By Uracha Chaiyapinunt and Katherine Flynn
When the Lakers left Inglewood for downtown Los Angeles in 1999, the "City of Champions" just east of LAX transformed from a thriving town to a sleepy neighborhood. Seventeen years later, the arrival of an NFL team and a $2.6 billion football stadium has excited many residents as well as Los Angeles sports enthusiasts who have waited over two decades for the NFL to return to the metropolis.
But the Rams' return to L.A., a place the team called home for 48 years, has also been met with anger and fear. Since the team officially announced its move on Jan. 15, property values in Inglewood have already risen. Many residents now worry about real estate projections, rent, traffic, competition against newer businesses, and displacement.
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"You're going to bring bigger businesses over here and then the smaller businesses are going to go out of business. They're going to have a hard time," said Kelly Caohoun, a longtime Inglewood resident.
This isn't the first time sports has been linked to gentrification. In 2008, three years after the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C. and became the Nationals, a new ballpark opened in Navy Yard, formerly an industrial district notorious for adult entertainment. While Navy Yard hasn't transformed as rapidly as downtown L.A. after the city opening the then-new Staples Center to house the Lakers, construction of Nationals Park has brought a number of restaurants, bars and residential buildings to the area.
Though the Nationals and the Rams aren't exact parallels, the move of both teams did require construction of a new sports center. In its early stages, Navy Yard predicted development would help to stimulate neighborhood revitalization. Similarly, Inglewood believes the NFL stadium will invigorate the city. The question is, how might Navy Yard help to predict Inglewood's fate.
Long before the then-Montreal Expos moved to D.C., Navy Yard was a shipping center known for its high crime rates and adult entertainment businesses. Filled with old factories and empty warehouses, Navy Yard had no "residential aspect," Randy Freedman, 59, said. Freedman has witnessed the gradual rebirth of the neighborhood since the very beginning. A Washington, D.C. attorney and self-proclaimed sports fanatic, Freedman attended the first game at Nationals Park on opening day, and still attends ball games every year.
In the late 90s, two catalysts helped set Navy Yard development in motion. The first was the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the largest of the U.S. Navy's five system commands, which moved its headquarters from Crystal City, Virginia, to Navy Yard. An influx of workers resulted in an increased number of new businesses and residential buildings. The completion of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Green Line then increased accessibility to Navy Yard. Research on the Green Line by Robert Charles Lesser & Co. showed that the larger area from Navy Yard to Petworth experienced population growth in the early 2000s. But even following these two events, Navy Yard's negative stigma persisted.
"[The ballpark] is in the Southeast, which is generally known to be a not-so-nice area of D.C.," said Meghan Coyle, a native of Washington, D.C. and a Nationals fan attending classes at the University of Southern California.
"D.C. is very much a racially segregated city," Freedman said. The city is divided into four geographical quadrants, each delineated by their ordinal directions from the medallion located in the crypt under the rotunda of the Capitol. "I'd say 85% of affluent, educated and white people live in Northwest. The rest of those quadrants are relatively undesirable."
The quadrant system helps explain why it took Navy Yard much longer than the government and developers expected it to gentrify.
"From a city perspective, this was a major event. It was a result of years of lobbying to get a major league baseball team in the city," Freedman said.
The Senators left D.C. in the fall of 1971, leaving the city without an MLB team for 33 years. Just as L.A. has rejoiced in the Rams' return, D.C. residents and local politicians were thrilled to have their own baseball team to root for again. The opening of Nationals Park in Navy Yard was predicted to spur activity in the Southeast district, transforming lifeless Navy Yard into a flourishing community.
"When the baseball stadium delivered in 2008, what we call the ballpark submarket went bonkers," Michael Di Renzo, a principal broker in D.C., said. "It's phenomenal. Today, it's probably one of the fastest growing submarkets."
During baseball season, there's an influx of up to 41,888 people — the maximum number of people Nationals Park can hold — to the stadium. From two hours before the game to several hours after its end, businesses take advantage of the large influx of people. In turn, the proliferation of businesses has attracted residential projects to the formerly industry-heavy Navy Yard.
