Spotlight on LAX CORRIDOR: Changes at LAX Boost Plan

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

Life in and around Los Angeles International Airport forever changed on Sept. 11. Which is just fine for Merry Norris.

As executive director of Gateway to L.A., a property-based business improvement district primarily north of Century Boulevard, Norris had been working on a plan to radically alter the area's retail landscape. Now her dream, an airport-driven urban development called Aerotropolis, has taken on an increased importance.

The project would capitalize on the 67 million passengers who pass through the airport every year with time to burn while waiting to board a plane. People staying in the nearly 7,300 hotel rooms around LAX are also prime candidates for wanting shopping and other retail activities.

And now that the airport's expansion plan is going back to the drawing board as a result of the post Sept. 11 fallout, there is even more potential for the Gateway project to succeed. City officials envision a different kind of international airport where a new passenger check-in terminal might be located outside the immediate airport area, perhaps east on Century Boulevard. After checking in, passengers might board a high-speed people mover to reach their terminals or take shuttle buses.

Somewhere in between checking in and boarding airplanes, travelers could spend some time at Aerotropolis to do a little shopping, grab a bite before the long flight or play interactive games.

"Think of all the things you could be offering these people," said Norris, who has headed Gateway to L.A. for 3 & #733; years. "It wouldn't be just food establishments and retail, but it could be theater or art exhibits or some kind of cultural experience."

Early stages

The project is still in its conceptual phase. But there are several ideas that are being developed with the help of the architectural firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall. The Los Angeles firm was hired by the Gateway BID to examine possibilities for the first phase, which most likely would be located one block north of Century Boulevard at 98th Street and Sepulveda Boulevard. Currently 98th Street is a vast stretch of asphalt parking lots tucked away behind some of the area's big hotels.

The first retail complex, he said, would capitalize on the fact that now, more than ever, passengers will be arriving at the airport earlier than they used to before Sept. 11.

Consumers could do some last-minute shopping, browse at a large bookstore, even play interactive games at a place like Dave & Buster's.

"The properties closest to the airport would be dedicated to retail that would serve the passengers that need to hit and run," said Paul Danna, a design principal at DMJM. "That would be fast food and duty-free shopping and other kinds of shopping."

Farther down 98th Street, there might be a second complex with a movie theater, larger restaurants, and more retail and service-oriented businesses. This would not only serve airport passengers, but also the guests staying at the 13 hotels in the airport area and the tenants at the various office buildings.

A third complex might house meeting facilities developed for the fly-in, fly-out market that is smaller than those at the L.A. Convention Center.

"Historically, major commercial hubs have grown around major transportation areas such as railroads and ports," Danna said. "Now the transportation focus is on airports."

Gateway to L.A., which was formed in 1998 to revitalize the area to the north of Century Boulevard, has made several presentations to airport executives who are studying the plan. "We are hoping to partner with the airport on any future activity," Norris said.

Public/private funding

Any retail project would probably require some sort of private/public partnership with the airport, a tricky prospect given that LAX itself relies on revenue from its own facilities. "Right now, there are more questions than answers," said urban planning consultant Larry Kosmont, president of Kosmont Companies. "Off-campus retail could be viable but the real obstacles will be security, connectivity."

Airport officials said they are keeping the Gateway plan in mind as they draw up plans to reconfigure LAX. But they declined further comment.

The district encompasses more than 4 million square feet of office space and dozens of long-term parking lots.

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