It seems so long ago that building a downtown convadium – a joint convention center-stadium – was described as an extremely difficult feat.

One of the biggest obstacles was how much land would have to be assembled that the city supposedly didn’t own or control.

One by one, though, the perceived barriers to building the convadium are coming down.

For instance, the Metropolitan Transit System recently sent a letter to Chargers owner Dean Spanos signaling its leaders are now ready to talk about selling the largest piece of land needed to make the project possible. And almost two years ago, according to emails we obtained through a public records request, MTS’s general counsel tipped the Chargers off to potential locations where it might be able to move its East Village bus yard. The lawyer encouraged the Chargers to jump on it.

The new letter came five days after MTS’s board in closed session outlined the parameters of those negotiations.

This comes a year after the agency publicly outlined the difficulty of relocating the bus yard it currently operates on the envisioned sight, estimating it could take until 2025 to relocate to a suitable location.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

And that land the city doesn’t control that would need to be acquired? Turns out the city of San Diego owns a lot of it already. It was tied up in legal uncertainty over the end of a statewide program under which it was originally acquired.

But that too became a non-issue in September, when another public agency loosened its restrictions on future development.

This all comes just as a state appellate court determined all tax hikes adopted by citizen initiative – like the Citizens Plan, a proposal by local attorney Cory Briggs that would allow for a downtown convadium – don’t fit under the California Constitution section that requires a two-thirds vote. Many lawyers are reading that to mean that taxes put on the ballot by initiative can pass with just a bare majority of voter support, not two-thirds.

JMI Realty Inc. is pushing a convadium so it can capitalize on the land it owns nearby and develop it into a new hotel. Former Assemblyman Steve Peace, senior adviser to John Moores, who founded JMI Realty, has been one of the few who believed all along that building a convadium was doable.

“This is the easiest land-accumulation challenge for a project of its size in America’s history,” he said. “We just laugh when we hear about how hard it will be.”

Putting the Pieces Together

There was a steady stream of voices reminding us how hard it would be to assemble the property needed to build a massive convadium in East Village.

“The small site you would have to cobble together to build a stadium downtown is currently spilt up among multiple land owners, and a Citizens Initiative does not allow proponents to take other people’s land,” wrote Tony Manalatos, an adviser to Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in a February email blast.

“Most experts we’ve talked to have concluded that building a stadium downtown – on land not owned by either the city or the Chargers – would increase costs by hundreds of millions of dollars and take years longer to complete,” wrote Faulconer and County Supervisor Ron Roberts the same month, in a joint statement.

“If one were to move the proposed Mission Valley stadium downtown, where the city does not own any land for a stadium, it would increase hard costs by at least a quarter billion dollars,” wrote Faulconer’s Citizens Stadium Advisory Group in its final report. “The city would have to buy multiple parcels of land and pay to relocate and clean a large bus yard, a process expected to take up to seven years.”

Indeed, the land eyed for a stadium includes 21 separate properties. It’s immediately east of Ballpark Village, a new residential complex being constructed next to Petco Park.

Map by Tristan Loper

Fifteen of those 21 properties are effectively owned by the city of San Diego.

They were owned by the San Diego Redevelopment Agency, but that was dissolved in early 2012 when the state ended its redevelopment program. That agency’s assets became property of a so-called successor agency, which was tasked with slowly phasing out the redevelopment program. The city of San Diego itself serves as the successor agency – although it is technically a separate legal entity – and the City Council determines how those properties are used.

Before September, though, there was still a major restriction on that property. Any proposed change would first need to go to a countywide board that oversees the end of the redevelopment program. That board’s decisions would have needed to go to the state’s Department of Finance for final approval, too.

It wasn’t certain the state would approve any changes, and even if it did, it would have taken time.

In September, however, the state pre-emptively approved it for new development. Now, all that stands between greenlighting it for a convadium – or anything else – is a vote of the City Council.

The city has an agreement for the land to continue providing parking for Petco Park, so that would be a requirement for any future project. Otherwise, the City Council has wide leeway for how it’s used – homes, retail, offices, a public park or “entertainment,” like a convadium.

