DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES— It is still uncertain if Downtown Los Angeles will get an NFL team, but if Farmers Field comes to fruition, the project will have a major outdoor tailgating area that in some ways resembles a food festival.

If the $1 billion project fails to materialize, then the community still stands to gain, as developer Anschutz Entertainment Group might pursue an upgrade of the Convention Center — even if the cost has risen by about $25 million.

Those were some of the details discussed yesterday by AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke. During an interview in his third floor office at LA Live, Leiweke addressed some of the developments accompanying the completion of the environmental impact report for the proposed 68,000-seat stadium. Leiweke said AEG has so far spent $27 million on the project.

The 10,000-page draft EIR was delivered to the city this morning, after 18 months of work. At a press conference at City Hall, 13 massive binders were spread across a black table.

The delivery of the document triggers a 45-day public comment period, during which meetings will be held across the city.

“We expect that by late summer we’ll be before the City Council for approval of our EIR,” said Leiweke.

AEG lobbying in Sacramento last year led to changes in state law regarding protests of EIRs. Now, following council approval, there will be a 175-day challenge period. Leiweke said AEG is prepared for any opposition.

By the first quarter of 2013, he said, “All of our political work will be done and completed, all of our environmental work will be done and completed. Our financing will be in place, our designs will be in place, our naming rights will be in place, our owner will be in place, and then we can turn our attention to the NFL and getting a team deal done.”

Downtown Tailgating

The completion of the EIR has been hailed by business and labor organizations. Both sectors have seen benefits, in terms of economic activity and job creation, in AEG’s Staples Center, L.A. Live and Convention Center hotel.

“AEG has a perfect record of keeping their word to the community,” said Robbie Hunter, executive secretary of the LA/OC Building and Construction Trades Council, a union representing 140,000 construction workers.

The EIR, required by California law, examined scores of issues related to the stadium’s impact on the environment, traffic, parking, transportation, pedestrian safety and other matters. It includes 27 technical reports and more than 170 mitigation measures.

Among the commitments AEG is making as a result of the EIR are a $10 million pledge to expand the Blue Line’s Pico Station, at 11th and Hope streets near the Convention Center. Farmers Field will be designed to achieve LEED certification, an eco-friendly designation by the U.S. Green Building Council. Leiweke said a key aim is to ensure that one-quarter of the attendees of games and events at the stadium utilize public transportation.

“The great thing about Farmers Field is we can build this thinking into the very first communication we have with people who want to buy season tickets or want to buy individual tickets or want to buy a suite,” he said. “We can create the habit at the very beginning of the relationship.”

Plans call for razing the aged West Hall of the Convention Center and building Famers Field in its place. A new convention building would rise adjacent to the Convention Center’s more modern structure, creating more than 1 million square feet of contiguous space. That, say project proponents, would enable Los Angeles to bid for conventions and trade shows it can’t get now.

Leiweke said a new component of the plan is a $10 million reinvention of the Convention Center’s exterior Gilbert Lindsay Plaza. The concrete area, he said, would be gutted and become a green space capable of holding more than 15,000 people before football games or other events. The new “gateway” to Farmers Field, he said, would have dozens of food options. He said agreements have been signed with Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles and Boyle Heights destination El Tepeyac.

The goal, he said, is to create a venue for tailgating that is community friendly.

“It does it in a way where we don’t have to worry about it becoming nothing more than a drinking event, ’cause we don’t want that,” Leiweke said. “We will not allow that to happen here…. The one thing we don’t want is another Bryan Stow incident.”

Looking for a Team

Leiweke said the current timeline envisions the first game at Farmers Field in the fall of 2017. A team that is secured before that, he noted, could play for several years in either the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum.

A plan approved by the City Council last year calls for AEG to finance the stadium, and for the Convention Center replacement to be covered with bonds issued by the city that are backed by the developer. The part of the project not completed, Leiweke, acknowledged, is the biggest challenge: finding a team.

Leiweke restated that Phil Anschutz, the founder of AEG, will need to have an ownership stake in the franchise, as the project won’t pencil out otherwise. It remains unclear whether that would be as a minority partner or as a controlling interest.

“Phil’s been pretty clear all along: ‘I’ll play whatever role makes sense as it relates to an equity participation in the team, but I have to have an equity participation,’” Leiweke said.

Project backers tout the development’s potential to boost Los Angeles as a business travel destination. Leiweke has predicted that a revamped Convention Center would lead to the creation of up to 5,000 nearby hotel rooms. Carol Schatz, the president and CEO of the Central City Association, said that since the announcement of the project, “five major hotel chains are circling the waters, looking to build.”

Leiweke said the price of the Convention Center upgrade, previously set at $350 million, has increased by $20 million to $25 million because of city requests to add elements including a large ballroom and more freight elevators. He said AEG has agreed to the additions.

Leiweke also acknowledged that if a team can’t be lured or a deal made, or if Farmers Field is outbid by Ed Roski, who is pushing a stadium project in the City of Industry, AEG would not walk away from South Park, where it has invested billions in Staples, L.A. Live and the 1,001-room JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“Is there a negotiation? Yeah. Are we in the middle of it? Yeah, probably,” he said. “Do I think we ultimately get to the right place with the NFL? They do not need to move a team to Farmers Field and Phil’s sole purpose in life was not to own an NFL team. So there is every likelihood that we just spent three years and pissed away $27 million. That might happen. I acknowledge that.

“Will we then turn our attention to how do we fix the Convention Center without a football stadium? Yes. Because as a community, as corporate leaders, and from a political standpoint, even the leaders at City Hall will tell you we have a real problem with our Convention Center. We have a West Hall that’s 40 years old that needs $80 million worth of improvements and we don’t have it. We have to go fix that. If we don’t fix it, our problem will not be how do we get to [a] top five [convention destination]? Our problem will be we’re going to slide back to where we were before the JW Marriott opened, which is 26th in the convention business.

“That will be an economic nuclear winter for this city.”

Contact Jon Regardie at regardie@downtownnews.com.

Copyright 2012 Los Angeles Downtown News.