Massive makeover of L.A. Convention Center moves ahead as Olympics loom

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA MARCH 30, 2020-A jogeer runs past the L.A. Convention Center where it will become a field hospital to help relieve the pressures brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Proponents of a plan to make over the Los Angeles Convention Center, shown in 2020, say it would help the economy, create jobs and revitalize downtown. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles City Council committee on Tuesday backed an effort to remodel the downtown Convention Center ahead of the 2028 Olympics, even as city leaders acknowledged the ambitious time frame for completing the project.

The council's Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee voted to spend up to $54.4 million for preconstruction work on the aging, city-owned Convention Center, a proposal that now heads to the full City Council for a vote.

The 2028 Olympics were billed by proponents as fiscally prudent because no major venues needed to be built. But with table tennis and other events planned at the Convention Center, city leaders want to use the Games as an impetus to start construction that could ultimately cost billions of dollars.

Over the last decade, various plans for modernizing the center, which opened in 1971, have been proposed but have not moved forward.

Business and labor leaders packed Tuesday's meeting to support the project, arguing it would help the economy, create jobs and revitalize downtown.

Nella McOsker, president of the downtown business group Central City Assn., told the five-member committee that this "is a challenging moment for the city and a challenging decision to make, but surely the right one."

If the Convention Center is expanded, the city would pay for the construction but the work would be carried out through a private-public partnership with Anschutz Entertainment Group, which runs the convention center, and development firm Plenary Group.

In the short term, the city will spend up to $54.4 million on preconstruction design work. The City Council is expected to vote later this year on a final work agreement for the entire project with AEG and Plenary group.

However, if it becomes clear during the preconstruction work that the timeline for final completion isn't feasible, the city can pull the plug, officials said Tuesday.

Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso warned council members at the meeting that it will be challenging to get the project done before the Olympics, calling the schedule "very fast-paced."

“There is no room for error in this timeline," she said.

The redesign would address the lack of contiguous space at the center, which is viewed by city officials as a major problem for attracting convention-goers. None of the existing facilities would be demolished under the proposal, and the new construction would connect the Convention Center buildings, adding 190,000 square feet of additional exhibit hall space, 55,000 square feet of additional meeting room space and 95,000 square feet of multipurpose space.

A report released this month by Tso and Chief Administrative Officer Matt Szabo estimated that the cost to the city would be $4.78 billion over a 30-year period, which includes debt on any loans.

The reworked facility would bring in new revenue, including additional parking and money from digital signs, according to the report. When those revenue streams are factored in, the cost to the city would decrease to about $43 million a year, according to the report.

Tso and Szabo's report stated that the Los Angeles Convention Center, or LACC, "must be in a fully functional state” by March 2028 to be used for the Games, which start in July of that year.

If that goal is not met, the report said, "the city would be at risk of losing these events to venues outside of the area, and potentially outside Los Angeles, and in turn sacrificing the related revenues and benefits that would be generated by the city and local businesses."

"I think we understand the urgency of getting this done by March 2028, if not sooner," said Councilmember Traci Park, who chairs the Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee.

In 2012, city leaders backed a plan to demolish the Convention Center’s West Hall to make way for a $1.2-billion football stadium, but developer AEG failed to attract an NFL team.

Councilmember Curren Price, who has represented the area around the Convention Center since 2013, told the committee at Tuesday's meeting that the city has been "discussing the Convention Center expansion almost the entire time I've been on this council."

"I'm just glad to see this project moving forward," he said. "Like many, I've got some reservations, particularly around whether or not we get it done in time, but I'm positive that we will."

In addition to emphasizing the tight timeline, Szabo and Tso warned the council that the city already faces deficits in the next few years, including shortfalls of nearly $260 million.

Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez, speaking at Tuesday's meeting, said he was "nervous" to make "large decisions" around the budget because the city recently cut scores of vacant city positions.

“We don't have another way out of it,” he said. “We cut the vacancies. And now if something does happen, revenues come down or expenses go up, we're in a really, really tough spot.”

City leaders have also said that city services will remain stagnant in the coming year because of the lean budget.

City Controller Kenneth Mejia, who has criticized the budget decisions, declined to comment about the Convention Center proposal Tuesday.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.