“...going forward, really sensible, smart urban planning that considers the whole environment and not just a single purpose is, I think, really where we're going to have to go. If it's not a large project, like Hollywood Park, SoFi Stadium, even if you're sort of filling in outside of residential, what other amenities or whatever you could [do to] make the community get closer to being home, I think is really going to be the answer going forward.”
– Gerard McCallum, Wilson Meany Developer and Project Manager
In this episode
Host Mariam Sobh talks with developer Gerard McCallum and landscape architect Mia Lehrer. Explore what happens when empty lots and vacant land are turned into the most technologically advanced sports stadium and urban complex in the world: SoFi Stadium.
- 7:52 Gerard McCallum shares how utilizing stadium space beyond just sporting events is a benefit for all.
- 10:15 Mia Lehrer talks about the importance of developing multi-generational outdoor spaces.
- 19:50 Gerard McCallum discusses being a good neighbor through meaningful community engagement.
Click here to expand transcript
Mariam Sobh 00:02 Welcome to Changing Places brought to you by Avison Young. In Changing Places, we explore our continuing and complex relationships with the built world around us. I'm your host, Miriam Sobh.
Speaker 1 00:20 When you pull up to SoFi stadium, the first thing you can see is a magnificently curved roof, which almost looks like a million silver tiles suspended in mid-air. You can also see airplanes flying into LAX. There's a beautiful lake just beyond the parking lot. When you enter the lobby you descend the stairs and the field is right in front of you. It is truly an indoor-outdoor space with plants, trees, and enclosed spaces combining into one unique experience. It looks and feels like a modern, minimalistic creation for modern audiences.
Mariam Sobh 00:59 Located in the heart of the city of Inglewood, SoFi stadium has ushered in a renaissance for the city, community, and stakeholders across the value chain. This is a story about meeting the needs and interest of the community while ensuring the presence of a new stadium was an asset to its new home city rather than a hindrance. In this episode of changing places, we're going to explore what happens when empty lots and vacant land are turned into the most technologically advanced sports stadium and urban complex in the world. What kind of benefits come from having a massive sports complex in your backyard? And how did those planning the structure ensure that it was a space for everyone – not just game day ticket holders? So, how does this newly designed stadium and grounds hold up in light of the changing way many of us view large gathering spaces in this COVID-affected era? Our guests are Project Manager Gerard McCallum from Wilson Meany and landscape architect Mia Lehrer from STUDIO-MLA. They'll guide us through the development building and opening of SoFi and reveal to us how their different visions helped to create SoFi stadium, an unrivaled sports and urban complex. Gerard McCallum, Mia Lehrer, welcome to Changing Places. So, Gerard, how did you first become involved in turning Hollywood Park Racetrack into SoFi Stadium?
Gerard McCallum 02:12 Well, actually back in 2005, the company I worked for, Wilson Meany, was the in-house developer for a real estate investment firm called Stockbridge out of San Francisco. And they had purchased the former racetrack in 2004 with a two-pronged pledge. One was to preserve the racetrack, if at all possible, through some state legislation. And two, if not, to redevelop the actual property itself. That's when I came in. I had been a part of the Inglewood community on other projects before, maily the acquisition of the Great Western Forum for the Faithful Central Bible Church. So, I'd been actively involved in real estate transactions for a while. And so that's how I actually became involved was as they were looking at the future of Hollywood Park, they wanted somebody local that understood the community at large. And I was fortunate to be that person.
Mariam Sobh 03:04 Mia, how did you first become involved in turning Hollywood Park Racetrack into SoFi Stadium?
Mia Lehrer 03:10 We were approached by Wilson Meany developers from San Francisco coming to Los Angeles to look at the racetrack at Hollywood Park and turn the area – 298 acres – into a development there was mixed-use and the stadium was an added feature. After we'd been working on the project for a while, it became clear there was another site available. So new partners came in and the rest is history.
Mariam Sobh 03:43 Did you experience any pushback at all as you and your team began presenting ideas to the community, private businesses, the City of Inglewood?
Gerard McCallum 03:50 Yes. You know, if you recall, the site right across from the Forum was previously under consideration by the Walmart corporation who tried to pass an initiative to bypass the planning process in the city of Inglewood. That didn't go very well. So when we came up to sort of propose Hollywood Park, we stepped back to look at that situation, study it and understand exactly what went wrong there. We took about a year and a half to just actually go out and you might call it a roadshow. We did a listening tour for about a year and a half. I know that's a luxury for most developments. But because the scope and size of this project, we thought it was absolutely necessary to hear from the citizens and get their input in terms of what they did and did not want.
