturing buildings that gave way to acres of parking lots. It was overrun by gangs, hotels that rented by the hour, homeless encampments and organized crime, said Ed Reyes, a third-term Los Angeles City Council member who also has chaired the council’s land-use committee.
“It was the decaying center of a major city,” he said.
The Anschutz Entertainment Group, better known by its initials AEG, opened Staples Center in 1999, followed by L.A. Live in 2007. Both are adjacent to the city’s convention center.
There are two hotels, luxury condos, rooftop decks for private parties.
There’s the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, which has hosted the Emmy Awards and American Idol finales. There’s a nightclub, an ESPN broadcasting studio, a 14-screen movie complex, a bowling alley and more than a dozen restaurants and bars, almost all national chains.
“We wanted to create something like Times Square, so if you saw it on TV, you would immediately know where you were,” said Michael Roth, AEG vice president for communications. “We also wanted it to be completely L.A.”
The scale may seem outsized, but the city has built the infrastructure to support it. Roth said there are 32,000 parking spaces within a 15- minute walk, as well as two subway stops. Seattle, by way of comparison, has about 4,000 parking spaces at Safeco and CenturyLink garages. The Link Light Rail stadium stop is about a quarter mile away.
The energizing effect is clear. Downtown Los Angeles went from being deserted at night and on the weekends to experiencing a resurgence of new development, the conversion of historic buildings into office space and apartments, and events every night of the week. About 4,000 people lived downtown before Staples Center and L.A. Live were completed. About 50,000 live there today, said Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the single most important project for the redevelopment of downtown without a doubt,” he said. And the state-of-the-art arena, new concert theater and cineplex all contribute to LA’s standing as the entertainment capital of the world, he said.
It’s also brought new jobs and revenue to the city, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the district that includes L.A. Live. Some of that money has been used to improve transportation in the area. Additional revenue helped build a new police station within the complex. AEG contributes to a city affordable-housing fund and works with local nonprofits to provide job training and employment.
“It’s been catalytic,” she said.
The Seattle Chamber delegation toured L.A. Live and Staples Center with a mix of amazement and skepticism.
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen said he was struck by the commercialism and flashing national brands. Even the plaza is branded: It’s officially the Nokia Plaza. AEG said the ads help pay for the maintenance, security and upkeep of the venues. Rasmussen said he’d like to see any Seattle version tone down the glitz and include local businesses.
“You want to know you’re in Seattle and not L.A. or Las Vegas,” he said. He also was struck by the way the L.A. Live development transformed a formerly crime-ridden and depressed area. The Seattle stadium district, by contrast, he said, is adjacent to the Port of Seattle, one of the region’s economic engines.
“What they lost they didn’t want. What we could lose is our maritime industry, something we want to keep,” Rasmussen said.
Councilmember Jean Godden described the L.A. Live plaza with its surround of sound and frenetic lights as “over-the-top.” But she suggested that Hansen’s idea could spark innovation around the Seattle sports facilities.
“It’s not going to be L.A. Live, but it could be a stronger entertainment district,” she said.
Livelier scene needed?
Some transformation of Seattle’s stadium district seems inevitable. The 70-page “concept plan” released in December by the governing boards of Safeco and CenturyLink Fields concluded that over the next 10 years, development could “dramatically and positively” transform the area.
It also concluded that in similarly sized cities, the stadium districts were livelier, more inviting and more economically successful.
The consultants looked at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Coors Field and nearby Mile High Stadium in Denver and Petco Park in San Diego.
Seattle Attorney Fred Mendoza, who represented the football/soccer public stadium authority, and former Mayor Charles Royer, who represented the baseball public facilities district, co-chaired the planning effort.
In a cover letter to the consultant’s report, they said, “Our stadiums have not had the same economic or positive neighborhood impact in stimulating new housing, activating old buildings, driving retail activity or achieving new public amenities like open space, pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, sidewalks and transit that other cities have experienced.”
Mendoza, who has served on the stadium board for 16 years, said the traffic problems in Sodo have existed since the Kingdome opened in 1976. He said the new stadiums themselves aren’t the cause of the congestion and shouldn’t be solely responsible for solving it, an argument Hansen also has made.
“Blaming the stadiums, or even the new arena, avoids the real discussion of how to improve the streets. It’s a huge expense, but we can’t continue to ignore the problem,” he said.
The stadium-district plan also suggests that the center of the revitalized district could be state-owned property between Railroad Way South and Royal Brougham that is now being used as the staging area for construction of the waterfront tunnel.
Once that project is completed, the state will surplus the land. It could be used for public amenities such as parking or open space as well as new shops and restaurants.
“Historically, there has not been one piece of grass in the area,” Mendoza said.
One of the challenges for Hansen’s plan for a “mini-L.A. Live” is its location, Mendoza said. L.A. Live is in the center of a development that faces the sports arena and is surrounded by restaurants and new hotels. Hansen’s property is at the south end of the stadium district closest to the industrial and manufacturing area. It’s a long block away from Safeco Field and about a quarter mile away from CenturyLink Field.
John Persak, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19 executive board, notes that the arena plans Hansen has submitted to the city include offices and residential units adjacent to the arena. Those aren’t allowed under the current industrial zoning.
Persak is concerned that development would be another step toward the demise of the city’s working port.
“No longer are we just talking about an arena and a sports entertainment complex. Now we are talking about condos as part of the reworking of this area. No one who pays $750,000 for a condo wants to look at stacks of blue containers in the foreground of their sunset view.”
Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who is running for mayor, was on the council when it created a stadium-district overlay, zoning that he said was meant to protect industrial lands and create a clear boundary at the edge of the stadium district beyond which gentrification would not go. The southern boundary of the district was drawn at Holgate, the southern edge of Hansen’s arena property.
Steinbrueck said he’s concerned that an L.A. Live-type development could expand commercial and residential uses into the industrial zone.
“The gentrification that would result is exactly what the overlay district was trying to restrict,” Steinbrueck said.
‘Crazy. Awesome. Loud’
But talk to visitors at L.A. Live, as the sun sets behind palm trees and the flashing lights pulse against the darkening sky, and you’ll hear nothing but positives. Maybe it’s a self-selecting crowd. People who don’t like giant Coke and Target ads or promos for a Whitney Houston exhibit at the nearby Grammy Museum don’t come here at night.
Eleven-year-old Marco Torres of Santa Clarita, Calif., drowning in an adult-sized Clippers jersey, is asked to come up with three words to describe L.A. Live. He says, “Crazy. Awesome. Loud.”
His dad, Sal Torres, remembers that the neighborhood used to be a scary area of parking lots and crime.
“They’ve really cleaned it up. It’s more family-oriented now.”
Glenn and Sandy Haugen have driven down from Simi Valley. A relative has invited them to watch the game from a corporate suite.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” concedes Sandy, about L.A. Live, but she said all the lights and crowds are part of the draw. “We don’t have anything like it at home.”
Her husband, Glenn, said the development “needs the commercialism, the Starbucks, the ESPNs” to draw in people and pay the bills.
He surveyed the other visitors eating at outdoor tables and streaming through the plaza from the nearby convention center.
“It’s fun,” he said. “ It’s a party.”
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes