L.A. Live passes a milestone this week as five businesses open at the $2.5-billion downtown real estate project, with more coming online before the end of the year.

As such, L.A. Live, which stretches along the east side of the Harbor (110) Freeway between Olympic and Venice boulevards, is now less of a construction site and more of a destination for residents.

AEG, which owns and operates L.A. Live, sees it as a place where offices, restaurants, condos and a bowling alley exist in an environment with lots of sports as played in Staples Center and live shows as staged in the Nokia Theatre and smaller venues in L.A. Live.

"There will be more live entertainment and sports content created on this 4 million-square-foot campus than anywhere in the country," said Michael Roth, spokesman for developer AEG.

L.A. Live is so big and varied that it has been opening in phases. Nokia Theatre opened 13 months ago, and the nearby hotel-condo tower won't open for more than a year. That hotel-condo tower is expected to help lure conventioneers to the city's struggling Convention Center.

But there's a flurry of smaller openings this week. By Saturday, AEG will open ESPN Zone, a two-floor sports bar; the four-level Grammy Museum; the celebrity-owned Conga Room nightclub; a New Zealand Natural Ice Cream eatery; and a Starbucks coffee shop.

These entries join not only the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre but the L.A. Live night spot Club Nokia, and the Lucky Strike bowling alley as up-and-running destinations in the project so far.

Later in December, AEG will open four more restaurants on the premises: Farm of Beverly Hills, Fleming's, Yard House and Lawry's Carvery.

But several important pieces of the L.A. Live puzzle will remain unfinished: Besides the hotel-condo tower, there's a multiplex and office space in the offing. That means today's restaurants must wait more than a year before they get a permanent day-and-night customer base.

They could be challenged in this slow economy, but AEG executives believe the project will attract plenty of potential patrons in the interim. That's because the Staples Center, which AEG owns and considers the core attraction of L.A. Live, brings more than 4 million visitors downtown every year.

"And besides Staples Center as the anchor, you have Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising right down the block with thousands of students and USC a short distance away with tens of thousands of students," said Lisa Herzlich, managing director of L.A. Live.

Building a neighborhood

While sports events at Staples and music concerts at Nokia Theatre will bring an evening clientele, L.A. Live, like other multi-use projects, needs customers during the day. But Roth, AEG's vice-president of communications, believes the existing downtown business crowd will fill restaurant seats in daylight hours.

"We struggle to find places to go for a breakfast meeting downtown; even for lunch it's hard to find a place," Roth said. "This is all infrastructure. This is how you build a neighborhood."

Still to come to the neighborhood are:

- A 54-story tower that will include a J.W. Marriott Hotel, a Ritz-Carlton hotel and upscale condos, set to open in early 2010.

- A 14-screen Regal cinema, scheduled for fall 2009.

- Restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Trader Vic's, Rock N Fish, Rosa Mexicano and Katsuya, which will be added to the mix next year.

- The project also will have office space for AEG, plus Herbalife's headquarters and the law firm Holme Roberts & Owen.

Roth described the concept behind L.A. Live as a campus with attractions built around the common theme of live entertainment. Above ESPN's sports bar, the network eventually will occupy three stories of offices and TV studios to produce talk shows and the nightly "Sports Center."

AEG owns and operates arenas and entertainment complexes around the world, including venues in Denver and London. The company also owns sports franchises, including the L.A. Galaxy, Kings, and a share of the Lakers.

AEG expects the sports, music and restaurants will make L.A. Live an attraction to rival other Southern California destinations.

"Unequivocally, I picture this as a tourist magnet," Herzlich said. "It will become a stop on people's itinerary. Just as they want to see the Hollywood sign and Grauman's Chinese Theater, this will become another destination they want to see."

Convention business

In August, AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke told the Business Journal that his goal was for L.A. Live to exert a major impact on the Southern California economy. He called the development "a big bet that L.A. should be front-and-center for tourism, conventions and trade and in the eyes of the world."

It's been widely stated that the Los Angeles Convention Center hasn't lived up to its potential because it never had a large hotel within walking distance. By providing that missing ingredient, the L.A. Live development could act as an economic catalyst.

L.A. Live "has already made a huge impact on the convention business in L.A.," said Herzlich. "L.A. was not a top-tier convention market, and one of the reasons we have had trouble attracting the kind of conventions we wanted is that we did not have a convention center hotel. That is a cornerstone of L.A. Live."

Carol Martinez, associate vice-president at LA Inc., the city's convention bureau, said her office has booked 53 future conventions into the city, representing 700,000 room-nights and $360 million in economic impact for the city.

"A lot of that is about L.A. Live because when people see it around the Convention Center they're impressed," she said. "The hotel is a very big deal for convention planners. There were some groups that said, 'The day you put the shovel in the ground for the hotel, call us and we'll bring our convention here.'"

But competition for convention business remains fierce. According to Tradeshow Week magazine, San Diego has established itself as the most popular California city for conventions, with 87 events already on the books for 2009, compared with 63 events for second-place San Francisco and 55 for third-place Los Angeles.

"The trick is going to be re-marketing Los Angeles to the trade show and convention planners," said Rachel Wimberly, senior editor at Tradeshow Week. "These planners have been in the market for a long time, so you have to change their minds about cities they have skipped over in the past."

AEG also plans a full-court marketing campaign to lure local residents to L.A. Live. In December, the developer has a pilot program with the Metro Rail transportation system's Red Line to run special trains and buses to L.A. Live. In conjunction with this week's openings, AEG will unveil a 54-foot electronic tree with 11,000 light spheres in the Nokia Plaza. The tree will display a light-and-music show every hour.

Herzlich said the developer selected restaurant tenants that offer a wide selection of cuisine, from Mexican to sushi, to appeal to a wide swath of the Southern California population.

Part of AEG's strategy for L.A. Live was to offer something for everyone, with bowling at the Lucky Strike for as little as $7.95 per game and Starbucks coffee available for pocket money. That said, the high-end residences at the hotel tower start at $1 million.

"This will become a 24-hour living, breathing downtown for all of Southern California," Herzlich said. "The tourists will be an important part of it, but equally if not more important will be all the Angelenos."

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