Mariam Sobh 04:32 So you said you changed attitudes by being able to do that? You said a year and a half of listening to the community. That seems like a long time.
Gerard McCallum 04:39 It is. You know, by doing that sort of year and a half process, we were able to change the attitudes of the citizens from being opposed to development vis-a-vis the Walmart development to looking at what the future could hold by doing those listening tours
Mariam Sobh 04:55 With regards to the stadium and the redevelopment of that area, was there any pushback from the community or the city of Inglewood to this idea?
Mia Lehrer 05:04 Well, actually, because there had been work already underway for about six years on what we call, you know, a planning effort associated with Hollywood Park, the racetrack And so the idea of keeping a lake on the site that we call the racetrack became important as part of a park. And so there was this sort of sense that there would be change and people were being promised by the developer and by the elected officials, especially the mayor, sort of a new chapter in Inglewood. And one other thing that was clear was the community did not want more commercial, large-scale sort of box development, and neither did the mayor,
Mariam Sobh 06:01 Was it important for you, from your own design aesthetic, to take advantage of everything, I guess, that the site had to offer to make sure that it was accessible for the community, and then also environmentally sound?
Mia Lehrer 06:13 Yes, it was extremely important to consider this, let's say, neighborhood within this small city to be well-integrated in terms of the environmental features and park land and also some of the other important uses that would make it a plus-plus for the community so that what we call infill development would actually be of tremendous value, not just for the new neighbors and new neighborhoods, but also for the people that already live in Inglewood and have been there for generations.
Mariam Sobh 06:58 Well, what would you say is in it for residents in the area who are concerned about the impact that this was going to have? And the reason I'm asking that is, you know, there's a lot of money for sports arenas and how is it that you can justify these kinds of projects in communities that may have been able to use the funds for something more tangible programs and such?
Gerard McCallum 07:16 Well, I think the key to your question is funds. Where do those funds come from? You've got almost over 330 acres of land, how do you create something that's a viable alternative to just vacant land that's not really paying any of its fair share of property taxes or revenues to the city. You look for private investors to come in and to partner with the city to create kind of a future that's both livable for the local citizens, and yet also profitable for those that are investing in the property. And that's where you get some things like a Hollywood Park being converted to SoFi Stadium.
You're correct in terms of if we were only building a stadium, that would be a question mark. Eight, maybe 16, 20 games a year? You look at most stadiums of that size, they're mostly open and vacant parking lots. And so, where do you create consistency in terms of job opportunities, tax revenue, sales tax, parking tax, or whatever if you have so few events? And I think when you look at Hollywood Park, it's a very different project in that it is an urban infill project. We're building 2500 homes on that site, a hotel, 25 acres of park space, over 330,000 square feet of retail for the first phase. So, there's a lot more that goes on besides just the activities at the stadium. So that's where you get a bigger return to the citizens beyond just the event dates themselves.
Speaker 1 08:43 Surprising thing about this massive sports complex in the middle of Los Angeles?
Speaker 2 08:50 It's so quiet here. Well, right now obviously, there's no people, but I mean, you wouldn't expect that this is in the middle of Inglewood, you know? You're like, 'Wow, really?' Like, it is so large. And I hear about them trying to expand even more and more. And it's –yeah,I don't know, it just surprising.
Speaker 1 09:09 So, will you be back for another a game or an event?
Speaker 3 09:13 Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Speaker 2 09:15 At some point.
Mariam Sobh 09:27 So it's more than just a stadium, it's safe to say.
Gerard McCallum 09:20 Absolutely. Absolutely. The stadium right now is the headliner, right? But if you zoom out from the stadium, and you look at the rest of the urban plan there, I think you'll be actually surprised by what's being actually developed in terms of housing, office space. It's really kind of creating a whole city within the city, if you will.
Mariam Sobh 09:38 As you're talking more about this stadium, I've never been there. So I'm just basing my knowledge off of pictures and videos and conversations. What I find fascinating is it sounds like this is going to become a new small town within a town. Or how would you describe it? How has it become?
