L.A. Live's communal renaissance


It might be stretching things to say that the eyes of the world will be on L.A. Live come Oct. 27, but it will definitely be a special night for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael Jackson, not to mention AEG, which co-owns and operates the $2.5 billion entertainment district.

The evening will kick off at 6 p.m. at the Nokia Theatre with the world premiere of "Michael Jackson's This Is It," a feature length documentary about preparations for the pop legend's world tour that never happened. Across the street at Staples Center, where Jackson rehearsed the evening before his death, the Lakers will be presented with the championship rings for their 15th NBA title (and fourth since coming to the arena in 1999) at 7:30 p.m. before the tipoff for their home opener. Then at 9 p.m., the new Regal Cinemas complex will celebrate its grand opening by showing "This Is It" on all 14 screens. All the while, patrons will flow in and out of Club Nokia, the Conga Room and L.A. Live's 12 restaurants.

"If L.A. Live and Staples Center are really the heart and soul, the Times Square of L.A., then that night will showcase it for worldwide media," says Randy Phillips, one of the producers of "This Is it," as well as president of AEG Live, the promoter for the aborted Jackson tour.

As impressive as the evening's lineup is, L.A. Live will not truly reach its full potential until February's opening of the 54-story Ritz-Carlton/J.W. Marriott Hotel, which was intended to be the centerpiece of the development since Staples Center was in the initial planning stages back in the mid '90s.

The Los Angeles City Council approved the master plan for L.A. Live by a vote of 11-0 in September 2001, but finding a partner to build the hotel proved to be problematic. Developers came and went (Tishman Construction, Apollo Real Estate Advisors, Wolff Urban Development) for several years before KB Home finally signed on to build the hotel. In the meantime, construction costs soared, raising the projected price tag from $370 million-$500 million to close to $1 billion.

"We got to a point where we basically said, 'We've got to build the project,' " says Ted Tanner, executive vp, real estate development for AEG. "So without really having the hotel development piece nailed down we made the commitment to go ahead and build the Nokia Theatre, the garages underneath, the ESPN building and our AEG building, which are now completed and fully leased and occupied."

Ground broke on L.A. Live in September 2005. In October 2007, the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre opened -- along with the 40,000-square-foot Nokia Plaza and an underground parking garage -- and quickly put itself on the map with an opening-night concert by the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks and a telecast of the American Music Awards the following month.

In December 2008, L.A. Live's second phase commenced, adding two new buildings that flank the plaza. One holds the Grammy Museum and the 2,300-person capacity Club Nokia along with a stable of restaurants (including the Farm of Beverly Hills, Katsuya, Rock'N Fish, Trader Vic's and the Yard House), Lucky Strike Bowling and the Conga Room. The other contains the 12,000-square-foot ESPN broadcast facilities, housing both a 24-hour radio station and studios for their flagship TV show "SportsCenter," along with the ESPN Zone restaurant.

"Now people can have dinner, come to a Laker game and stay for a show at a club," says Lee Zeidman, senior vp and GM of Staples Center and Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.

But the new tenants who moved in over the course of the winter and spring of '09 provided more than just added attractions and increased revenue. They transformed the area from an event destination to a living, breathing community buzzing with daily activity.

"Because of the fact that we all arrived at essentially the same time, there's a certain camaraderie for the people work here," says Chris Berry, vp and GM of KSPN/ESPN Radio. "And it's kind of an anomaly for Los Angeles to have such a centralized working location, which is also focused on entertainment."

Being situated in the heart of a bustling sports and entertainment complex has already provided ESPN with unique broadcast opportunities, from interviews with music stars Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg to stunts such as having Laker Derek Fisher shoot baskets off the roof. If a visiting X-Game athlete or a celebrity with courtside seats wants to drop by for an in-studio interview, all they have to do is cross Figueroa Street. And because the district was built from the ground up in the fiber optic age, remote broadcasts can be pulled off with a minimum of fuss.

"Staples, Nokia Theatre, Club Nokia and even the Conga Room and the ESPN Zone are what we call plug-and-play venues," Phillips says. "They were built with the need for content and new media and new distribution sources in mind. On the last Prince tour, we were able to broadcast the last show into the Regal, United Artist and Ritz Theatres from Staples without using a (remote) truck."

Those capabilities will be put to the test on Oct. 27, as will Zeidman, who will be ping-ponging between the venues all night. Fortunately, L.A. Live was designed with some amenities that make his life easier, too.

"I have a tunnel that takes me underground between Staples and the Nokia Theater that gets me back and forth pretty quickly," Zeidman says.