Conventional wisdom

"This was originally supposed to be a 'no-build' Olympics, and that's what the commitment was to the public"

The LA convention center with green glass walls and a signboard in front that says BOOK YOUR EVENT HERE
The dream of the '90s is alive at the convention center

If you want to see proof that Los Angeles is incapable of building the type of public infrastructure that everyone agrees we need, I can take you on a tour. We'd lament nonexistent parks. Mourn missed opportunities along the river. But the very first stop would be the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Our tour would have to quickly pivot to a historic architecture tour, because if it wasn't immediately obvious by the monolithic, windowless west entrance, a large portion of the convention center serving the second-largest city in the U.S. was built in 1971. Expansions were made in 1993 and 1997, delivering a new minty-fresh facade with faux glass brick and totally tubular atria — our very own Javits Center rinsed with Scope mouthwash. But tacking on these additions only briefly staved off the reality: without adding more exhibition space, LA as a convention destination was quickly demoted to "second tier" status.

This puts LA in a precarious financial situation. In 2014, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board estimated that inadequate convention infrastructure means LA misses out on over $1 billion in economic impact each year. And yet, for nearly three decades, in a downtown it claimed was trying to revitalize, the city of LA neglected to prioritize, fund, and execute a plan to save its underperforming convention center.

A vacant plaza in front of the oldest convention center building with signage declaring LOS ANGELES CONVENTION CENTER
Approaching the convention center from the LA Live side always feels like you're walking into a John Cassavetes film

In 2013, the city made a deal that former mayor Eric Garcetti later described as a "data-driven, rational approach to the convention business." LA entered into a public private partnership with AEG, which agreed to manage the convention center along with the adjacent then-Staples Center. City leaders crossed their fingers and hoped AEG would plop an NFL stadium in downtown, prompting a convention center overhaul. (This obviously didn't happen.) A high-profile architecture contest was won by Populous, who began working with AEG on the modernization plan in 2018. The design shows existing halls merged with 193,000 square feet of new halls, creating 750,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space.

In 2023, the city finally approved the project. But in early 2024, as the reality of LA's budget sank in, it seemed clear that once again there would be no money to get started. Until the council's tourism committee asked the city's legislative analysts to report back on how much money the city would have to put up now to potentially get this $1.4 billion project on track to be finished before the Olympics.

And the answer, presented to that committee and approved by a full council vote yesterday, is $54.4 million.

The convention center atrium with tall walls of curved greenish fake glass block and a sign that shows "private event" convention
LA's convention center is 21st out of 30 U.S. cities according to a Wall Street Journal ranking

Again: we do, desperately, need a better convention center. There's a pretty good argument here that failing to act on this renovation has helped bankrupt the city, and legislative analysts argue the proposed convention center plan would put $570 million in tax revenue back into the general fund over 30 years. Entering into a design-build agreement through a public private partnership with AEG is also a smart, lower-risk way to go about this, in the same way our new Brightline train is more likely to get done fast. All we're authorizing now is $54.4 million to gauge the feasibility of the project within the four-year timeline. The decision to move forward will be made in December. Of course, one possibility is that we spend all $54.4 million just to find that it's not feasible.

But here's the thing: the convention center technically does not need to be updated "by 2028." LA28 has already picked the convention center, in its current state, as a venue to host table tennis, fencing, taekwondo, and, if selected as a sport, boxing. So that brings us to the third potential timeline: the city could spend $54.4 million, find that it is feasible, start construction, and still not have it done before 2028 — meaning LA28 could possibly take those events to other venues.

This was the greatest fear articulated by Councilmember Traci Park, who is the chair of the council's tourism committee and also the chair of the council's Olympics committee. "Losing those events to other cities or regions or even potentially other states, because of our potential inability to complete this project on time, would be a devastating loss," she said at last month's tourism meeting. "And it would absolutely harm our city's reputation, here and on a global stage."

With all due respect, our city's reputation in regards to major construction projects has already been harmed on a global stage — and all anyone at the convention center will need to do to be reminded of this is look across the street.

Three large abandoned towers covered in graffiti tags on nearly every floor dominate the landscape in downtown LA
Although downtown's Graffiti Ghost Towers are not technically public infrastructure, we do give hotel developers huge public subsidies, so these would definitely be on my tour

Park's comments were particularly comical to hear days before LA28 announced that seven events would be leaving LA, including two going all the way to Oklahoma City. The only people who seemed to really be upset about this were the councilmembers who weren't going to have events in their districts. But let's have some perspective here. Last year LA's convention center hosted 21 major conventions, and Anaheim's convention center hosted 43. It's really not a devastating loss if we lose table tennis to Anaheim in 2028. It's a devastating loss when we lose major conventions to Anaheim every single month!

On one hand, to actually get something built this fast, and on budget, would set an extremely good precedent for the city. (I'm looking directly at you, Sixth Street Bridge, $100 million over budget, two years late; and you, LAX people mover, $200 million over budget, two years late... and counting.) We can point to the convention center and say, hey, LA can get things done! Who knew all we needed were completely made up deadlines? Now we have no excuse not to install a bus shelter at every bus stop in the city.