Mia Lehrer 09:52 Well, I think it's a new, I would say, cultural civics space, not just for the city of Inglewood and some of the other cities around it. But also regionally, the place as a destination. We learned during the community workshops that we did that a lot of people said that the parking lots in what was there before – Hollywood Park – were where kids learn how to skateboard or how to bike, use bicycles, that there weren't weren't enough parks or big enough parks that really help multi-generationally for people from when they were very young to their were older to really use the place as as a park with their families for whether it was picnics, or bicycling or skateboarding. And so, really, in some ways, stadiums have become that. They were expecting to have a park, and the park incorporated a lake. And we were supposed to plant a certain number of trees, and it was over 5000 trees. And that's what we did. We planted trees not only as trees along the roadways, but also along the parts that surrounded the lake and the rest of the stadium. It was done in such a way that it that it would be looked very much of a deliberate strategy to make it beautiful and people-friendly places where people could sit and jog and play music and create memories.
Speaker 4 11:45 So, I love to actually exercise. I love to pray. It helps me clear my mental, to be honest with you. And it relieves a lot of stress from the day. I would say it's definitely a benefit to the community. Somewhere, it's a place where people can go out and take pictures, enjoy time with their family, and just be free and enjoy the crisp air, watch the scenery, and just enjoy life. It's more of my personal time away from the world. Yeah, I came here several times with a girl that I worked at a facility with around the corner, close by and we would exercise together. But for the most part, this is more like my solo-dolo outing.
Mariam Sobh 12:32 It's interesting cause my understanding of the stadium is just you know, the the news articles that I've read and the background. And so I haven't seen it with my own eyes. But it sounds really cool to be able to have so many different facets to it. It's not just a stadium. And Gerard, how important was it that jobs around the redevelopment of Hollywood Park went to residents of Inglewood instead of being outsourced across southern California?
Gerard McCallum 12:53 It was very important. When we started in Inglewood, it had a 17.8 percent unemployment rate in the city. We had a 30 percent local job hire requirement for the construction site, and a 35 percent post-job hiring beyond construction so that it just wasn't, you know, two, three year at-a-pop lifting the unemployment rate. But it was kind of sustained over the lifetime of the project. And so those were things that the citizens really wanted. And we were able to accomplish that.
Mariam Sobh 13:23 It's really fascinating to me just hearing about all these different elements that have come together and the different ways you can use the area. What does it feel like to you to see this completed and seeing people enjoying the work that you were part of?
Mia Lehrer 13:36 I can say that my first reaction was emotional just, you know, because you work really hard on the drawings and on the conceptualizing and on the, you know, delivering the ideas to people. And there was something about this place in space at this moment in time where everybody was just working really hard. And really, a very positive of sort of attitude on the part of everybody even though, of course, we were going through COVID. And that was scary, right? It was really a scary – and has been a scary time in construction. But you know, there was something to prove that we could do it, that we would prevail and that life would continue and that this place would offer just a tremendous sort of uplift. We've all grown up in communities, some small neighborhoods, some bigger neighborhoods, some big cities, small cities. And we all have memories and it's wonderful that this community is going to have very strong memories of this place.
Mariam Sobh 14:52 That's really got to be an amazing experience to be able to see that come to fruition and yeah, that's really cool. In terms of two things that caught me when you were talking about the lake – the importance of keeping the lake – and then also about planting all of these trees. So, first, I wanted to talk a little bit about the lake and why it was important to maintain it in your design?
Mia Lehrer 15:16 Well, so there was a lake at Inglewood Stadium – at the Inglewood racetrack for some of the features that they cared the most about. The lake would come up, and trees and shade would come up. I think the project proves that even though it costs more upfront as a developer to actually do some of this work, that in the long term it's actually much more beneficial environmentally. But visually and emotionally, it means a lot.
Mariam Sobh 15:50 I do want to ask the one thing that I find fascinating is all the trees that you had to plant. Where do you find 5,000 Trees?
Mia Lehrer 15:58 It's interesting. I understand your question about how do you locate 5,000 trees. You basically start looking for the trees a couple of years before you really need them. And you start sourcing them. There are nurseries and some have more – have a great selection of trees that are, you know, and they are like any other type of I guess online sort of research. You can find what is it that people have available or what they don't. And then from there, you go on to look in sort of more unconventional places where people have their own collections. They're okay with sort of selling them at some point,
Speaker 5 16:47 Everything! I even had fun down there on the field because I'm a girly-girl. But I literally have fun out there on the field taking, you know, dealing with the interactive things. And I say to anybody who even if you live in LA, if you've never been here, come and take a tour cause it was pretty amazing. I enjoyed the tour. It was worth every penny.
