More than a dozen years later, with all that the iconic arena has brought to Los Angeles, it's almost hard to believe Staples Center nearly didn't happen.

The announcement that the facility's owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group, is being put up for sale triggered the recollections of new details last week from some of the key players in the hard-fought Staples deal of the 1990s.

Staples, which opened in 1999, went on to become more than just an arena where the Lakers and Kings won championships, the Democrats picked their 2000 presidential nominee and the world said goodbye to Michael Jackson.

It was also the first big play by AEG in Los Angeles, one that would be followed by other transformative projects like the massive L.A. Live entertainment district, the Home Depot Center in Carson and now, possibly, the building of a $1.3 billion football stadium.

The arena opened on October 17, 1999, with a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert as its inaugural event.  A fan outside Staples Center before the
The arena opened on October 17, 1999, with a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert as its inaugural event. A fan outside Staples Center before the concert. Daily News file photo.

Had Staples not happened, some city insiders believe, the others might not have followed.

"We had never had anything like this before," said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown and was a council deputy at the time of the Staples deal. "It set the standard for how the city could work with a developer and get a big return.

"Staples set the stage for everything else we have in downtown now."

It was late summer 1996 when the new owners of the Los Angeles Kings first announced the team was looking for a new home, possibly in downtown Los Angeles. The team, which then played at The Forum in Inglewood, had been bought the year before by billionaires Ed Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz.

Then-Mayor Richard Riordan and City Council President John Ferraro immediately embraced the idea.

"I remember walking in that area where they wanted to build and recalled how muddy it was and all the homeless people living there right next to the Convention Center," said Ron Deaton, who was chief legislative analyst and tasked with heading up the negotiations for the city.

At the time, Roski, owner of Majestic Realty, was the public face of the deal. Behind the scenes, Anschutz -- a private businessman who doesn't give media interviews -- was pushing the deal forward despite reservations over the progress of talks with the city.

The initial proposal called for some $70 million in spending by the city, without guarantees the money would be repaid.

The main opposition came from Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district included the site, and Councilman Joel Wachs of Studio City, who led the charge against the plan, fighting to make sure no city money would be at risk.

"It was complicated because we had to assemble all these properties through the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) and Anschutz was growing frustrated," said Steve Soboroff, who was deputy mayor to Riordan and represented the Mayor's Office after Riordan was determined to have a conflict because of his ownership of The Original Pantry restaurant downtown.

Soboroff said he had several "heart to heart" discussions with Anschutz urging patience.

But Wachs' steadfast opposition and populist stance against use of any public money threatened to kill the project altogether. He talked of putting a measure on the ballot against the project as he argued that the real costs to the city could over time end up three times the developers' estimate of $70 million. Roski got so frustrated that by December 1996 he was threatening to pull out altogether.

Kings’ players celebrate as they beat the Devils 6-1 and win the Stanley Cup at the end Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center
Kings' players celebrate as they beat the Devils 6-1 and win the Stanley Cup at the end Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center June 11, 2012.(Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer) (ANDY HOLZMAN/LA DAILY NEWS)

Those involved in the negotiations at the time said one of the factors that helped keep the deal alive was an act of near-divine intervention that went unreported publicly at the time.

Cardinal Roger Mahony was asked by AEG President Tim Leiweke to help persuade the City Council to approve the project.

"Tim asked me to meet with (Wachs and Walters) and I did," Mahony said in a recent interview. "My argument was that I kept talking about the future of the central city, and we were all involved in making it better," Mahony said.

"I said we needed to get something like Staples in downtown Los Angeles. I felt that downtown should serve as a cultural and political center and what we could offer with the church. I said it would have a multiplier effect, and it did."

Mahony, who at the time was also hoping to build a new cathedral downtown, said he saw it as a "chicken and egg argument."

"There were no good restaurants downtown then and all of the restaurants said they would not build until there were more people living downtown. And people said they wouldn't live in downtown until there were good restaurants."

Greg Nelson, who was Wachs' chief deputy at the time, said he recalled it as a meeting in which Wachs could lay out his concerns.

"(Wachs) told the cardinal that he wasn't against the arena, but against using any public funds," Nelson said.

Then-City Council President Ferraro also got deeply involved in trying to rescue the plan, and in the end negotiations resumed. Ultimately the city and developers reached a new deal that offered more guarantees on repayments of city costs through a ticket surcharge and overflow parking revenue, though the CRA still committed to spending $12 million to purchase surrounding property and relocate residents.

In a recent email, Wachs said he did not want to rehash the battles, but added "what finally resolved the dispute was their agreement to not receive any city tax money, directly or indirectly.

"My view was that it was a good project, but they should pay for it themselves. They finally gave in...and then, as I predicted all along, they built a great project with their own money."

Mahony said after Staples was built, at a final cost of $375 million, the developments came as he expected -- with hundreds of condos and apartments being put up along with the businesses needed to support the new residents.

"I think I was right," Mahony said. "Look at what was built downtown."

Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Association, said the Staples Center project led to a transformation for downtown.

"It is what started our renaissance in downtown," Schatz said. "It brought people to downtown who hadn't been here for years. They had a reason to come downtown for reasons other than work, and it became hip to be here."

The population of downtown surged from 18,000 to more than 50,000 and, with the adaptive reuse ordinance, there was a building boom, Schatz said.

"Since Staples was built, we have had $16 billion in investments in the downtown area," Schatz said. "We have had more than 200 bars, restaurants and clubs open."

David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said the Staples project was the key to all the other downtown development and subsequent AEG projects that followed.

"Without Staples, none of the rest would have occurred," Carter said. "It started a pattern they used at all their other developments around the world. It was all about using entertainment to drive their other businesses and Staples Center was the original model. It served as a push back for not using public funds, and it showed how these developments can work.

"It led to L.A. Live, the hotels and all the other developments," Carter said. "The only thing that has been held back is the condo sales and that's the product of the general economy."

Riordan said he believes the project helped reshape downtown.

"It's been fantastic for the city, more than anyone could imagine," Riordan said. "It just brought downtown to life. I think he will be able to sell it (AEG) fairly quickly, and whoever buys it will pay an awful high price."

AEG IN L.A.

A few highlights of AEG's history in Los Angeles:

Staples Center: Opened with inaugural concert by Bruce Springsteen, Oct. 17, 1999.

Lakers: First championship at Staples, vs. Indiana Pacers, June 19, 2000. Followed by four more championships over the next decade.

Democratic National Convention: Aug. 14-17, 2000. Speeches by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore accepting the presidential nomination.

Grammy Awards: Hosted at Staples since 2000, except in 2003.

Michael Jackson memorial: July 7, 2009.

L.A. Live: Nokia Theatre inaugural concert with The Eagles and the Dixie Chicks, Oct. 18, 2007.

American Idol: Finales at Nokia Theatre in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Home Depot Center: Arena in Carson for the Galaxy and Chivas soccer teams, opened June 2003.

Los Angeles Kings: Stanley Cup championship over N.J. Devils at Staples, June 11, 2012.

Football: Proposal now pending for $1.3 billion Farmers Field football stadium next to Convention Center, 2012.


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