Andrei Ojeda, Stadium Journey

LA Conservancy weighs in on Coliseum

The LA Conservancy has been a major stakeholder in shaping the renovation of the Coliseum. Who are they and how exactly did that happen? Here's the backstory.

They made their bones saving the Wiltern Theater from the wrecking ball. And St. Vibiana's Cathedral. And the Central Library.

And with 6,500 members and an annual budget of more than $2.3 million and hundreds of projects they're involved in on their website, the LA Conservancy is a big hitter when it comes to historical architecture in Southern California. Actually it's a big hitter everywhere as the nation's largest historical preservation organization. 

And there has been no bigger deal in Southern California than the LA Memorial Coliseum when USC came the Conservancy's way back in 2013 with the idea of upgrading, modernizing and paying for a plan to bring the massive structure into the 21st Century.

Which is where Linda Dishman, president and CEO of the Conservancy in her 25th year now, comes in. "To USC's credit, they brought us in when they knew they were getting the lease," Dishman said in an interview Monday.

And as much as Dishman said the Conservancy strongly advocated against the elements it did not want to see in the final design, such as an early proposal by USC for boxes on both sides of the Coliseum or visual elements that reached too far above the rim or any structures on the outside wall, "USC got the building it wanted," Dishman said. "This is what they came up with."

And so did the Conservancy.

Despite the massive new Tower structure, "a good three-fourths of the bowl is still visible," Dishman said. But as to the impact of taking out 9,000 of the best sideline seats in a building with just 38,000 of them from end zone to end zone, Dishman would rather not get into those details. "That's a conversation you should have with USC."

That worked for the Conservancy, having an ongoing conversation with USC. They've done their job. They've strongly advocated for their interests, which for the Coliseum, Dishman said, were these: "the three character-defining factors: the exterior, the interior bowl and the Peristyle."

It's "the balance" among those three factors that the Conservancy wanted to see maintained while allowing USC to upgrade the Coliseum in a way that, by the sale of luxury boxes, would allow it to pay for it.

To accomplish this, the Conservancy was there from before the beginning, actually, helping USC to vet the architects.

"We were there for the architect interviews," Dishman said before the eventual selection of the DLR Group, an 18-office worldwide design/architecture group whose website says that its "core areas are organized around Civic, Courts, Detention, Energy Services, Healthcare, Higher Education, Hospitality, K-12 Education, Museum, Performing Arts, Retail/Mixed-Use, Sports and Workplace design."

And while those areas are listed alphabetically, the 82 active projects on the DLR website show just one involving a major sports facility -- the Coliseum. There are minor sports installations at LSU, Virginia, Creighton and Houston. But the majority are schools, jails, hotels and the like. Major sporting stadium design does not appear to be an area of special expertise.

As for the Conservancy and its list of more than 100 "Urgent" . . . "Ongoing" . . . "Watch List" . . . "Saved" . . . "Success" . . . and "Lost" projects, just two others -- the renovations at Dodger Stadium and Santa Anita Park, touch on the special requirements for sporting venues with the majority the one-of-a-kind unique structures like the oldest remaining McDonald's or the Bob's Big Boy Broiler, both in Downey, or the Cinerama Theater in Hollywood or the Angel's Flight downtown.

But now the Coliseum is in its rear-view mirror in the "success" column. The Conservancy secured a major seat at the table, made its case as strongly as it could and succeeded.

But as for the renovation of the Coliseum, will that be regarded a "success"? One way, Dishman sees that happening, is that USC should be able to keep its National Historic Landmark designation although that's something the National Park Service decides. "That was USC's goal," Dishman said. 

But the LA Conservancy's "success" at preserving history, as much as this renovation can be said to do that, is now starting to impact the here and now. For thousands of USC football ticket-holders who are facing being re-seated twice in the major downsizing of the Coliseum over the 2018 and 2019 seasons from its current 93,607 capacity to 77,500, what has become a closed chapter for the Conservancy is just beginning for them.

On its completion back in 1923, the LA Times heralded the Coliseum, as a story in LA Curbed notes, as "the colossal bowl which rises in grandeur and majesty from its beauteous semi-tropical setting in Exposition Park, and today enters the fulfillment of the pledge made for it by the father of the project, that of being the "people's playground."

"Los Angeles was a very optimistic city," Dishman said of the building of a Coliseum that would seat fully 11 percent of the entire population of Southern California at the time. But with the downsizing from what was once a stadium that seated 102,000, is that still the case?

Or was this a concession to the doubts USC had about being able to finance the project so that it decided it would have to put a massive structure for 2,200 well-healed and USC-loving fans able to commit as much as $10 million for the Founders Suites. And that it would have to extend the Tower all the way down to the 45th row, dominating the view and destroying 9,000 of the best seats to do so?

And if "USC got the building it wanted," as Dishman said after years of Coliseum meetings "where our [the Conservancy's] focus was just on preserving its historical character," what exactly did USC want? And what did it get? And how did it happen?

"All sides were represented," Dishman said of the design meetings, the Conservancy as well as "the football people and the people selling luxury boxes."

All sides save one, it appears.

Who represented the season ticket-holders and the fans who show up for the big games?

One large group will be moved to worse seats. The other may not be able to get into the big games at a Coliseum that may no longer be able to play its historic role as the "peoples playground" in Southern California. 

Here's the official account of how this happened from the LA Conservancy's website:

"For more than two years, the Conservancy regularly met with USC to review and provide feedback on the now-approved project, which aims to preserve and maintain the Coliseum while stabilizing the structure, improving site infrastructure, and modernizing existing facilities. In October 2015, the Conservancy spoke before the Coliseum Commission regarding USC’s preliminary plans. It has been a good partnership, and we are pleased that USC is taking on this much-needed initiative to reinvest in one of the most significant landmarks in Los Angeles.

"The Conservancy has thoroughly reviewed the project and worked hard with USC to minimize and reduce any potential impacts associated with the series of proposed sky boxes and a rooftop terrace along the south side of the stadium. The current iteration calling for the addition of club seating and luxury suites will provide funding for the restoration of the Coliseum itself and insure its viability as a sport facility. This is important, and we understand this will also mean the remainder of the stadium will be left intact and some previous alterations (signage, jumbo screens, etc.) will be removed, improving the appearance and the public’s access to the Coliseum.

"Throughout our many conversations with USC, we have continually pressed for a project that ultimately minimizes physical impacts and maintains the continued eligibility of the Coliseum as an historic resource, most importantly its National Historic Landmark designation. USC has been very sensitive to our concerns, and we believe that the proposed project will ensure eligibility is maintained long-term. This is important in terms of the Conservancy’s support, and we want to thank USC for working so closely with us on this issue."

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