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$270 million LA Coliseum renovation will re-do some prime USC real estate

Tough calls had to be made in coming up with the design for the new-look Coliseum for 2019. Associate AD Scott Jacobson, here, points out some of the details on a large Coliseum model.

It seemed very much the appropriate place for this forum discussing the Coliseum redesign. The Marshall School Real Estate Alumni hosted a sellout crowd of 225 Wednesday at Galen Center's Founders Room to hear the details of USC's new-look, nearly century-old, National Historic Landmark of a stadium. 

Actually it was a two-stadium night as Rams COO Kevin Demoff detailed the new $2.66 billion Rams stadium in Inglewood. And with 10 times the money to work with than USC's $270 million, an awfully impressive place it will be. But more of that later.

This was a night for the architects at the DLR Group who are doing the redesign, and the tough choices that had to be made to get the 93-year-old iconic Coliseum up to speed.

Sports principal Don Barnum has done stadiums and sports facilities all over the country and the principal designer on the project, Andrea Cohen Gehring, is a USC grad, Class of '86, with a husband also a USC architecture alum and two daughters, both architecture students as well at USC. Her Trojans football connection goes back 30 years, Andrea says.

"This will be my most special project in 26 years [working with USC]," Gehring said. "Once you drink the [Fight On} Kool-aid, it just gets bigger and bigger -- how important the Coliseum was, is and will be to the alumni. It brings everyone together."

For Barnum, after working recently on Heritage Hall and the Marx Tennis Center in the company's quarter-century history with USC, "this is a career project for me," he said, "one of the most iconic sports stadiums in the world."

But the new-look Coliseum isn't without some controversy. While it's now the ninth-largest stadium in the nation, the planned drop in capacity from 93,607 to 77,500, will move it all the way down to to No. 25. And below the 80.000 mark that always seemed to divide the top-tier stadiums from the second tier although Barnum says that wasn't a consideration nor a demarcation he agrees with.

Asked for a comment about how the alumni are taking this, Michael Adler, USC Alumni president who could soon be on the Board of Trustees, took a deep breath before describing the feedback he's getting. "How about . . . 'very optimistic'," he said of the hope he's hearing that this all somehow works out.

That's because the top college stadiums all seem to be getting bigger in their re-designs and renovations with Michigan now at to 107,601, Penn State (106,572), Ohio State (104,944), Texas A&M (102,733), Tennessee (102,455), LSU (102,321), Alabama (101,821) and Texas (100,119) adding on big numbers. But next-in-line USC is not going there.

"You only needed the 93,000 seats for two games," Gehring said -- "UCLA and Notre Dame." Although in 2013 and 2011, USC needed all 93,607 for Stanford and in 2012, all 93,607 were filled for Oregon. And in the last five seasons, 14 of USC's home games have drawn more than 77,500 fans. 

Some of that drop in capacity will be due to wider, safer aisles, some of them brand new in places where there weren't aisles, along with wider new 20-, 21- and 22-inch seats with knee space increasing in places from 30 to 33 inches. But that's just part of the capacity cutback.

There's the big new building right in the middle of the press box side of the Coliseum, kind of like someone dropped an aircraft carrier into the marina where you keep your fishing boat. You can't miss the huge rectangular eight-story building running the full length of the field arising out of the classic Coliseum oval shape.

But the look, as different as it will be, is not the most concerning part for USC fans we've heard from. It's the taking out the top 56 rows and 10,000 of the best sideline seats in exchange for 2,500 luxury box seats. And doing so in a spread-out stadium that doesn't have all that many good sideline seats to begin with.

"Pat Haden said the No. 1 goal is we really need to improve the fan experience," Gehring said of improvements that will improve fan comfort, the sound system, the video screens, the wi-fi connectivity, field lighting and concessions and rest rooms. So if you don't lose your seats and have to move to the sun side, you're good to go.

"We had to strike a balance," said Gehring with a state-of-the-art stadium whose new look satisfied all the stakeholders. For USC, Barnum said, that was hitting the $270 million budget, which will put it behind the Cal ($321 million) and Washington ($280 million) stadium renovations but ahead of the Rose Bowl ($194 million).

Both mentioned how one of the stakeholders involved in the process was the Los Angeles Conservancy, the historic preservation group that made its opinion clear about what it wanted in keeping the Coliseum as one of four stadiums with the National Historic Landmark designation along with Harvard Stadium, Yale Stadium and the Rose Bowl.

Chicago's Soldier Field, where USC began its Notre Dame series to crowds of up to 120,000 in the mid-1920's, was on the list until a modern stadium with soaring roof lines was dropped inside the historic Soldier Field walls and it was de-listed.

None of that for USC. In fact, the LA Conservancy folks much preferred this look instead of one that would have had an end-to-end series of narrower private boxes along the entire top of the stadium taking out many fewer seats because that would change the look of the stadium -- from the outside. They wanted to preserve the exterior walls.

And since Barnum notes the new building will be offset much closer to the field than the seats it replaces, a comparable seat in a box in the same row will be 65 feet closer to the field. That's a real selling point to the folks who are signing up for the boxes in solid numbers thus far.

Barnum also said he thought the boxes at the top of the stadium, even though they'd be exactly at the height where the press box is now, would be too far from the action and hard to sell. But the new press box will have a much lower profile from the outside because of its closer-to-the-field location.

"Could we have done it that way?" Barnum repeats the question. "Yes." But this was the consensus call not to.  

And that's part of the balance, as well. Inside the stadium the look will be very different. Not to mention the sound with so much valuable mid-field real estate devoted to so few seats -- and some of them behind glass.

"We think we've struck a balance," Barnum said, "for the fans, for the revenue opportunity for USC and for history . . . for the next 90 years."

And in Demoff, whose Rams will play here for the next three seasons and not get the full benefit of the renovated stadium with construction set to begin after the 2017 season and be completed for 2019, the Coliseum has a fan just as it is.

"We love your stadium -- warts and all," Demoff said, noting that an LA football fan could buy the exact same seat -- not just the number and location but the exact seat itself still in place -- that he could have the first year the Rams came here in 1946 from Cleveland for this year's opener in August against the Cowboys.

Now that's some history.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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