Mayor James Butts at Inglewood City Hall. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Mayor James Butts at
Inglewood City Hall.
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

By Gary Walker

When James Butts became mayor of Inglewood in 2010, the former Santa Monica police chief took over a city in search of cultural and economic momentum as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

Now Butts is focused on keeping up with billions of dollars in new investment.

Last week’s announcement that professional football would return to the Los Angeles area with a privately funded $1.8-billion stadium to be built at the former Hollywood Park race track is the latest and greatest chapter so far in the story of Inglewood’s renaissance.

Standard & Poor’s has already boosted the city’s credit rating.

Momentum picked up two years ago with the reopening of The Forum (formerly home to L.A. Lakers teams that gave Inglewood its “City of Champions” moniker) as the city’s premier large-concert venue after $100 million
in renovations.

The success promises to continue with plans for a retail, entertainment, hotel and residential complex adjacent to the 80,000-seat stadium after the stadium opens in 2019.

Elected to a second term as mayor with 84% voter support in 2014, Butts is no Johnny-come-lately to Inglewood.

Butts, 62, became an Inglewood police officer in 1972 — a time when African-Americans were just starting to move into the-then largely white city that would become primarily black in the 1980s and that by 2010 had become primarily Latino and black. He later served as Santa Monica’s chief of police from 1991 to 2006 and an LAX police executive from 2006 to 2010.

“I’ve been here for the alpha, when I came back it was the omega, and now we’re a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Butts said.

The rise of Inglewood — its new stadium in particular — is also expected to have a positive impact on its neighbors to the west, further shifting economic momentum toward this side of the city.

“This will have a completely positive impact for Inglewood and communities west of Inglewood as well. People will travel to the stadium from all directions and will stop in Westchester, Marina del Rey and Playa Vista, and that will help the economic infrastructure of those communities,” said Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra, an expert in urban politics and local governance.

During his conversation with The Argonaut, Butts took issue with a question about the possible impacts of gentrification on Inglewood, saying improvements in desirability would improve quality of life and increase opportunity for a city largely supportive of economic renewal efforts.

Guerra sees similar benefits.

“There will be no [negative] gentrification because no residents will be moved out due to the stadium, and the city will get new revenue from the stadium and the development projects near the stadium. This will improve the entire Manchester Avenue Corridor as well as Westchester,” Guerra said.  “Politically, it’s a win for both Mayor Butts and Mayor [Eric] Garcetti because now they can say that they were able to bring football back to Los Angeles when other mayors couldn’t.”

Westside real estate broker Monica Trepany, head of Playa Realty, said Inglewood is positioned for a new era of prosperity that could influence Westside property values as well.

“The stadium will be an additional asset that will bring in more revenue and more tourism. Housing prices will likely go up [in Inglewood], and there will be a stronger demand for housing. And that could have an impact on housing in Westchester, but how we don’t know yet,” Trepany said. “But it is definitely going to make a very favorable impact in Inglewood and surrounding communities.”

Venice real estate broker Tami Pardee, founder of  Pardee Properties, said the new stadium could generate even more interest in Westchester, Playa Vista and Marina del Rey — even after a 22% increase in property values last year — and bring long-overlooked Inglewood into the fold of the Westside success story.

“People like to live near the home team if they can. It’s a connection that they enjoy, and because we haven’t had a professional football team for so long we’ve been missing that connection,” Pardee said.

THE ARGONAUT: What finally sold the NFL on Inglewood? And what sold Inglewood on the NFL?

MAYOR BUTTS: We knew that this was a project that would be extremely attractive to league ownership because it had more economic upside to it than the others. I also knew that of all of the projects that were proposed, we were the only project that was financed, entitled and the land was graded. Most football stadiums stand by themselves somewhere — they’re used 10 times a year and then they’re shuttered 355 days. We’ve been contemplating a sports complex that could have other NFL
uses as well, like [offices for] the NFL Networks.

We were the only project that proceeded beyond pretty pictures and renderings. There was no comparison between a standalone stadium project and a project with the type of complexity and diversity that we had. That being said, we also knew that this was only part of the process because it’s a political process and you have to take into account alliances, feelings about owners amongst one another, and no one could predict that. But we were confident that if it came down to what would be best economically for the owners in the league … that would be us.

What impacts do you expect the new stadium to have on Inglewood and the Westside region as a whole?

Inglewood is now going to have an ancillary impact on the region because you’re going to have more cars than people. I learned this in Santa Monica: when you have more cars than people, people spend money. They’ll spend money along the way at other places where they haven’t been. And they’re going to go back there, recreate and spend money. So we’re going to be a regional magnet, a regional attraction and we’re going to be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

What are the local hiring targets for stadium development, and how will you be able to follow through?

Our goal is a 30% local hire. You can’t discriminate on who gets jobs based on geography, but what you can do is targeted outreach and make training available to locals. We were able to follow through with it on The Forum. Madison Square Garden put up $1 million for locals and job training for people who didn’t have the requisite skills for construction jobs ahead of time, and we’ve exceeded those goals with the Madison Square Garden Forum renovation project.

You’ve been in Inglewood long enough to see multiple demographic shifts and experience the city’s former political, social and economic distress. What does the stadium deal say about how far the city has come and where it’s headed?

We had a community that wants to progress. We had a council that was cohesive enough to say, ‘We’ll do what [the people] want, and we’ll adopt this initiative and we’ll take whatever criticism comes.’ And then there’s the competence of your planning and code people who put together a plan where we engaged consultants so the city wouldn’t become a bottleneck.

What does it say about a populace that would band together and so strongly support an initiative that the council is able to adopt that initiative, and therefore is able to bypass potentially three years of delay of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] that would have taken us out of this race altogether? It says we had everyone working together from the conception of the idea to the execution of the plan.

How will your city’s long-term redevelopment plans near The Forum and Hollywood Park affect nearby Westchester?

The reality is that Playa Vista and Westchester are extremely attractive areas if you look at their property prices and they’ve hit their zenith. What you’re going to see [in Inglewood] is an equalization of desirability. You’re going to see property values rise here. They’ve already risen 50% over the last two years alone, and with the advent of this stadium they’re going to rise even more. So now there will be more of a parity, and that’s good for everyone because people will be able to migrate between the different communities [in a way] that you’ve never seen before. You’re going to see more balance demographically.

How will the city ensure than economic benefits — and not just pressures associated with gentrification — reach Inglewood’s existing residents?

No one ever talks about gentrification when a community becomes primarily black and brown. But if you have any migration of whites to an area, then it’s  gentrification. That makes no sense to me. All you have are people coming to a desirable place to live. And just like it was wrong when the whites tried to keep out blacks and tried to gentrify Inglewood in the 1960s, it’s wrong to care if whites want to buy houses that they can afford in Inglewood.

What you’re talking about is economic desirability. To say that Inglewood will become economically desirable so that people of all races would want to come and live here — that’s a plus. Something is a negative when people flee an area because it’s undesirable to live. You never see the term gentrification used when that happens. When people that are more socio-economically upwardly mobile come to an area and you see a change, that’s where you hear the term gentrification. It’s never used universally, and it’s unfair.

We were an embryo compared to where we will go if we manage this properly. We really have a success-management problem now — how we are going to manage prosperity and not fritter it away.