SoFi Stadium, Not So Super
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” —Maya Angelou
Specialists predict the NFL’s new SoFi Stadium will bring strong economic opportunities and uplift surrounding Inglewood. That LA needs it to drive transit-oriented development and provide mixed-income housing. But that’s not what the stadium had to say for itself.
Corona Beach House, an Auspicious Welcome
SoFi is an unapologetic playground for NFL profiteers and future tourist attendees of a hotly contested 2028 LA Olympics. In November 2021, I entered SoFi through the “Corona Beach House” located on its west side, observing how the gray afternoon marine fog from the nearby actual beach matched the stadium’s steel structure in color and mood.
Spending $5.5 billion on the most expensive NFL stadium of all time, only to welcome the public through a sponsored “Corona Beach House” for a 2022 superspreader Super Bowl, seemed like foul play. But the NFL, like the many other developers who will build across Los Angeles for conventions, new sports franchises, and the Olympics, are folly to their own fumbles.
I signed up for a “sustainability tour” of the new SoFi Stadium through a network of eco-professionals. I just graduated with my master’s in urban planning, and my colleagues on the tour were urban designers, LEED accreditors, renewable technology engineers, and sustainable landscapers. We expected to hear a carefully rehearsed spiel about SoFi’s positive impact on waste, urban form, and its Black and Latinx neighborhood. While I thought we’d have to look between the yard lines to discern the project’s true colors, they bled through so clearly we could have seen them from the nosebleeds.
Before setting off on our tour, we loitered on the balcony of the beach house, transfixed by SoFi’s stunning 4k double-sided video monitor ring. A charming tour guide corralled our group and opened with a joke:
“We are the biggest NFL stadium by about one inch! And here at SoFi stadium… size matters!”
From the balcony, we were shuffled to a VIP box where our attention was directed toward another screen, and we got the authentic, luxury treatment of viewing an ad for locally sourced wine varietals. Our guide was ready for questions.
Naturally, the first was, “What is the price of a box like this?”
Our guide shook her head before sternly replying, “I am not permitted to tell.”
We were swiftly ushered out of our “VIP experience” and onto a landing with sweeping views of the Hollywood Park and Casino.
What You Got Till It’s Gone
SoFi stadium occupies sacred ground for me and many Angelenos. It replaced the famous Hollywood Park Racetrack, a place of family lore on my father’s side. My grandfather and his brothers ran the horse racing business here, spending hard-won racetrack earnings on midnight poker trips to Las Vegas. One of my earliest memories was being at the track with my great-uncles Curly and Buster. When they announced the park’s closure, my mom and I took my dad there for a last race.
I was shook, then, when our guide pointed to a long building through the windows and announced that there still was a Hollywood Park Casino leftover for “losers who waste their life away to gambling and slot machines.” My dad often jokes about his mobster male elders, but the insults had more edge from a stranger inside the new stadium. Why should SoFi spectators ride a high horse for savoring glorified violence over that of a lucky streak? (Sidenote: The casino is not free of contention either. In 2005, AB 1561 proposed that Hollywood Park become a reservation and Indian casino for LA’s Native Tongva tribes. The bill failed on the California Senate floor and the casino is currently owned by the non-Native Stockbridge Capital Partners.)
Our guide was gung-ho about SoFi without caring much for the ancillary promises related to its development that concerned the green professionals on our tour. She disapproved of the Hollywood Park Masterplan, which will eventually provide 2,500 housing units in a County short 500,000.
Pointing to a small strip of housing across a sea of parking, she complained “They want to demolish parking and add housing. That’s crazy! Where will the cars go?”
My fellow sustainability professionals, who have devoted their lives to walkable and inclusive communities, grimaced. SoFi officially paved over its own proposed mixed-use paradise with a 50-acre parking lot.
This Ship Can’t Sink!
Next came sustainability. We were again shown a video. This time facing a large outdoor screen in the native plant garden, reportedly a “surprise bird sanctuary.”
Three takeaways: 1) SoFi stadium can survive a magnitude 10 earthquake! The building’s three separate structures include a “single layer ethylene tetrafluoroethylene canopy” while shock absorbers mitigate shifts in nearby fault lines. 2) Stadium dining ware is “infinitely recyclable.” 3) There is no heating and cooling in the building, which uses passive design to conserve energy.
Moving to the freezing cold stadium seats, I reflected on the fact that while I was experiencing the third takeaway to be true in real time, the promises that SoFi could either withstand a magnitude 10 earthquake or reuse in-house utensils ad infinitum were suspiciously impossible to verify.
