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The Rams Return: Will Football Remake the City of Champions?

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Professional football is coming back to Los Angeles. What's coming to Inglewood, the city in which a new billion-dollar stadium will be built for the prodigal return of the Rams, is less clear.

I know it sounds like I'm raining on a parade. After 21 years of drought, L.A.'s football faithful who've weathered years of failed proposals and various fake-outs are thrilled (though probably lots of people are indifferent--the running joke the last twenty years that L.A. didn't care about having a team was not entirely a joke). It's widely assumed that Inglewood residents are thrilled, too--in a city that's struggled economically and battled a sordid image for as long as I can remember, having within our borders a state-of-the-art stadium that's projected to be NFL's finest seems like nothing but added value. In this grand bargain in which all the stars finally aligned, football w ins, L.A. wins, Inglewood wins. What's not to like?

The issue for me is less about not liking the deal than about all the unrealistic expectations surrounding it. I've pointed out in previous columns more than once that sports venues alone have been shown not to truly benefit the small, fairly anonymous cities in which many are built. That's kind of by design, because frankly the leadership of small cities bend over backwards to attract major sports franchises, which means they don't make many demands. Yet everybody from Mayor James T. Butts to the mainstream media is crowing about what a coup this is and how much Inglewood will get out of it. The L.A. Times gushed that getting the stadium represents a "stunning turnaround" in Inglewood's fortunes. I've lived here a long time and don't see any kind of turnaround, much less a stunning one. Things have improved here and there but there's been no movement you could call a renaissance.

Maybe this all meant to be relative. After years of minimal development, the mere announcement of the stadium--it's also been called a "football palace"-- qualifies as big change. But change has to be tangible, and I can tell you that things are pretty much the same around here this week as they were last week before the announcement. No turnaround. It's going to take more than the stadium calling itself City of Champions--Inglewood's old nickname that hasn't really applied in years--to make this town rise again.

But let's go back a bit: I also don't like how all this went. Mayor Butts fast-tracked approval of building a new stadium by urging the city council not to put the approval of this mega -development before the people in a vote. This was after the city gathered signatures on a pro-stadium petition that technically nullified the need for a ballot initiative at all. The end run around the democratic process--including normal environmental review--was part of the bending over backwards: elected officials didn't even pretend they were going to put the decision about whether to do this on the ballot, where it should have gone. It was clear that once Inglewood sensed this deal was a real possibility, the we-the-people stuff was simply another impediment that could stand in the way of success. Plus the stadium was a behemoth that got attached to another development behemoth already in the works at the Hollywood Park site--condos, retail, etc--which made the stakes that much higher for politicians. The stakes were also that much higher for residents, of course. Yet the bigger the project became, the more ordinary residents faded into the background.

Here's the thing: Lakers were here more than 30 years including the golden years of Magic Johnson, and Inglewood didn't benefit much. Or not nearly enough. We also had Hollywood Park, the Kings, the WNBA, concerts and events year-round. Of course it was better to have all this activity than not, but the activity alone did not make our city a destination. I fault city leadership for that, not the sports franchises. The link between a successful sports operation/venue and successful local development was missing and government seemed in no hurry to find it. So over the years Inglewood became merely the place you went to for Laker games and concerts and not much else -- in fact, it became a totally separate entity that was the antithesis of the glamorous, "Showtime" Lakers. People driving in for events knew not to stay too long, to see the game and then leave.

So will Inglewood transform by osmosis, simply because it will have not only a stadium and pro football but a whole set of amenities on those 300 acres that's shaping up to be the next L.A. Live? That seems to be the expectation. This is a new economy, supporters argue. This isn't just a development, it's a lifestyle center. But 300 acres in a nine-square-mile city is still tiny, and whether what happens on those acres will meaningfully affect the 100,000-plus folks who live here is speculation at this point.

I have young new neighbors who say they've moved in at the right time because Inglewood's on the ascent. Look at what's happening with the stadium, they say. They paid a record price for their house, which is not high for L.A. but it's significant for this neighborhood.

I'm looking, all right. It's just that from my vantage point I still don't see anything.

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