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As Track Makes Headlines For Horse Deaths, City Eyes Santa Anita Potential

As horse racing at the iconic Santa Anita Park faces new scrutiny, the city of Arcadia is pushing to come up with a master plan for the 300-acre site, a city official told Bisnow.

The privately owned track has weathered a barrage of headlines related to horse injuries and deaths at the site over the last two years, and the city has been asking the track owner, The Stronach Group, to work with it on development plans, with or without horse racing.

Horses compete during a race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia
Horses compete during a race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.

"The Stronach Group has been very clear in recent years that they are very interested in keeping horse racing going and perpetuating the sport," Arcadia Assistant City Manager and Development Services Director Jason Kruckeberg said. 

Kruckeberg said the city is supportive of that decision.

"Horse racing is something that we would like to continue, and there has been expectations that there will be some sort of development on the property," Kruckeberg said. "They don’t need 300 acres of parking lot. So there’s been some expectation on both sides, Stronach and the city, to have some type of plan or project there."

A contingency plan for the site is a particularly timely development. While Santa Anita Park has been a mainstay in the city since the 1930s, it continues to grapple with a rash of horse racing deaths, and animal rights groups and activists have been pushing for the track's closure. Just last Thursday, another horse died while training or racing on the track, the LA Times reported.

It was Santa Anita's eighth horse racing death since the racing season started on Dec. 26. More than 30 horses died over the last year, prompting Stronach to put in place several safety measures, including adding more veterinarians and using PET scans to reduce the number of horse deaths. 

A satellite view of Santa Anita Park in Arcadia
A satellite view of the land in and around Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.

Still, those measures have not quelled the calls to close.

More than 223,000 people as of Monday have signed a petition to close down Santa Anita on Change.org. At the most recent Jan. 20 meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, which overseas horse racing in the state, April Montgomery, and activist with Banhorseracing.com, a grassroots animal rights advocacy organization, told the board members to shut down the track. 

"For 87 years, California sacrificed thousands of racehorses under the guise of sport for gambling," Montgomery said. "It’s time to ban the race and California voters are ready."

A Stronach Group official said they have no plans to close the track. Adding a mixed-use entertainment component similar to venues in Florida is also not something they are looking at adding to the track for now, Stronach Chief Strategy Officer Aiden Butler told Bisnow.

“At Santa Anita Park, The Stronach Group is entirely focused on evolving our racing platform with integrity and modern thinking," Butler said. 

Butler said Stronach is doing what it can to invest in the safety of the horses on the track. Kruckeberg, the city official, said the city has no say or power to close the race track.

"[The horse injuries are] a horrible thing and it's a nationwide concern," Kruckeberg said. 

From an economic development standpoint, Santa Anita Park has a lot to offer. The track currently contributes more than $1.5M in direct revenue to the city, along with 1/3 of 1% for every dollar bet from parimutuel betting at the track, Kruckeberg said. The parimutuel revenue has declined in recent years due to off-site and mobile betting, but it is still money that goes toward capital improvements in the city, he said.

Lee & Associates' principal Dan Bacani said the land around the track is ideal for mixed-use commercial of all types, from retail and office to townhomes. There is a demand for all product types, he added. 

"It could become a Downtown Disney-type of area," Bacani said. 

Dr. Ed Allred, the owner of Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, is attempting to rezone the property to create a mixed use development.
Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, Calif.

Currently, the land around the track is zoned for commercial entertainment, which means any type of commercial project could work on the site, as long as it is vetted by the planning commission, locals and the city council.  

In 2006, mega-retail developer Rick Caruso received approvals from the city to build The Shops at Santa Anita Park, an 806K SF outdoor, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use commercial, office and retail project on the parking lot south of the track's grandstands. The project would have been similar to Caruso's other projects, like The Americana at Brand in Glendale and The Grove in Los Angeles, and plans called for water features, a trolley, an outdoor promenade and retail.

But in 2011, Caruso dropped out of the project due to opposition from locals and the competing Westfield Santa Anita mall, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Given the success of Caruso's The Grove and The Americana, it was a blow to the city. "[P]oor Arcadia is left with a less and less popular racetrack, no backup plan, and a bunch of horses without a trolley," Curbed LA reported at the time. 

Horse racing across the country has been in a steady decline, with several iconic horse racing venues recently sold and converted to other commercial uses.

In 2008, The Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, California, closed. Owned by Stockbridge Capital Group, developer Wilson Meany transformed the 83-acre site into a mixed-use development with office, housing, retail and park space. Garden State Park in Cherry Hills, New Jersey, closed in 2001 and is now a high-end, mixed-use destination. 

Owner of Los Alamitos Race Course attempts to rezone 150-acre property.
Los Alamitos Race Course

A half-hour drive from Santa Anita Park, the Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress has already prepared for its second life when racing goes away. In 2018, track owner Ed Allred successfully backed a local measure that rezoned the 150-acre horse racing site. When the track closes, the property will be ready for developments that include a town center, offices, retail, a restaurant, entertainment, housing and park space.

On Monday, the Cypress City Council is deciding whether to reduce the number of required parking spots at the Los Alamitos Race Course so the owner can build a 135-townhome development on part of the site.

Kruckeberg said ideally, the city and Stronach will eventually come together. The city said it wants to see the horse track succeed, but would also like to see a site development plan for the future.  

"The city wants to make sure whatever happens there, it will fit into the fabric of the city and sticks for the long-term," Kruckeberg said.