I reflected back to the beginning of our tour and realized SoFi was no breezy beach house. Its astounding design and technologies make it comparable to a ship in more ways than one, and draw an uneasy inference that big stadium projects are lingering markers of the industrial revolution and imperialism.
Wandering through the stadium, you find yourself marveling at a work of monumental design and promises of gigantic proportion. The same was true for passengers boarding the Titanic.
Master’s Owner’s Suite
Outside the SoFi Owner’s Suite on a lower level of the building, we were told to fondly think back on our old VIP box and the important people who watch games from there.
“The owners don’t even want to see those people,” exclaimed our guide. “Access to the Owner’s Suite is through a hidden elevator entryway. Facial recognition technology scans those entering to verify they are on a list. Only family, dear friends, and LeBron James are allowed.”
A murmur came from behind me, “This stadium sure is hierarchical.”
But others were hanging onto a last, tiny optimistic thread. One colleague asked a question pertaining to the basic economic development argument for stadiums, trying to throw our guide a bone. “How many jobs does the stadium provide?” she asked.
“Oh, sooooo many.” But by that point we had been herded to the upscale food court and it was more important that we learn how different liquor bars were matched to corresponding dining areas, “and this whiskey bar we’re standing in here, is next to the burger stand. There’s a whole tequila bar by the Mexican food, and I bet you can guess what kind of bar there is near our sushi—”
“Yes, BUT, how many jobs?” my colleague persisted.
“I mean, like, I think hundreds. If you count us in the tour guide department, well there’s only about seven of us. But in the whole stadium, probably lots.”
The answer is about 10,000.
Best World Wide Web, in the World
Although the number of jobs was not a relevant figure on our tour, lots of stats about the WiFi were. They live in a blur of a memory I have of yet another video…
We were taken to an area with high tops and barstools for this next viewing. What’s important is that SoFi basically has the world’s best WiFi. In the video, internet signals rocketed from fans’ phones past the ethylene canopy and into the stratosphere, exploding into relatively banal social media commentary.
I might have been more excited had I not remembered the digital divide that worsened once education moved to Zoom. Inglewood schools have been under state receivership for nine years. Could the record-fast WiFi inside the stadium have been replicated to ensure locals had access to quality education? Apparently not.
Stumbling out the Starting Gate, Racing to Finish
When our tour guide took us to the basement and told us we were going to run out of the starting gate and onto the field ourselves, I thought we were in for another vicarious video treat. This time, though, she meant it.
Stumbling out of the dark and onto the freshly green Matrix® Turf, I didn’t feel that rush of excitement universally experienced by pro athletes. Seeing my fellow sustainability professionals weakly toss a ball was depressing. I decided to get out ahead of the official tour ending, feeling less like a steroid-crazed football player and more like one of the Hollywood Park horses my great uncles used to drug.
I accidentally proceeded through a cold and dusty backstage. Workers lugged heavy carts and communicated via walkie-talkie. I was face to face with the fluorescent reality of those jobs so crucial to the stadium’s image as a worthwhile project.
Disoriented, I landed more than 10 letters down from where I parked. By this time, it was night. I would have to circle the stadium from outside in the dark. A kid named Isaiha asked if I needed help navigating, but was struggling to load the map on his phone. I asked if he worked at SoFi.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I had a job, so I’m excited.” He had just exited an interview.
Isaiha and I were at the same crossroads in more than one dimension. We were similarly optimistic about the types of opportunities we thought SoFi might offer us, even while its Blade Runner–esque soul blared through coastal condensation of the Pacific Ocean. I toured SoFi thinking I could land a job building similar (but hopefully, better) urban projects in Los Angeles’ spree of Olympics-related and downtown revitalization development, instead drowning in realizations that sustainable urban planning falls far short of its intentions. Isaiha would enter a physically demanding role offering low wages and very limited upward mobility, if he got the job.
A native plant trail was the most reassuring part of an otherwise eerie night. The blue light emergency system reminded me of my college campus, and sadly made me feel safer. At the lake — a vestige of the old Hollywood Park track — queerbaiting multiracial faces championed various financial services. SoFi Stadium produced an entire skyline across the water. The display reaps its money’s worth on a big game night, but I couldn’t believe how much energy went into advertising for an audience that on this night consisted only of me.
Driving out of the stadium, I saw a lone woman light a pipe, torch a piece of paper, and drop it to the sidewalk. Despite the three security checkpoints I faced getting into the building and hearing from a security guard before the tour that the stadium’s premises are under constant video surveillance, this woman had lit a fire — alone and unnoticed.
For all its hype, SoFi Stadium will never be sustainable if it continues shutting out the reality outside its walls. With that 360° blind side, the promises that specialists and our region’s leadership make about developments like SoFi have already turned to ash.