JOE BEL BRUNO Staff Reporter
In a posh private meeting room at the Biltmore Hotel, a small but influential group of business leaders gathered after work last week on the eve of the L.A. City Council vote on a new sports arena.
It was technically a “thank you” party hosted by the developers for all those who helped support the project. But in some ways, it was more like an early victory party. Clenching cocktails, guests chatted about season tickets and prospects for improved downtown real estate values.
Eighteen hours later, the Los Angeles City Council agreed on the key parameters of a deal with Kings hockey team owners Edward Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz to build a $250 million downtown sports-entertainment complex.
Doubts about the council’s commitment to the project were washed away by the 13-2 vote a huge margin of support given the deal’s scope and complexity.
“We can choose to let downtown erode, or we can choose to make downtown sparkle again,” said Councilman Michael Feuer. “This sends out a clear message to the business community that we can make a deal of this magnitude that this city can get things done.”
The council and the developers must still sign off on a detailed memorandum of understanding and after that, there will be public hearings on the deal itself.
But developers stressed that a major hurdle had been cleared making it less likely that they will abandon the downtown project for Inglewood.
“We have taken a very positive step that sent a message to the venture that the city is serious, and that they want to create a successful partnership,” said John Semcken, vice president of Majestic Realty Inc., the chief representative for the developers. “There was a point where things were very slow going, and nobody was sure what the next move would be.”
In fact, he added, Roski and Anschutz become so frustrated with negotiations that they ended the talks altogether.
On that same day Dec. 19 sources close to the negotiations say the developers stopped paying consultants used for the deal.
“It seemed like it was all over, they were finished being jerked around by Los Angeles and were on the way to Inglewood,” said one source. “It wasn’t a threat. This was for real.”
The move set off an alarm among some council members.
Council President John Ferraro immediately sent off a letter to the developer, encouraging them to come back to the bargaining table and renew talks.
But those close to the deal say that behind-the-scenes work by Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas played a critical role in reestablishing negotiations.
That weekend, Ridley Thomas met with Roski and Anschutz for the first time in an attempt to smooth over differences and at least four more meetings followed.
Meanwhile, Ridley Thomas phoned fellow council members in an effort to convince them that the deal could be salvaged.
Ridley Thomas who sees the downtown arena as vital for encouraging a football team to locate in the nearby Coliseum used Christmas parties as a vehicle to convince lawmakers and business leaders to keep talks on track.
“I felt something had to be done not only was the arena at stake, but this would have also jeopardized efforts to bring professional football to the Coliseum,” Ridley Thomas said.
The remaining issues were ironed out during a meeting in the last week of December. But, it wasn’t until Jan. 3 four days before the council’s Ad Hoc Commission on the Sports Arena was scheduled to meet for the first time that both sides agreed to proceed.
“It was fairly incremental during that period, but we worked through some of the conflict between the negotiators on both sides,” Ridley Thomas said of the meetings. “I sensed we were on our way to do something significant.”
At the vote last week, council members’ Joel Wachs and Nate Holden cast the only votes against the deal. Both cited concerns that the taxpayers could end up subsidizing the project.
That view was rejected by a council majority that believes the benefits of a sports arena for restoring downtown outweights potential risks.
“I got a telephone call right after the vote, and it was Ed Roski,” Ferraro said last week. “He told me that we’re going to be proud of what they were going to do.”