How an L.A. Rams Training Complex Could Help Transform Urban Sprawl

The San Fernando Valley, once an endless ramble of orange groves in Southern California that evolved into the porn capital of the world in the 1970s and later gave way to big-box retailers and strip malls, will now become the home of the 2021 season’s Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams.

In a $650 million land deal by the team’s owner, Stan Kroenke, Rams executives laid out their vision last week for revitalizing nearly 100 acres in the valley’s Woodland Hills neighborhood into a sports-centric, live-work-play development, including a practice facility and team headquarters.

The deal includes two properties owned by Westfield, a shopping center developer that is pulling out of the U.S. market, as well as an abandoned 13-story building and parking lot that Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield owned.

After the coronavirus pandemic hastened the embrace of online retail and remote work, blighted malls and office buildings have closed their doors. The vacant properties and their adjoining parking lots now offer a chance to redevelop valuable square footage in neighborhoods like Woodland Hills.

Experts point to the planned Rams complex as an example of commercial reuse in underdeveloped neighborhoods that could signal a comeback for suburbia. “This is the playbook for transitioning uses in a digital economy and a main stage example of those trends,” said Larry J. Kosmont, chairman and chief executive of Kosmont Companies, a developer based in El Segundo, Calif.

This type of community revitalization sets up a development that’s more experience-oriented while increasing foot traffic by offering services — like restaurants, specialized retail, athletic and wellness opportunities, and green spaces — that pull people out of their homes and away from their phones. In a way, the Kroenke Group is taking a page from its own playbook. Thirty miles from Woodland Hills, the developer’s SoFi Stadium, where the Rams play and where concerts are held year-round, has helped to transform the city of Inglewood.

Other community-serving sports-based facilities include a partnership in Minneapolis between the Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx basketball teams. The Star in Frisco, Texas — the headquarters and practice facility for the Dallas Cowboys — includes the Star District, with more than 35 restaurants, a sports therapy and research center, shops, a hotel, and specialty services. In Japan, the Tokyo Dome City offers activities and services surrounding the baseball stadium for the Yomiuri Giants, including an amusement park, more than 70 restaurants, an anime shop, a haunted house and a spa piping water from an underground spring.

Though the east side of the San Fernando Valley houses Warner Bros. Studios, Walt Disney Studios and Universal City, which encompasses the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, the west valley has long been a sprawl of businesses and freeways lacking a downtown area. Woodland Hills and its surrounding neighborhoods have been immortalized in films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Licorice Pizza,” capturing the valley in the 1970s.

But with the Rams as the centerpiece, along with the private financial support of the Kroenke Group, long-awaited plans to create a walkable community can now come to fruition.

The hub of the complex will be Topanga Village, a popular outdoor mall next door to a ghost mall, the Promenade. The former Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield building will be the Rams’ practice facility, where construction began after last week’s announcement. This development will be a first step in Mr. Kroenke’s long-term vision for the land.

Original plans for the Promenade include a 15,000-seat entertainment venue, said Kevin Demoff, the chief operating officer for the Rams. “Whether it’s music or sporting events, this project will bring energy here on weeknights and weekends,” he said.

The project could also incorporate up to 1,432 apartments, with commitments for affordable housing, as well as shops, restaurants, office space and up to 572 hotel rooms.

Taking the bones of antiquated buildings and retrofitting them with attractions like sports and related entertainment “would be a classic reset of suburban America,” Mr. Kosmont said. Woodland Hills is the 20th-most-popular neighborhood in the country for searches of home listings, drawing a younger generation with new high-density apartments among million-dollar houses. Yet its outdated commercial infrastructure is filled with empty parking lots around huge blocks.

The Kroenke Group’s development dovetails with Los Angeles’s plans for a different environment, said Bob Blumenfield, a member of the City Council whose district includes Woodland Hills.

“We’re transforming from the 1970s model to a planned environment where you have smaller blocks, you have more walkable, livable communities and micro-mobility,” he said. “So the Rams coming in just feeds into that.”

The neighborhood already has several transportation advantages, including freeway connectivity and a link to Los Angeles County’s Metro subway system, as well as direct access to the 51-mile L.A. River bike trail, which when completed will connect the San Fernando Valley to the rest of the city. Bolstered by the proliferation of ride-hailing apps and a generation refraining from driving cars, this model favors pedestrian-friendly infrastructure with a 24-hour activity cycle.

“You’ve seen the power of sports to bring people together to spur urban development, whether around stadiums or practice facilities,” Mr. Demoff said.

Akin to the concept of the 15-minute city, this sports-centric community model could be a game changer for a neighborhood like Woodland Hills, reducing long commutes and cutting carbon emissions. Still, some residents have concerns.

“It’s going to be exciting for a lot of people,” said Jon Saul, a Los Angeles native who moved to Woodland Hills in 1958. “But some of us look at it as just bringing in more traffic.”

He remembers the valley in the 1950s, when it was farmland with “lots of big open spaces” and the Rocketdyne headquarters, where rocket engines were built to send astronauts to the moon.

Yet others see the Rams’ announcement as a monumental opportunity to improve the west San Fernando Valley, where nearly 95,000 households in marginalized neighborhoods that surround affluent Woodland Hills struggle to put food on their table — more than any other region in the county, according to the Los Angeles County Public Health 2021 Food Insecurity Report.

“All of us are excited to have the Rams in the neighborhood,” said Debbie Decker, the executive director of the West Valley Food Pantry, which provides groceries for thousands of families living in poverty. “I think this might be a gift here, a golden egg.”

As part of a regional approach for community investment, Rams players and cheerleaders volunteered at the food pantry during the Rams Community Blitz Day of Service, which commenced after last week’s announcement in Woodland Hills. In 2020, the Rams started Certified #RamsHouse, a small-business initiative to support entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area.

Ms. Decker hopes the team’s presence will promote local hiring and reduce the number of commutes to the city.

“People are happier and more content working closer to their kids and families, and when you work and live in the same area, you have a better investment and care more about your neighborhood,” she said.

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