That’s one hurdle out of the way. But the biggest perceived hurdle has always been with MTS and its bus yard, which occupies two of the 21 needed properties and over a third of the total area.

MTS, though, is starting to accommodate that challenge, too.

MTS Opens Negotiations

MTS capped a year of slowly moving toward selling its property and relocating its bus yard last week when it formally asked Spanos to start negotiations.

“Since approximately 2012, I have made several attempts to initiate a dialogue with the Chargers and begin planning/due diligence efforts in the event the Chargers were serious about a downtown stadium project impacting (the bus yard),” wrote MTS legal counsel Karen Landers in a March 22 letter to Spanos. “Those contacts resulted in no action by the Chargers.”

Nonetheless, she said, it’s clear the Chargers are moving forward with a downtown convadium.

“On this basis, MTS would like to request a meeting with your team to discuss your timeline, MTS’s requirements for a negotiated sale and transit mitigation measures that must be considered as part of your project,” Landers wrote.

Previously, MTS estimated relocating the bus yard could take five to seven years, and Landers reiterated that in her letter. The agency also estimated in 2010 the cost of relocating to be up to $150 million — $50 million for replacement land, and up to $100 million to build the new facility.

MTS needs a facility within a five-mile radius of its current site to keep operations costs from going up. It’s efficient for the agency to store its buses downtown, since so many bus lines begin and end there. It says every five minutes of travel time away from the current bus yard would add $900,000 in annual operating costs.

And the bus yard is big. The current site is 7.75 acres, and the agency says it needs around that much space to accommodate the facility. They’ve publicly disclosed two other potential locations – one was city-owned, but has since been leased to the Monarch School in Barrio Logan and is no longer an option. The other is the city-owned vehicle maintenance yard in Golden Hill. MTS had a consultant mock up that site, but determined it wasn’t feasible. Those are the only two potential sites they’ve discussed publicly.

But in recent years, according to emails obtained by Voice of San Diego, Landers has repeatedly tried to engage Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani in preliminary discussions that would make a relocation possible.

She’s also mentioned that there are viable sites available, and encouraged the Chargers to consider pre-emptively purchasing them.

In May 2014, she told Fabiani MTS would need a 10-acre site to move its facilities.

“Therefore, as soon as an East Village stadium site is truly a focus of the Chargers organization, we encourage the Chargers to work with MTS to begin studying relocation possibilities,” Landers wrote. “It may be in the Chargers’ best interest to purchase property (upon approval of MTS that it might be feasible for a relocated facility) to hold in the event the East Village plan moves forward.”

The letter didn’t specify any potential sites, and MTS wouldn’t disclose any now.

In January 2015, she tried to schedule a call or meeting to hash out some details.

“Currently, various parcels near our rail yard are on the market (or soon to be) and could potentially be used for replacement facilities,” Landers wrote. “MTS has no need for these properties unless required for a relocation of (the bus yard) caused by a stadium project.  We also don’t currently have any funds set aside to purchase property to hold as a contingency for the stadium project.”

Landers said she was worried the properties would be bought by someone else.

“Ideally, if the Chargers/JMI/et al want to keep the East Village site as an alternative, it would be great (and calm my worries about how and where (the bus yard) could relocate) if those entities bought some of the properties coming up for sale to hold for a relocation site and/or future development,” she wrote.

She offered to study the feasibility of any site the Chargers would consider purchasing.

In the new letter to Spanos, asking to begin negotiations, Landers made another request.

Accommodating the crowds anticipated to come with a new stadium, she said, is beyond the current transit station capabilities. It would need to be reconfigured significantly.

She recommended a new working group to figure out how that can happen.

Taken together, the emails show that while MTS is now asking that formal negotiations begin, informal negotiations to make sure the agency comes out OK have been happening for some time.

Fred Maas, special adviser for the Chargers stadium project and the former head of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency, said he’s comfortable with how things are going.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “In due course, everyone who wants to see this happen will be reasonable.”

The list of people who want to see this happen could soon include MTS.

