Who lost the Coliseum?

Written by
The entrance to the LA Memorial Coliseum

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum used to be among the most distinguished public buildings in California. It hosted two Olympic Games (1932 and 1984), two Super Bowls (including the first), and the 1959 World Series (Dodgers and Chicago White Sox). John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president there in 1960. And while the stadium often seemed rundown, you couldn’t question its toughness: it survived 12 years as the home of the National Football League’s Raiders and their notoriously volatile fans.

But its status as a public entity couldn’t survive the dysfunction of Los Angeles—or California. This summer, consumed by scandal and financial shortfalls, the government commission that owns the Coliseum effectively turned over the keys to a private school, the University of Southern California, which plays its football games there. Technically, the Coliseum remains publicly owned, but, under the terms of a 98-year lease, USC is in total control.

Press and critics at museums near the Coliseum have criticized this deal as a sweetheart transfer of a civic treasure to a private entity, and not without reason. USC, which already has more money than some countries, will keep ticket and concession revenues from Coliseum events. It also has permission to knock down the Sports Arena next door and build a soccer stadium in its place, all in exchange for its commitment to at least $70 million in renovations and a $1 million annual rent, subject to inflation adjustments.

But as right as the critics are to question whether the USC deal is too generous, they’re wrong to disapprove of taking the Coliseum away from its current managers. What they’re overlooking are all the costs of having an important public space like the Coliseum controlled by multiple governments.

While the Coliseum was certainly plagued by mismanagement, the recent scandals were just symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Like too many other important places in California, the Coliseum was run not by one person or one government—but by many. Its governing commission is a joint authority of the city of Los Angeles, the county of Los Angeles, and the state of California. This arrangement has proved the adage that when a place is governed by multiple governments, it is effectively ungoverned.

In L.A., which is already so big and disconnected, such a lack of governance is even more damaging. The decay of the Coliseum over recent decades made that all too clear. I’ve sat on broken seats and lost years of my life to traffic jams in its neighboring streets and parking lots.

California law makes it very easy for California governments—already infamously numerous—to create joint power authorities like the Coliseum, by combining with one another, with nonprofits, and even with government agencies in other states. The resulting joint entities have many purposes: creating insurance pools and purchasing discounts, doing regional planning and regulatory enforcement, and making it easier for governments to borrow at better rates and without voter approval.

Many of these joint entities work. But others don’t—and others are too complicated to be well monitored. And when multiple governments oversee the same public space, the results can be messy—as in San Francisco, which is already dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns on its $4 billion-plus Transbay Transit Center, a multi-government project touted as “The Grand Central Station of the West.”

In the case of the Coliseum, the media has made much of leaked emails showing the commission to be willfully ignoring public meetings laws. But the emails also show how much energy is required to manage a body run by three different (and dysfunctional) governments. It’s clear that Coliseum managers couldn’t contain their desire to make the USC deal and escape the multi-government madness. Wrote the Coliseum general manager in one missive: “Oh, what a joy there will be for both of us… when we are not in these meetings.”

Whatever you think of the terms of the deal, USC’s takeover of the Coliseum has one great virtue: a single entity in charge. I’m not a big fan of L.A. LIVE or The Grove, but those privately owned places are vital public gathering spots, in no small part because it’s clear who is in charge of each. And Angelenos are fortunate that Griffith Park is clearly a city asset and that the Hollywood Bowl is the county’s business.
Taming California’s proliferation of entities with multiple masters doesn’t mean we have to do a cozy deal with a private entity like USC, as we did with the Coliseum. But having one boss, and one mission, is essential for competent management of public spaces. Especially in L.A.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.