Black lawmakers ask state to reject parts of Coliseum-USC deal
The California Legislative Black Caucus voiced strong opposition over parts of a deal that would allow USC to run the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The lawmakers said they support the idea of USC managing the Coliseum, where the school's football team plays, But object to the inclusion of nearby parking lots they say should be turned into parks in the South Los Angeles neighborhood. USC demanded the parking lots as part of the management agreement.
"Your role is not to be boosters for the USC football program," said the letter from the caucus to Robert Stein, chairman of the California Science Center board, which owns the parking lots and the land on which the Coliseum and several museums sit, collectively known as Exposition Park.
"This proposal is an affront .... Giving up control of the parking lots virtually gives away control of the park, which is totally unacceptable," the letter said.
Newly elected Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles) is a caucus member whose district includes the Coliseum. He noted that surrendering the parking lots would break a two-decade-old promise made by the state to eventually convert unused lots surrounding the Coliseum complex into green space for a neighborhood that sorely lacks parks.
"When the entire Legislative Black Caucus looks at the parking lots, we see green space. We see families. We see picnics. We see soccer fields," said Jones-Sawyer, formerly Los Angeles City Hall's top expert on real estate issues.
The group also opposes an element of the deal that would allow USC to also control the aging Sports Arena, part of the Coliseum property that could be razed for a potentially lucrative soccer stadium. The deal envisions the university taking over the sports venues for up to 99 years.
"As drafted, it appears that the board would give up all oversight of future plans if a soccer stadium is to be built. Might that soccer stadium also include a shopping mall, student housing, USC offices?" the caucus wrote.
The caucus rejected an assertion written into the deal that if the Coliseum Commission, which currently governs the stadium complex, goes out of business, the state will be on the hook for $70 million in upgrades. The commission promised to make the improvements in a lease signed with USC in 2008. The complex is operated jointly by the state, county and city.
State Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood), vice chair of the caucus, said the Coliseum's governing charter protects the state from the stadium's debts. "I really doubt that we're going to lay off teachers and take services away from poor people so that we can fund a football stadium for a private school," he said.
The parking lot proposal was hammered out by USC and a member of Gov. Jerry Brown's Cabinet, Anna Caballero, and released Dec. 18. The California Science Center board, a nine-member panel of gubernatorial appointees that meets monthly in Los Angeles, was left out of the negotiations, even though the panel must approve any deal because it has final authority over Exposition Park.
Delaying an accord on the parking lots would put the Coliseum in a precarious spot. Stadium officials said Wednesday they expect the venue to run out of money to make payroll by the end of March. Wright said the Coliseum could be forced to lay off employees or shut its doors.
The Coliseum's dire financial situation came to light as a corruption scandal unfolded at the 89-year-old stadium, leading to criminal charges against eight people, including five former employees. At the heart of the scandal are allegations of bribery, embezzlement, kickbacks and conflicts of interest. The stadium has lost $10.6 million over the last three fiscal years.
Revenue from the parking lots supports the operations of Exposition Park, which is home to the Science Center, the California African American Museum and the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Science Center board chairman Stein said he shared the lawmakers' concerns.
USC is "trying to get control over as much of the land in the park as possible," he said in an interview. "They played 100 years in the Coliseum and they haven't had parking. Why do they need it now?"
"The issue of the parking lots is non-negotiable," Stein said. "Not on the table."
USC did not return a call requesting comment.
RELATED:USC would gain control of parking lots under proposal
-- Rong-Gong Lin II at the California Science Center with Paul Pringle
Photo: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times