By Vince Meehan
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This November, San Diego voters have the opportunity to decide the future of the 166-acre parcel of city-owned land in Mission Valley that was home to the San Diego Chargers for more than 50 years. Two competing initiatives authorizing the sale of the former Qualcomm Stadium site will appear on this year’s ballot, making this one of the most unique elections in San Diego history. The initiatives must first pass by garnering more than 50 percent of the votes. And if they both succeed, the one with the higher percentage will win.
At first glance, the two initiatives look very similar. Both plans promise to build a new stadium and demolish the old one. Both plans include a public river park along the bottom third of the tract, and both plans include mixed-use development including 4,800 units of housing. And both plans promise to do all this at no cost to San Diego taxpayers. So what is the difference? To find out, we talked to representatives of both initiatives about their visions.
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The goal of SoccerCity is to transform San Diego into the epicenter of soccer in America. This is according to Nick Stone, one of the leading proponents of SoccerCity and a Partner at FS Investors, which launched the initiative.
“The growth in soccer is real,” Stone said. “And San Diego will be where the best of the best come to train and play.”
The plan is to purchase the land, and then use that acquisition to convince Major League Soccer (MLS) to grant San Diego an expansion team. This will be reliant on building a new soccer stadium on the site by the 2021 season. The SoccerCity plan also includes buying the new expansion team. In addition, a training facility is planned where both national teams and youth academies can train and play exhibition games in the stadium.
SoccerCity also includes plans for a sports entertainment complex similar to the L.A. Live venue in Los Angeles. This is to make SoccerCity a sports destination for San Diegans to enjoy year-round. SoccerCity has agreed to pay the city $83 million for the land if the initiative wins in November. And if they cannot secure an MLS franchise within one year, the deal will default to the SDSU West plan.
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The SDSU West initiative was not created by San Diego State University. As a state agency, SDSU is not allowed to advocate for or against a ballot initiative. So a group of civic leaders with SDSU ties (Friends of SDSU) launched the initiative that stipulates the city must sell the stadium property to SDSU. So if SDSU West passes, Friends of SDSU hand the football off to SDSU, which will then pony up the money to purchase the tract. However, the price for the land will need to be negotiated with the city after the vote.
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Gina Jacobs, assistant vice president of Divisional Communications and Strategy at SDSU, said that a SDSU West complex would be beneficial to San Diego due to the innovation the site would generate. The plan is to coax private enterprises such as biotech firms to open offices alongside SDSU facilities, so students can “learn and intern” as part of their studies. Jacobs noted that many SDSU students choose to stay in San Diego after they graduate, and this would be beneficial to the city.
“SDSU’s vision is to create an innovation district where university faculty and students can partner with private industry, business incubators and accelerators to generate new ideas that create jobs and companies, which will have economic benefits for the entire San Diego region,” Jacobs said.
An example includes a conference hotel adjacent to the stadium where students could work alongside trained professionals.
“This would create academic opportunities for students enrolled in our Hospitality and Tourism Management program,” added Jacobs.
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Both initiatives leave the door open for a return of the National Football League (NFL) to San Diego. SoccerCity plans to set aside 16 acres for a possible NFL stadium in addition to its soccer stadium, but there is a five-year time limit on that. The SDSU West plan leaves an option open to expand its 35,000-seat stadium to NFL specs if San Diego can land a team.
SDSU West is endorsed by a who’s who of San Diego power brokers. However, Councilmember Scott Sherman (District 7) endorsed SoccerCity. The property being voted on lies in his district and he says his constituency has been very vocal about not using taxpayer money to fund any new stadium. He says he endorses the SoccerCity plan because it uses no taxpayer money, and he’s skeptical about the SDSU plan. “How can you sell a taxpayer asset to a taxpayer-funded entity and expect not to have any taxpayer money being put into it?” asked Sherman.
Rob Hutsel, president and CEO of the San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF), has a huge stake in the vote. Hutsel advocated for a river park on the property for years as both a member of the SDRPF and the Mission Valley Planning Group. The SDRPF board of directors voted to come out in opposition to the SoccerCity initiative due to concerns about the “ballot box planning” of using the initiative process as a vehicle for the sale.
“There isn’t the give and take of a planning process. When you come before a planning group, then you go before a decision maker like the planning commission or the City Council, there’s opportunities along the way to make it better and to find compromise; and the initiative doesn’t allow that,” Hutsel said. He is also concerned that the initiative would not get him the 60 acres of river park that he has lobbied for. “SoccerCity has indicated that they would get us there, but it’s not in the initiative so we had to oppose it at this time,” added Hutsel. The SDRPF plans on meeting with SDSU soon to decide if they can support their plan or not.
One sobering fact is that both plans will take 10 to 15 years to complete in full. So no matter who wins, San Diegans can expect to see chunks of barren graded land for years to come. However, SoccerCity promises to have its soccer stadium complete by the 2021 MLS season. SDSU intends to have its Aztec stadium completed for its 2022 season. And both plans intend to complete their river parks on the same timeline. But if both initiatives fail, the site stays as is until the city comes up with a plan B.
Ultimately, the choice will come down to what voters see as the future of San Diego. If both initiatives fail, we then face the possibility of entering 2030 with a weed-covered stadium standing as a monument to inaction.
—Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.