Closer to Farmer's Field, Far from a Better City

The hot air of ballyhoo has almost entirely leaked out of AEG's $1.2-billion football, leaving behind the usual regrets. As Jim Newton laments in the Los Angeles Times, taxpayers were wrong to listen to city council members last year when they promised to get a deal that would actually benefit the city. From the first kickoff, AEG was going to get the deal that Phil Anschutz and AEG President Tim Leiweke wanted:

AEG, the developer, has so successfully courted influence over the years that it's hard to trust city and state officials to drive a hard bargain. The proposal cruised through the City Council (the mayor was tossing around a football before negotiations had even begun), and the company called on its friends in labor and the environmental movement to bring Sacramento on board.
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And it's hard to find anyone who accepts the "greenwash" that AEG has applied to the stadium's environmental review -- including the claim that nearly 30 percent of attendees will take public transit to get there. Councilman Dennis Zine, a stadium supporter, told Frank Stoltze at KPCC, "I think that number is way too high. I don't think people are going to do that." ... We are going to be congested with traffic. We're not going to take people out of their cars."

The coat of green on Farmer's Field is so transparent that both the state Legislature and the city council were forced to crank up the environmental review process to an unseemly speed. According to Stoltze, "Some community activists complain the well-connected Leiweke has railroaded city officials -- the public had only 45 days to review and comment on the 10,000-page environmental impact report. Elected leaders deny that, but concede they wanted to accommodate AEG's timeline. It wants to break ground next year and start playing football in 2017."

It's equally hard to find an unbiased economist who accepts the claim that stadiums and sports teams benefit the cities that vie for them. As Travis Waldron and Pat Garofalo of The Atlantic found, the arithmetic doesn't add up:

"The basic idea is that sports stadiums typically aren't a good tool for economic development," said Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross who has studied the economic impact of stadium construction for decades. When cities cite studies (often produced by parties with an interest in building the stadium) touting the impact of such projects, there is a simple rule for determining the actual return on investment, Matheson said: "Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten, and that's a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact." Others agree. While "it is inarguable that within a few blocks you'll have an effect," the results are questionable for metro areas as a whole, Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, said.

Or, to put it in the blunt talk of commentator Ron Kaye, a stadium skeptic, "Football stadiums don't make money. ... LA doesn't make money; AEG does." Having conceded that essential truth, the city's Planning Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to approve the environmental report on Farmer's Field.

AEG is close to its goal of extracting maximal profitability from its Los Angeles properties. The NFL's purposes are more twisted. As Tom Searcy and Henry DeVries argue in a posting at Forbes.com:

In a memo sent to league owners back in June, (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell says the "prospects for a new facility are better than they have been in many years." He also wrote that any football stadium built in L.A. should be prepared to host two teams. Is Goodell putting the squeeze on current NFL cities? Since the NFL has no plans to expand beyond the current 32 clubs, the implication is two teams would be sought out to make the move. That puts pressure on host cities to keep team owners happy.

The steady pressure of an NFL-free Los Angeles, the two authors note, led to an 18-year building spree by worried cities with an itchy NFL franchise. Those cities spent an estimated $4 billion to give team owners the stadium deals they demanded. Revenue diversions from sales and property taxes and unrecovered costs for public services around stadiums will continue to inflate the taxpayers' burden for decades to come, since stadiums never, it seems, pay for themselves.

Waldron and Garofalo of The Atlantic wonder, "If taxpayers knew the real cost of stadiums, they might choose to keep paying for police officers, firefighters, and other public services instead of spending $4 billion on professional sports facilities. Or maybe they wouldn't. Maybe fandom is such that we would still prioritize a sparkling new arena or stadium even while we're cutting those services. The point is, we don't know, because we never get that discussion."

Maybe a couple of cities with a down-market team will blink soon, and the franchises will flee to Farmer's Field in 2017. Then again, there might not be a team on Farmer's Field until team owners have exhausted all the concessions their "hometowns" can give up.

Meanwhile, in an artful twist, Governor Brown and the state Legislature have used the supposed benefits of AEG's downtown stadium to undermine 40 years of progressive environmental law, not just in Los Angeles but everywhere in California. Frankly, Farmer's Field is a small cog in the vast and powerful California development machine. Even if a stadium is never built, it will have done its bit for developers in helping to roll back the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Sadly, some of those who claim to oppose the downtown stadium on the grounds of environmental quality and environmental justice are focused on their own dealmaking rather than the common good, as Mark Lacter points out at LA Observed. Holding projects hostage under CEQA to get concessions that satisfy narrow interests is one reason why CEQA is being dismantled.

If Farmer's Field is ever built, it won't be L.A.'s stadium. It won't even be the fans' stadium; it will be AEG's, right down to the corporate skyboxes, the wall spanning LED billboards, the cynical political deals, the payoffs and false promises, and the overpriced beer.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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