Nestled between the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, the bold SoFi Stadium by landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA and architecture firm HKS sets a new standard for sports arenas, breaking the conventional “suburban fortress” model by opening up the arena to the sky, air, and nature, and blurring the lines between stadium, botanical garden, and public park. The new home of both the Rams and Chargers NFL teams will be highlighted on a national stage during Super Bowl LVI, but it is also a place to visit even if you have no interest in football.
Kush Parekh, ASLA, associate principal at Studio-MLA — a firm founded by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, in 1995 that recently won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award — said this $5 billion mega-project is truly transformational because it’s rooted in the vision of the Inglewood community, which is predominantly Black and Latinx.
The nearly 300-acre site was once the Hollywood Park racetrack. When the city decided to redevelop the site as an urban infill project and the developers Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Wilson Meany took on the project, Studio-MLA, HKS, and Hart Howerton began a process of community engagement as part of a planning process for a new Hollywood Park mixed-use district.
They discovered the racetrack had an artificial lake and green space at its center that the community appreciated and often used for events such as flower shows. When the community was asked what they hoped for in a new development, they said “a lake and green space,” Parekh explained.
The oceans of parking lots that had once surrounded the racetrack were also one of the few open spaces available to the community, which is among the most underserved in terms of access to green space, trees, and shade. “Parents would take their kids there to teach them to ride bikes,” Parekh said. The barren, uninviting parking lots had also become a walking and jogging destination, simply because there were so few other options.
Working with the community, Studio-MLA began focusing on how to insert a lake into the site. “We wanted to bring the lake back, but it couldn’t just be recreational; it needed to be performative.” So they had an idea: a new lake could store water to irrigate a new botanical, sustainable landscape. But given how intermittent rainfall is in Southern California, they realized multiple water sources were needed for both the long, dry season, and the short, inundating ones.
The landscape architecture team discovered the site had access to recycled water from the West Basin Municipal Water District facility that could be used to partially fill the lake in the dry season. First, the water would need to be chemically treated, so the team designed a custom filtration process with PACE Engineering. To fine-tune these systems, the design and engineering teams built a temporary laboratory on site.
In the wet season, when flash floods are a risk, the lake would be designed to handle all the stormwater run-off from the stadium, parking lots, and the 5-million square feet of surrounding retail, residential, and commercial buildings planned as part of Hollywood Park.
Their case to the developer was either pay a high amount to pipe stormwater to the Pacific Ocean and also pay hefty additional stormwater fees, or “mitigate stormwater on site and create a public amenity,” Parekh said. “The lake checked a lot of boxes. It was a win-win situation.” The development team was also “firmly committed to a sustainable approach.”
Given the site’s proximity to the Los Angeles airport, the stadium needed to be buried 100 feet into the ground to avoid the flight paths of planes. Digging down left huge amounts of soil that Studio-MLA then leveraged to subtly lift up the edges of the entire site and regrade to divert stormwater through a series of drains and pipes that daylight at the constructed lake. A planned constructed arroyo (river) that will connect with another park with sports facilities at the east end of the site will also eventually steer run-off to the lake.
To treat both the recycled water and stormwater run-off, the constructed 6-acre lake also includes layers of natural and mechanical solutions. A series of wetlands filter out contaminants, then a filtration and pump system handle the rest of the purification needed to reuse 26 million gallons of water annually for irrigation.
With a water source in place, there was now a way to substantially green the indoor-outdoor SoFi stadium. Landscape was key to making the experience more “human,” Parekh said. Instead of feeling like “you are going down into a hole in the ground,” Studio-MLA designed inviting landscape canyons that provide an entry point to the arena stands. “The canyons allow for air, light, and views of the landscape from within the stadium.”
For Parekh, this decade-long project has been a labor of love. “This project shows what landscape architecture can do for sports. Our goal was to make everyone completely comfortable there on a human level.”
He added that the integrated architecture and landscape architecture was the result of “collaboration from the beginning” between Studio-MLA and HKS, along with PACE, Fluidity Design Consultants, civil engineer David Evans and Associates, and contractors Turner and AECOM Hunt. Lehrer and her team brought prior experience designing the landscapes of Dodger and Banc of California Stadiums, also in Los Angeles, but the entire team agreed on the need to “change the paradigm of the stadium model” by further mixing public plazas and parks with the stadium structure.
The 28-acre sloping canopy of the stadium also covers two other spaces — the new YouTube Theater, a flexible event space that can hold 7,000, and the American Airlines Plaza, a covered yet airy space that can hold 15,000. The architecture and landscape architecture worked together to ensure this place won’t just be used for big NFL games and then sit empty but offers a variety of place for year-round events.
The 25 acres of open green space alone will also serve as a community draw. The public park and diverse landscape features 5,000 newly-planted native and climate-appropriate trees from Southern California and similar Mediterranean biomes, including Palm, Sycamore, and Evergreen trees. Plants that would do well in California’s desert, upper and low montane, and riparian ecosystems are found in various zones of the stadium landscape and adjacent park, which includes the first segment of the planned arroyo.
The design team crafted fully accessible plazas with organic planter forms, along with ribbon fences that guide visitors during big game days. “We tried to incorporate the gates and fences in a beautiful, sculptural way,” Parekh said.
This project is just the first phase of many for the Hollywood Park district. Studio-MLA laid the groundwork for natural infrastructure, with a promenade drawing visitors in from the west, and the arroyo trail that can lead to another park on the east. The firm has already designed the landscape for the adjacent NFL offices and retail district. Other developers may also take on sections of the development.
For Inglewood, the new SoFi stadium and Hollywood Park redevelopment plan will change the narrative for an underserved community that was recently on the verge of bankruptcy. “Inglewood was once known as the city of champions,” Parekh said, but losing the Lakers NFL team to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in 1999 was a blow. As part of the SuperBowl half-time game, Los Angeles hip hop legends Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Dr. Dre will join Eminem and Mary J. Blige in shining a light on Inglewood, which has its own rich hip hop scene.
Amid ongoing concerns that the new district and stadium will further gentrify the community, like other Black and Latinx communities have experienced in Los Angeles in recent years, the stadium will act as a catalyst for further development, and home values and rents can be expected to further increase. An upswell from residents led the city to pass a rent control law in 2019 to stop runaway rent increases. But Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, argues that the benefits — more green space and thousands of new local construction and retail jobs — will help transform Inglewood from a struggling community into a growing one. A Star Trek fan, he calls the Hollywood Park district a “genesis device.”
A new Inglewood stop on the $2 billion, 8.5-mile-long LAX-Crenshaw light rail line expected to open later this year will also lead to further investment and concerns. Studio-MLA has partnered with the historically Black community of Crenshaw to “celebrate Black Los Angeles” and its history through a new linear park connected to the light rail line.