Mogul powering L.A.'s downtown revitalization
By Cara Mia DiMassa
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — With a hard hat perched on his head and an orange safety vest enveloping his burly figure, Tim Leiweke leaned against a window 52 stories up. He peered north, taking in a vista from downtown to the San Gabriel Mountains. "It's amazing, the view, eh?" he asked.
With the ease of an urban planner and the affection of a doting uncle, Leiweke pointed out symbols of downtown's revitalization. There, he gestured enthusiastically: a Ralphs supermarket, the refurbished Eastern Columbia building, and finally, the light-filled and logo-emblazoned L.A. Live district that his company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has built.
But at ground level, Leiweke, the president and chief executive of AEG, was more reserved. The sleek, glass-encased tower in which he had been standing represents something dramatic for Los Angeles. The tower, which includes 1,001 hotel rooms to serve the nearby Convention Center as well as 224 luxury condos, is downtown's first new skyscraper in 18 years. It also represents a major gamble.
"It scares the hell out of me," Leiweke said. "It's the hardest thing we've ever done, and we are going right into the eye of the storm."
At a time when city hall is reeling from financial woes, big public works projects remain stalled and private developments have been canceled, Leiweke as much as any other individual is driving the transformation of a major part of Los Angeles.
Some see Leiweke as an example of what L.A. has long lacked — a smart, savvy player who can link arms with financial backers, politicians and unionized workers with equal gusto. In an era when the city can do little development on its own, he and AEG have helped fill a void, doing what many would consider city-building on mostly private land.
"No one has built a center like that in the history of this city — or many other cities for that matter — and he has clearly been the leader," said philanthropist Eli Broad. Leiweke "didn't do it himself, but it wouldn't have happened without him." Other major projects, including the Grand Avenue development that Broad has touted, have stalled in the recession.
To critics, however, Leiweke is a classic example of an influence peddler who curries favor with lawmakers through huge financial donations and gets, in turn, handouts in the form of tax breaks and a rubber stamp on his vision. The company got approximately $246 million in tax breaks on the L.A. Live project alone — plus a grant of $5 million from redevelopment funds.
"There is a feeling that things are out of balance in the attention the city is paying to that area, to downtown in general and in particular to that area around Staples (Center) and L.A. Live," said Dennis Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, which has tangled repeatedly with AEG. "And there's a perception that AEG has kind of become the tail that is wagging the dog of the city."
BUSTLING HAS BEGUN
For most of the time he has lived in Los Angeles, Leiweke has been an under-the-radar figure, someone who can hang with celebrities, politicians and sports figures but rarely gets noticed, even in his own buildings.
That began to shift last year, when singer Michael Jackson died days before beginning an AEG-backed comeback show in London. The ensuing controversy, largely over the costs of Jackson's memorial service, raised Leiweke's public profile. It will rise further with the inauguration this month of AEG's hotel skyscraper.
In the years since the last skyscraper opened downtown, in 1992, the area has become a residential hub and its fortune as a corporate center has waned.
Buildings that once served as worldwide headquarters now house branch offices. Gone are the business executives who once used wealth and influence behind the scenes to guide the city for both good and bad.
Leiweke, 52, is among a handful of people who have stepped in to fill that void, with visions of what the city should look like. For Leiweke, that has meant L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment district centered on Staples Center. The zone's sea of flashing big-screen TVs and corporate logos might not be for everyone. But with bustling foot traffic, it looks a lot like the vibrant destination critics have long complained that downtown lacked.
Still, Leiweke is opening the nearly $1 billion skyscraper, which includes Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels, in the midst of a recession. And he worries that Los Angeles has done little to encourage tourists and conventions to come.
"We are a city that has no plan of attack about how to defend ourselves for the No. 1 generator of our economy, which is tourism," he said. "We have no plan. We spend no money, we have no infrastructure, we have no focus."
What Tim Leiweke thinks Los Angeles is — and isn't — doing for its future holds enormous weight. He maintains personal friendships with a number of politicians, from city Councilwoman Jan Perry and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They make regular appearances at company events and have benefited from AEG's political machine, which has given more than $1.8 million to political candidates and causes in the last five years.
AEG has managed to bring some high-profile events to the Nokia Theatre, including the Emmys and the "American Idol" finale. And people are coming to the zone. On a weekday afternoon, tourists and Angelenos alike circle the property. Weekend nights bring large crowds, drawn by a confluence of sporting events, musical acts at Nokia Theatre and several clubs on the property.
But the 30,000-square-foot Grammy Museum, an integral part of L.A. Live, has struggled to find an audience. (At a premiere of "This Is It," the film of Jackson's last rehearsals, ushers handed out free tickets to the museum.) Some buyers backed out of the tower's condos as the economy foundered, and hotel bookings have lagged behind projections.
So Leiweke has been rolling up his sleeves to sell the venue, giving tours of the hotel tower to pretty much anyone with an interest and using unusual methods to lure events to L.A. Live. He enlisted Steve Carrell and Ryan Seacrest to film videos supporting his effort to bring the National Hockey League draft to L.A. It worked.
The showmanship, Leiweke said, is necessary because L.A. is losing conventions and championship games to cities such as Las Vegas, which invest civic funds to sell themselves.
"Every other city that we would be in, the city would come to us and say, 'Are you guys OK? Can we help you?' " Leiweke said. "I told the mayor, 'You are damn lucky it is us. Because if it were anyone else, they would be out of business.' "
But the criticism has not abated. After Jackson's death, Leiweke went on television to announce that his company would host a public memorial service for the pop star — and was criticized by some of the singer's fans, who felt that Leiweke and AEG shared culpability in Jackson's death.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich demanded that AEG repay the city for costs associated with the memorial, and as the two men publicly quarreled over the amount, Trutanich tried to block AEG's installation of mega-signs at L.A. Live.
AEG eventually recouped its investment in the Jackson tour, mostly by selling rights to "This Is It." But the events took a toll. So the soaring glass-and-steel tower looming over L.A. Live can be seen as AEG's hope for rehabilitation, if not redemption.