That’s because, regardless of the outlook of a convadium project, the agency is starting to come around to the idea that the land isn’t best used as a bus yard, said spokesman Rob Schupp. He said it’s possible the agency could move the bus yard nearby and lease the property to a developer to secure an ongoing revenue stream for the next 99 years.

“It has increasing value, and we’re recognizing that with all these downtown condos there will someday be increased pressure to move,” Schupp said.

    This article relates to: Convadium, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Dean Cunliffe
    Dean Cunliffe

    As a Barrio Logan resident, and long time Sandiegan, I find it unbelievable that this project still has legs. Should this plan be implemented, l foresee north barrio, the area from Cesar Chavez to 16th St., being swallowed whole by developers. In fact, parcels of property in my neighborhood are being vacated, and boarded up in anticipation of a deal, that will make property values grow exponentially.

    Petco park, and the Convention center already have a impact on our neighborhood, as attendees at the events seek free parking. Leaving residents with nowhere to park.

    And, what ever did become of the Barrio Logan Community plan update?

    Something fishy about to happen.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    @Dean Cunliffe That's what the East Village People are trying to prevent. We want to connect this area to the Barrio, not separate it with some massive impenetrable thing.

    g kelly
    g kelly

    If the Chargers are so gosh-darned wonderful, how come they can't pay for their own stadium. And should ANY stadium be located where there is great access by means of freeways that connect the fans with their homes and make it convenient to attend the games and other events at the same venue?

    As for expanding the Convention Center, ComiCon has said they don't need a bigger convention center, they need more support from the hotel industry for ComiCon visitors. Apart from that, most large convention centers are forced to discount their charges in order to attract business. 

    "Yeah, we're losing money, but we'll make up for it with volume, ' is a dumb business model. As is taking money from the poor citizens of San Diego, and giving it to the rich Spanos family.

    Edward Moretti
    Edward Moretti

    Ah, it seemed like it was just a year ago when I called all these "issues" that the people at MTS were bringing up as disingenuous at best, complete lies at worst. I was called an idiot by a good many people in the comment section. Nice to know that I was right for once. Funny how MTS was saying one thing to the public while working fervently behind the scenes for another outcome. Strange how things that were represented as written in stone were really just put up as fronts to drive a hard bargain.

    As to the validity of this article, I only have one question. In the memo from CEO Paul Jablonski to Adam Day from a year ago the reason the approximately 8-10 acres not occupied by the Monarch School on the rail yard site can no longer be used for a new MTS bus yard is that the site is "inadequate for a full relocation of the IAD operation". Although I find this strange considering that the site still provides a larger footprint than the current bus yard that is no longer given as the reason as to why that site can no longer be used. According to this article, the entire rail yard site "has since been leased to the Monarch School in Barrio Logan and is no longer an option." Really? Wasn't this done just to make the rest of the rail yard site unavailable for the new MTS bus yard? It appears that Mr. Jablonski and the rest of the MTS management were just playing their own little elaborate shell game all along. I'm probably completely wrong on this and will probably told why by many of you. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I just hit the nail squarely on the head.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    If its such a hot, profitable idea to fill the bus yard with more condo towers and apartment blocks, why hasn't it already happened?

    Were the downtown developers waiting for more taxpayer subsidies before they would pursue it?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Thanks for the input, convention center corp shills.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I am staggered that the mayor's office might have been keeping voters in the dark and feeding them male cattle excrement. Who would have thunk it?

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    It just blows me away what is happening in San Diego. In a town where everything publicly owned is decaying and rotting (stadiums, convention centers, city hall, Balboa Park, streets, sewer lines, water lines, sidewalks, schools etc., etc, etc.), we are even talking about spending this exorbitant amount of money for a new football stadium. It was only a few short years ago that we had a multi-purpose stadium conveniently located in Mission Valley that served the community's need even if it was not completely paid for and still isn't though it is 40 years old. Then the Padres moved to Petco Park and we had two stadiums. Now not only do the Chargers want a new stadium, there is talk about SDSU getting the Qualcomm land and of course there has to be a new stadium built there for the Aztecs and maybe a major league soccer team.  No doubt the citizenry of San Diego will be screwed - supporting and paying for not one, not two, but three stadiums. 

