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COLISEUM SHELL GAME PLAN'S RUSH COULD AFFECT U.S. STATUS AS LANDMARK.

Byline: BILLY WITZ Staff Writer

Efforts to fast-track the $800 million Memorial Coliseum modernization designed to lure an NFL team to Los Angeles have raised concerns that the ambitious plan will jeopardize the landmark status of the 83-year-old stadium.

The speed with which officials are pushing the plan through has limited public debate and even past supporters question whether the Coliseum's historic status is being jeopardized.

The plan -- to create a towering, three-tier 68,000-seat stadium inside the Coliseum's existing walls -- was approved unanimously Tuesday by the city Planning Commission and is headed for a City Council vote on Friday.

``You've got a mentality of people who want to get it done at any cost,'' said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also is a member of the Coliseum Commission.

``I caution everybody: It's not football uber alles (above all else.)''

Linda Dishman, president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a leading preservation group, said she signed off on the plan in 2003 because the new stadium would preserve two of the Coliseum's three defining characteristics: its exterior walls and the peristyle.

But recent changes -- including removing berms on the exterior walls -- have her worried that the renovation could lead to the revocation of the Coliseum's coveted status as a national historic landmark.

``When we initially agreed to support the project, we believed the exterior of the bowl and the outside walls, particularly the walls, were sacrosanct,'' Dishman said.

``We felt we were on the edge. And when you're so close to the edge, our understanding was that (the design) would be treated with great respect and not altered.''

Coliseum officials and architect Ron Turner have worked for more than three years with preservationists and the NFL's stadium consultants to develop a plan that includes suites, club lounges and spacious locker rooms. And they've been mindful of the fate of Chicago's Soldier Field, which lost its national landmark status after an extensive renovation.

``We're working with public officials and preservationists to balance the need for a state-of-the-art NFL stadium that will allow a team to be economically competitive, while being sensitive to the public interest and historical concerns,'' said Neil Glat, who has directed the NFL's study of L.A. sites.

Ultimately, the Coliseum's historic status lies with the National Parks Service.

``When we do an assessment of a building, we look for salient characteristics that define the things that are important about it,'' said David Look, the deputy head for culture resources for the NPS' West Regional Office in Oakland.

``There've been a number of significant events at the Coliseum, including two Olympics,'' Look said. ``Let's say people at the last Olympics came back to this new place. Would they even recognize the place?''

The city's Historic Preservation Committee unanimously approved the design changes last week, but also recommended that the Coliseum Commission work closely with the state and NPS to maintain the stadium's historic designations.

``We want to make sure we learned by the mistakes in Chicago and we've taken pains to make sure it doesn't happen again,'' Deputy Planning Director Robert Sutton said.

City planning staffers recommended approval of the project to the Planning Commission, which voted 6-0 on Tuesday in favor of the project.

``We think professional football is the best thing that could happen to the Coliseum,'' Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher said.

The Community Redevelopment Agency is set to consider the plan Thursday and the City Council on Friday -- just days before National Football League owners meet in Denver to discuss L.A.'s bid, as well as a competing proposal by neighboring Anaheim.

Concerns over the rapid pace of the approval process and the almost single-minded determination to return professional football are dismissed by supporters of the plan.

``It's not something to get your nose out of joint on,'' said David Israel, a state-appointed member of the Coliseum Commission. ``We're just dealing with a lot of issues at the same time.''

The NFL has been leaning hard on Coliseum representatives to get all of the approvals in place in advance of the owners meeting Tuesday

Yaroslavsky says as the deadline looms, he's concerned that Coliseum officials -- who have kept mum about negotiations -- are giving too much away.

``It's the standard operation procedure for the NFL -- you get into a bidding war,'' he said. ``We're in that now. I love pro football, but I'm not one who believes the NFL is the most important thing in Los Angeles.''

The developing tension reflects differing visions for the future of Exposition Park.

``I see the Coliseum as a rising tide that lifts all ships and I don't think we're giving anything away,'' said Bill Chadwick, an investment banker who has played a lead role in negotiations for the Coliseum Commission.

Chadwick, a member of the Science Center board, takes a free-market view of the museum's concerns about the NFL.

``If you have a shoe store in my mall and I bring 60,000 people by your store and you can't sell shoes, I think you've got the problem, I don't,'' he said.

But since the NFL and the Coliseum have agreed to a 25-year lease to operate the stadium -- with the NFL holding options for an additional 30 years -- some question what will happen when the NFL's interests don't coincide with those of the museums in the park.

``That's been the danger from Day One when you turn over the keys to a private operator,'' said Yaroslavsky, who has spent his career in the public sector. ``The expectation from my point of view is there's nothing this deal should do to infringe upon other constituents of the park -- the Science Center, the rose garden, the Natural History Museum, the African-American Museum. That needs to be an overall concern.''

There have also been concerns raised about increased signage, including a 15-story sign on Exposition Park's western border, five multisided monument signs that could include advertising and three multisided signs that are up to 30 feet tall.

``If that becomes billboard row, it would be a travesty for a park as beautiful as Exposition Park,'' Yaroslavsky said. ``You don't see a Toyota sign on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.''

Chadwick, the NFL proponent, said the signs are a key revenue component for the NFL, generating up to $30 million a year to the team's owner.

Jane Pisano, president of the Museum of Natural History Foundation, said park tenants often find ways to work through their difference amicably because they have similar missions.

``The NFL is not a park tenant, there's no history of cooperation,'' Pisano said. ``Everyone wants this to work, for the NFL to come to the Coliseum, for it to be successful for everyone. But for that to happen there needs to be respect for the public interest in the park.''

Staff Writer Rick Orlov contributed to this report.

billywitz(at)sbcglobal.net

(818) 713-3621

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2; 1 color only) A plan to create a towering, three-tier, 68,000-seat stadium inside the Coliseum's existing walls is headed for a City Council vote Friday. A full house is seen at the Coliseum in 2004 while below, Pope John Paul II is shown there in 1987.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

Daily News fiel photo

(3) Los Angeles Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich high-fives Eric Dickerson after a touchdown at the Coliseum in 1992.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

(4) no caption (Memorial Coliseum)

Box:

Memorial Coliseum History

SOURCE: Daily News research
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 17, 2006
Words:1250
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