After years of proclamations that downtown is about to emerge as a 24-hour destination, the first true test comes with this week's opening of the Staples Center.

It's the first of more than $1 billion worth of mega-projects now in the works that boosters say will lure thousands of additional Angelenos downtown to play, pray, relax, live and spend money.

Each of those projects Staples Center ($375 million), Disney Concert Hall ($235 million), L.A. City Hall overhaul ($273 million) and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels ($163 million) is significant in its own right. But can they provide the stimulus to reinvent downtown?

Some of those answers may start to unfold with the opening of Staples Center.

The arena will be a major draw: three professional sports teams, dozens of concerts, and special events like the 2000 Democratic National Convention are guaranteed to pull in thousands of people. In fact, there is little doubt that the arena itself will be a financial success for developers Ed Roski and Philip Anschutz, just based on the sponsorship deals and luxury suite sales that already have been made.

But according to real estate and sports consultants, Staples Center by itself is not going to revitalize downtown. Nor will any of the other big projects. The keys, these experts say, are retail and housing, two vital elements almost entirely missing from today's downtown. Only then could a critical mass be created sufficient to transform downtown into a 24-hour destination to rival Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Old Pasadena.

These experts point to thriving downtowns in Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Phoenix all of which got their jump starts from new stadiums or arenas (and in the cases of Cleveland and Denver, both).

"The Staples Center by itself is not going to do much good for downtown if people just drive in and drive out again after the game or concert is over," said Steve Sander, a Denver-based sports and entertainment marketing consultant. "However, by serving as a magnet to draw people into downtown, the arena can become a catalyst to bring in the restaurants, sports bars, shops and theaters."

As for housing, several projects are in the works, most notably Tom Gilmore's conversion of three old bank buildings at Spring and Fourth streets into 240 loft apartments. Other projects include the Medici apartment project on Seventh Street just west of the Harbor (110) Freeway, and the conversion of the old subway terminal building at the bottom of Bunker Hill into apartments.

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