Retail, restaurants and bars now dot the streets of Navy Yard. Luxury apartments have also attracted young professionals in search of Navy Yard's amenities such as parking availability, close proximity to the metro and grocery stores, access to the highway, and most importantly, the potential for further expansion, said Di Renzo. The median rent in Navy Yard is $2,983, according to Zillow, an online real estate database company. However, residents can pay as much as $6,000 per month as seen at The Arris, an 11-story, 327-unit apartment building that features a rooftop pool and a 1,000 square feet fitness studio.
The rise in retail, residential buildings and entertainment in Navy Yard has given D.C. residents a reason to visit the area even when it's not baseball night.
"My family actually just went to this cool outdoor art installation there," Coyle said. "All sorts of community events like that are happening [at Navy Yard] now."
One thing that can be expected of Navy Yard down the line is more growth. Like other cities that have experienced gentrification, the urban process can best be described as a domino effect. Once businesses and residences are able to attract crowds, more construction projects naturally follow.
"I think as it stands right now, I'd say that [Navy Yard] is 75 percent developed and the trend is they're going to keep building," Di Renzo said.
In terms of residential buildings alone, the greater Navy Yard had 21 residential developments planned or underway at the beginning of 2016, according to the Capitol Riverfront BID.
Though there's no doubt that Navy Yard has transformed greatly since the 90's, Freedman believes the revitalization of the area has been very slow, especially when compared to other stadiums in D.C., such as the Verizon Center. Located in the District's Chinatown, the Verizon Center, a sports and entertainment arena, has "completely and dramatically changed that whole area so that it's now an attraction in and of itself," he said
The reasons behind Navy Yard's slow progression can be traced back to one factor: timing. The ballpark opened at the height of the country's economic downturn in 2008, so there was no money to continue the rejuvenation of the area. Projects were postponed, sometimes called off altogether because of lack of funds.
"Sure, there're a lot of commercial and residential buildings in construction now, but don't forget, we're now 8 years from the opening of the ball park," Freedman said. "The intent was to have all this done by 2009, 2010."
Di Renzo predicts it will take another five to seven years for the neighborhood to reach its peak.
Lisa Schweitzer, an associate professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, specializes in urban studies and transportation. Schweitzer expects Inglewood will experience similar effects the D.C. community saw when Nationals Park opened, including rent hikes, displacement, and an increase in commercial competition.
"The stadium phenomena is very similar from place to place. They are growth machines," Schweitzer said. "The only thing that is different is the approval process and public financing rules. But the Nationals' situation is not unique."
This "stadium phenomena" has also been seen in downtown Los Angeles with the construction of Staples Center, and in the District's Chinatown with the opening of Verizon Center.
"These new stadiums are 24/7 environments. The businesses can get money all day and night. However, it will not be for low-income [families]," said Schweitzer. "There will be more retail outlets and food options that will be direct competition to existing places."
In the case of Navy Yard, which was filled with abandoned warehouses and empty lots before Nationals Park, the area did not experience a tug of war between the old and new. But Inglewood, an already established low and modest-income residential area, will see great competition between incoming and existing businesses.
Di Renzo also said the difference between football and baseball events can play a significant role in comparing the two stadiums and cities. While there are 162 baseball games in a season, football only has 16 games during a 17-week period.
"A lot of time, baseball fans wake up, do chores, run around and then go to the game," Di Renzo said. "Football, on the other hand, is such a big deal. People get to the game hours beforehand, start drinking beer, tailgating, cooking ribs."
While Nationals Park and its surrounding community experience an influx of visitors throughout half of the year, Inglewood's football games will liven up the city just over a dozen days when the stadium is used for its primary purpose during the four-month NFL season. The short-lived excitement might not be as attractive for investors, who want to open their business year-round.
So far, the small number of football home games does not appear to have deterred investors. Realtors have already seen a rise in interest for property and retail spaces in the area. As more and more money is injected into the city, the landscape of Inglewood is sure to change.
"My advice to Inglewood is they should be ready and keep their eyes open because things are going to change very soon," Schweitzer said.