Mariam Sobh 17:07 When you look back at the design of the stadium and think of how we're now in this sort of COVID era, does that change your perspective on things at all? Or did it just happen by chance that you were able to design something with this open air design?
Mia Lehrer 17:23 Well, yeah, I think it's a good, it's a good question. But I think we landed in the right place, which is an open sort of an environment where indoor and outdoor are very sinuously integrated. And we really were trying to celebrate the California climate and that indoor outdoor set of experiences that architects over time have tried to sort of take advantage of, in terms of the benign climate out here. So, working with the architects HKS. And so in terms of, as the cool air comes through you, you know, you really sense you're outdoors. And it's hard to tell where the building ends and where the gardens begin.
Mariam Sobh 18:15 When it comes to SoFi, do you think SoFi has become an integral part of the city of Inglewood? And is it an example of something well done that other cities can look to? And we'll get back to those questions. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back.
18:33 Before we get back to SoFi stadium, Changing Places, brought to you by Avison Young, continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. Do you dream of attending an event at a 21st century stadium built for our new reality? Are you someone who just wants to see the game or concert without all the bells and whistles? Or are you perfectly happy sitting on your sofa watching a football game without 20,000 new friends? Stay tuned for the next portion of Changing Places, brought to you by Avison Young. I'm Mariam Sobh. Let's continue with our guests Gerard McCullum and Mia Lehrer.
19:19 Gerard, a minute ago we started to discuss how you and your team worked with the city of Inglewood to ensure the entitlement of the land worked for everyone involved. Is the Inglewood relationship a blueprint for other cities around the world? Can it even be replicated?
Gerard McCallum 19:19 I think so. You know, I really applaud everyone, the SoFi team, obviously our team, the city of Inglewood. You know, together, we charted this course to create this future for the city. And it was a collaboration and an understanding between all parties of what each needed – what SoFi needed and what the city of Inglewood needed. And that's that partnership that goes, that will go on beyond just the development, getting the entitlements done. And I applaud, I applaud that SoFi stadium team that really has engaged with the community beyond its events so it's totally approachable to everybody within the city of Inglewood. And I think that's what you need. When you have such a large project, it becomes a pretty significant neighbor of yours. And I think that's really what we're, what we talked about what SoFi stadium is doing is creating a sense of being a good neighbor to one another so that the future is just, you know, works for everyone.
Mariam Sobh 20:22 Do you think a project like this can be replicated elsewhere? Or is this something that is just so unique?
Mia Lehrer 20:30 Well, I don't think it could replicate, be replicated in cold climates in the way it could be replicated in, in sort of, certainly, in warmer climates which, you know, the Mediterranean climates like ours. There was tremendous leadership, both in terms of the ownership and the elected officials, the mayor, also the developers that are involved in the retail and both the professional team of architects, engineers, and then also the builders. All, all combined, everybody was – it was a memorable experience and a very positive one.
Mariam Sobh 21:12 When it comes to your experience with SoFi via entitlements and repurposing land, how would you advise another city if they wanted to do something similar?
Gerard McCallum 21:21 I think they first need to set up their objectives. It's easier when you go to a city like Los Angeles that has a large staff and quite a few competent people primarily because they've just done so many projects. It's such a large city that can afford to hire staff. They're handling a lot with very few staff. And so one of the things I would say to those cities is that be prepared and make sure all your departments are lined up to be able to handle you know, any of these type of projects that would come into your area. So if you set out to go after an Amazon, make sure you could actually execute that in a timely manner. Or else you sort of lose those opportunities for those types of investors to even look at your communities.
Mariam Sobh 22:01 Speaking of doing things in a timely manner, it seems like things have to kind of come together and start the ball rolling. But what would happen if one of the stakeholders dropped out or raised objections to part of, or all of the project? How does that affect everything?
Gerard McCallum 22:14 Oh, in a major way. That depends on who that is, right? So if it's the city, gosh. And you're not entitled and you don't have any rights that are vested, you're stuck. Change of political environments, you're stuck if you haven't invested those rights, or did that investment upfront early. And so that can kill a project. It's very important. Timing and stakeholders.
Mariam Sobh 22:37 Is there any fear when getting involved in a large project like Sofi that it might not come together? Or is it something that's pretty much set once you break ground on it?