On the other hand, until last month, the messaging coming directly from city leaders was that LA doesn't have the money or capacity to plan any legacy improvements before 2028. The people of LA have been told to prepare for devastating cuts to basic services like sidewalk repairs, largely due to the elimination of positions across city departments. Yet the convention center plan advances $2 million to the Bureau of Engineering to hire more staff just to work on this project — the same engineers we could desperately use to repair LA's sidewalks.

Then there's that promise that elected officials made to the city about the games — and now they're going back on their word. "This was originally supposed to be a 'no-build' Olympics, and that's what the commitment was to the public," said Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, the sole "no" vote on council. Rodriguez was also the only person who noted that the initial $54.4 million cost assumed by the city would actually be $100 million with interest. That could install a lot of bus shelters!

But the biggest problem with the current proposal is that it's a six-year-old plan that will be ten years old in 2028. In the time we've wasted, we've fallen even further behind other cities. "Over the last five years, virtually all of Los Angeles' direct competitors have already completed major convention center expansions," reports a 2023 situational assessment by the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. This proposal doesn't get us anywhere close to the top-tier Las Vegas Convention Center, which has 1 million square feet of contiguous exhibition space, a brand-new hall with 600,000 square feet of exhibition space completed in 2021, and a renovation of its legacy campus underway. (And Elon Musk's car sewers, which may or may not be a draw.) A 2016 evaluation of LA's modernization plans recommends that another expansion would be needed as soon as 2035 for LA to stay competitive. We could expedite this whole plan only to remain a tier-two convention city.

Plus, as anyone forced to renovate a 50-year-old structure knows, snapping all these aging buildings together like a bunch of Frozen Lego sets makes the project more expensive than starting over. This was confirmed by Sharon Tso, the city's chief legislative analyst, during the tourism meeting. "Part of the reason why this is costly is because of the connections of the buildings," she said. "Building from the ground up is always cheaper than trying to retrofit."

So now we're going to spend even more money to do an old plan fast — when we should be rethinking the whole plan to actually do it right.

A desolate plaza with few trees and lots of concrete in front of the convention center, with a large hotel across the street
A bus plaza designed when you were listening to your first Counting Crows CD

An appropriately ambitious plan for LA's future would not only deliver a forward-looking convention center that doubles or triples the exhibition space, it would rethink the entire site. The city also needs way more hotel rooms to improve its industry ranking, and it's ludicrous that we aren't adding a dozen hotel towers right here, connected to our brand-new convention center. One nice part of the current proposal would turn the convention center's bus plaza into an actual park for residents, but it doesn't engage with the failures of the actively hostile LA Live complex next door. The current proposal also includes building two more parking structures. HELLO! MORE PARKING IN DOWNTOWN? AT A TOURIST DESTINATION? NEXT TO THE LONGEST LIGHT RAIL LINE IN THE WORLD?

Downtown needs a lot more help than this makeover delivers. Let's use the convention center's redevelopment to create a truly pedestrian-prioritized district, with heroic transit connections, more outdoor dining and street vendors, and a redo of Figueroa's "incomplete" streets plan that got watered down by car dealerships. Heck, let's buy the Graffiti Ghost Towers across the street and meld the whole thing into the country's largest social housing community. A recent Los Angeles Times story noted that the towers — which will soon be up for auction — aren't financially viable for developers because the apartments and the retail spaces are too large. But guess what, we need large apartments for families! And you know what would fill the retail? A bunch of new convention-goers!

We could build a top-tier, world-class convention center that's more like a neighborhood, where people actually want to spend money and time — instead of going to Anaheim.

Unfortunately our leaders don't have that kind of vision. And this is why everything LA builds looks 10 years old the minute the ribbon is cut.

Another pretty desolate view of the convention center with white tiles and fake glass block and a wide service road
Along this stretch of Figueroa fronting the South Hall, pedestrians have to walk on this service road â€” the street still doesn't even have a sidewalk!

At budget hearings earlier this year, councilmembers were told the city would have a deficit until 2028. But now that their constituents know the council can summon more money "for" the Olympics, get ready for the floodgates of demands to open. If the convention center moves forward, the narrative will be how LA rallied, risking public dollars in an attempt to keep events local — table tennis was saved! — and defy the "no-build" games.

But in truth, until we get serious about prioritizing the outcomes we actually want, we are the same LA we always were: a "no-build" city. 🔥

💵 At the same tourism committee meeting, LA's tourism workers were once again demanding that the council pass a year-old motion to boost minimum wages to $30/hour by 2028. They also held a rally at LAX today. I wrote about this campaign in May, which is known as the Olympic wage

🎫 Just a side note that in addition to running our convention center and Arena, AEG also owns the ticketing platform that will be used by LA28 — yet another private company LA has dutifully intertwined into the financial fate of the city to bolster its campaign to host the Olympics

📊 Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez — who I spoke with about voting no on the city's budget this year — introduced a motion to move to a two-year budget cycle. We still need more reforms, but this is a start

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