    This town is nuts if they do it. And when the next recession comes along, San Diego will no doubt end up in bankruptcy like their cohorts in San Bernardino and Stockton. 

    Folks there are far more pressing issues in this community that building stadiums.  And of course the school board is just as bad with all the money they are putting into them as well in the local high schools.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Bob Gardner Bob, don’t get all upset, calm down and think on the bright side.  After all, Petco Park didn’t cost the taxpayers a penny.  Just as Mayor Golding predicted, it was financed by a flood of new TOT revenue from 2500 new hotel rooms that magically appeared because we had the foresight to build the ballpark.  Don’t look at the city budget detail, though.You’ll see an annual expenditure of about 11 mil that appears to be payments on the ballpark bonds, but that’s an illusion.  All that new TOT covers it nicely…….right?  There's plenty more where that came from.

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    The author of this article confuses time constraints with implementation barriers.

    Jerald King
    Jerald King

    We live downtown and spend a lot of time walking near Petco and the Library.  I do not understand why the convention center would create an auxiliary or 2nd location that is, at a minimum, 750 yards from the nearest corner of the existing convention center.  That walk would also require climbing and descending all those stairs up and over the trolley / train tracks.  I have attended hundreds of large conventions all over the world and I know for a fact I would NEVER walk 1/2 mile to get from one convention locale to another.  This plan does not make sense. 

    Dennis subscriber

    @Jerald King God forbid you get the extra exercise. Immediacy trumps that for sure :)

    Milton Lawson
    Milton Lawson

    @Dennis when I visit San Diego for Comic-Con annually, I like to follow-up with a few days in Oceanside for some surfing. I prefer for the extra exercise to occur in the latter half of the trip.

    The problem with the second site for conventions isn't the extra exercise, it's loss of time, which is being drastically underestimated in the discussions about the convadium proposal. At first glance, the following claim might seem much - but as a 5-time veteran of the con, I estimate that I'd probably lose about 20-25% worth of my time because of the split locations (longer explanation here:

    The Chargers & Briggs' proposals will raise my hotel taxes, likely raise the price of attending the convention to pay for renting the second facility, and cause me to lose a huge chunk of time? Please, don't conflate these unrelated issues: just build the Chargers a stadium first and then do a proper, real expansion of the convention center later. I hope the citizens of SD don't ruin the convention center's long-term needs just to solve the short-term Charger panic. I'll happily pay extra taxes for both concerns as a visitor of your amazing city, if they're handled with smarts. But this looks like a rush, a panic, and something that'll potentially ruin the convention and force it to consider another location, which is the last thing we all want.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Jerald King It makes sense if you are John Moores or Dean Spanos. 

    Andrew, since you seem to be the designated reporter on this scheme, see if you can find out how much money the convention center lost annually before it was expanded the first time, how much it loses currently and how much they project this will increase with this new expansion.  And try to get the figures without the "economic impact" bovine scatology.  Good luck.  

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    So to sum up: MTS wants the Chargers to buy up some land on the down low (Walmart style), give it to MTS at which time MTS will host an open house for their noisy, stinky bus yard for their new neighbors.  To close the circle, the new neighbors will be represented by Briggs in court.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    Great spade work Andrew.  Another question on your to-do list might be to query the social service agencies/entities on 16th street and on the south side of Imperial and how well (or not) a stadium is going to work for all parties.  I assume because of tensions in use the convadium will focus most traffic and activity away from those street.  That probably makes it even MORE of a wall.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Andrew, are we talking about a Covadium on the described potential site, or just a stadium. In prior reports by VOSD, it appeared that the Chargers were undecided on whether to support the Citizen's innitiative (re: Covadium) or go it alone with a separate ballot measure. From a public perspective, looking at your diagram of the proposed new complex being next to Petco, the arguments against the project raised by the East Village People, seem very valid. The new commplex, together with Petco, would essentially wall off a huge part of downtown (from about 7th to 16th Avenues and K Street to Imperial). The result is a dead zone on non-game days and an incredible blockage of pedestrian traffic, a vital element for creating a vibrant downtown.