Gerard McCallum 22:46 Once we break ground, it's pretty much set. It's getting to break ground is the problem, or is where the risk is, right? Getting that land entitled in California is just increasingly becoming hard to do. And so up until that point of groundbreaking when you finally have the rights to develop, and you're ready to start the project, that's the most tenuous time of the project, in my opinion. If you can't get the right to develop that line, you may own it. But if it's zoned one thing and you need it to be something else, that's the crucial time. And so, you know, we're doing, we did the entitlements also for the arena across the street, which will be the Intuit dome, right. The Clippers stadium. And that project took us all the way up to the state legislation to get special legislation from, sorry – called leadership to be able to get through the court process and not be bogged down by lawsuits and other folks that had other interests outside of just providing something for the community
Speaker 5 23:46 That room that controls like all of their electronics and stuff.
Speaker 1 23:51 Oh, the Data Center?
Speaker 5 As well as the, what did you call it?
Speaker 1 The Samsung–
Speaker 5 23:57 The Samsung, the center, the jumbotron that has like, he says it's like four stories high. But that screen, you cannot miss it no matter where you are. So that was pretty amazing. I was also fascinated about how they said they constructed the infrastructure of the building, because of the earthquakes and stuff cause the stadium is not that far from the fault line. They put a lot of, I think they put a lot of thought into a lot of things. Also how, you know, they have the turf out there that is not grass. You don't have to worry about using a lot of water. I like how they brought in all the different plants and how they have sections of it that kind of represent different portions of the state. You know, like you have the mountain views, they have the Palm Springs, you know the palm trees. They just did a lot, so it's pretty fascinating to me.
Mariam Sobh 24:44 How do you think we can change people's conceptions around sports stadiums and make them seen as a fully functioning part of a community like what happened in Inglewood?
Gerard McCallum 24:53 You know, when you're in large cities like Los Angeles, Los Angeles County to be exact, you have to provide more than just a stadium. Land is at a premium, housing is extremely tight. We have housing issues, we have a number of issues that we have to address for the citizens. And so, you have to come really with a multi-prong approach than just a single purpose at this point. And so going forward, really sensible, smart urban planning, that considers the whole environment and not just a single purpose is I think really where we're going to have to go. If it's not a large project, like Hollywood Park, Sofi stadium, even if you're sort of filling in outside of residential, what other amenities or whatever that you could make the community get closer to being home, I think is really going to be the answer going forward.
Mariam Sobh 25:48 Before we wrap up, Gerard, are there any trends you're seeing right now in the development world which may be with us for the next five years or so?
Gerard McCallum 25:48 I think it really is just really smart development. Obviously, we are all moving towards addressing greenhouse gases in the environment. I think that's really where a lot of things are now focused on. Now, cities are becoming very smart. The communities are becoming very smart. All of us are very conscious of these matters, and really are trying to develop smart development that really encompasses everything from the environment to human health to jobs and opportunity and to really creating balanced communities.
Speaker 1 26:20 We are standing at the lake in front of SoFi Stadium. Night has fallen, the sound of airplanes descending into LAX can be heard above me. But the sight of this, this beautiful lake in an urban oasis is truly something to behold. The lights on the lake give it the sheen of gold or amber just glistening in the moonlight. A thousand birds mill about under this pink hued sky. Trees and fauna and flora just surrounding us in every direction. You would never know it, but right behind me, I could turn around and you'll see a parking lot that's probably 90% empty right now. However, just knowing that this space exists in the middle of the city of Inglewood, in the middle of the county of Los Angeles, just steps away from the airport, and minutes from the beach, you almost feel as if you are in another world. And then when you walk into SoFi stadium, it's just a continuation. Where does one end in the other begin? I think that's the better question. Because in this space, you really aren't sure. And that really is something to consider.
Mariam Sobh 27:37 Gerard McCallum and Mia Lehrer, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today about your work and involvement with SoFi stadium. I think we've all seen what a difference a well-planned, intentionally created complex like SoFi can really benefit the community it is in. Only the future will tell us if this is a venture that can be replicated, but I think we've seen it can work if everyone's on the same page.
28:00 In our next episode, we're leaving the bright lights of SoFi stadium for the footlights of London's West End. Join me as we tour the Shaftesbury Theater, speak with its CEO and get an expert's view about the theater, its evolving future and what it means for those of us on both sides of the curtain. Thank you for joining us. See places changing and evolving in your neighborhood? Share your evolving spaces with us on social media using the hashtag #changingplacespodcast. I'm Mariam Sobh and this is Changing Places. Changing places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton-Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio