On March 15, the traveling band of professional signature-gatherers will once again land in San Diego. Victory Consultants, a local coordinator of such hired help, had a warning for people coming to town.

“I can tell you this you need to start working and getting those arms in shape, folks, because this is going to be one of those heavy, heavy petition booklets,” said the voice on Victory Consultants’ hotline that signature-gatherers from across the country can check.

Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on what they’re going to pay per signature to make all that exercise worth it.

The petition will be the one finally made official last week by FS Investors, the group that wants to lease some of the land, and buy the rest, that currently holds up Qualcomm Stadium. They want to build housing, a riverfront park, an entertainment district and, of course, a new soccer stadium that would double as a home for San Diego State University football.

The development, dubbed SoccerCity, supposedly will not happen unless the City Council rubber-stamps the petition and lets the plan go through instead of sending it to the ballot. It is a measure that FS Investors does not want to see got the ballot.

A couple of weeks ago, I wondered how FS Investors would figure out how to buy the land. After all, other prominent San Diegans would probably like to buy or lease it.

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

We soon learned how they will be kept from that. The petition binds the city to first lease the land to an “ownership group” who has “submitted an application for a franchise to be located in San Diego from a professional soccer league as part of any such league’s expansion process.”

The professional soccer league is very specifically defined to mean Major League Soccer.

Then the petition binds the city to sell up to 79.9 acres of the land to said ownership group.

That’s how FS Investors gets to buy the land.

All this is quite a political lift — the exclusive right to buy city land combined with a relatively easy permitting process.

The measure appears to have the support of Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

It seems possible  to get the City Council to approve it.

However, as we should all know by now, getting the City Council to approve something is just the semifinals. San Diego politics now have a well-established final tribunal for giant projects like this, and it plays out in the same streets where this one will start, with the same players: signature-gatherers.

This project has all the makings of ending up as a voter referendum whether FS Investors wants it to or not.

Let me explain. Mega developments in San Diego face three potential sources of opposition. Opposition will arise from either a) neighborhood activists, preservationists or environmentalists b) competing developers and business interests or c) political institutions.

If all three become passionate and activated opponents, the project will die. If two are passionate and one is willing to spend money, it will die. Often, the weapon is a referendum – a mechanism by which you gather enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot seeking to overturn a decision made by elected officials.

If only one of the opposition forces is fired up, the project has a chance.

Take a recent example: The Carlsbad-area mall proposed by Caruso Affiliated. It was a very similar pitch. The experienced and powerful developer wanted to build a mall and preserve much of the rest of the land. He wanted to sidestep the permitting hassle by doing a ballot initiative that the Carlsbad City Council would just accept without actually sending to the ballot.

That happened as planned. But then motivated opposition willing to spend money forced the issue to the ballot anyway. It was killed.

Look at One Paseo. With that, the developer, Kilroy Realty, did actually go through the permitting process. The City Council approved it. Hostility to the project, however, created two active fronts against it: one from neighbors and the other from a rival landholder, that the latter of which was willing to spend millions to kill it.

They forced the measure to the ballot, and that forced Kilroy to make the project smaller to appease the rival and some neighbors. The compromise salvaged the project, which broke ground recently.

Right now, SoccerCity faces all three potential opposition efforts. Neighbors and the region’s best-known environmental attorney, Cory Briggs, appear ready to pounce. Rival developers are not pleased (and they have enough cash to force anything to the ballot they want). Tom Sudberry, a developer and big player in San Diego Republican politics, sent me a statement about the project.

“I am extremely disappointed that a development project of this magnitude is not being processed through a normal entitlement and mitigation process,” Sudberry wrote.

And, to complete the rare trifecta, SoccerCity faces hostility from a political power: San Diego State University.

SDSU is not allowed to take a stand on the project. And its leaders would probably balk at me calling the college a political power. But it is.

SDSU officials released a terse statement about the proposal with two complaints: 1) There is no way to expand the max 32,000-seat stadium to 40,000 seats and 2) FS Investors is acting like this is a huge gift to SDSU but it’s not.

The first complaint is a dispute I can’t resolve. On the one hand, nothing in the initiative makes it possible for SDSU to expand the stadium. In fact, it specifically says that SDSU would have start from scratch on environmental and impact studies to get such an expansion approved.

But Nick Stone, the partner for FS Investors making the case around town for the project said it’s easy, and SDSU is being mysteriously dense about the possibility of expansion. He said they exchanged plenty of schematics with university officials showing how it could be engineered.

“There’s no question — I don’t really want to go here but if we have to go here I’ll just unveil the renderings that show, hey look, it fits. Here’s 40,000 seats,” Stone told us.

The other complaint from SDSU is more interesting. Stone insists that FS Investors is solving a problem for the university and paying more than $100 million toward a new stadium for SDSU football.

And FS Investors says it will simply give the stadium, and the land underneath it, to the university after a few years of operation.

But nothing in the initiative says that land will be FS Investors’ land to give SDSU. The initiative only says the group can buy 79.9 acres of the city’s land. What forces them to buy the land under the stadium? And why would they?

FS Investors is basically asking SDSU officials to trust it. But if the initiative becomes city law, what leverage does SDSU have? No deal is in place at the moment.

Thus, it looks like all three potential sources of opposition to the project have lit up.

They may not be able to keep the City Council and the mayor from approving the initiative outright.

But very few major new changes in the city of San Diego have gone through without being forced to a referendum over the last five years. Barrio Logan’s long effort to update its community plan? Killed at the ballot. New minimum wage? Forced to the ballot, delayed a year, ultimately approved by voters. New affordable housing fee? Killed by a ballot referendum push.

The list goes on and on.

Right now, signature-gatherers are excited to work for FS Investors.

But they will have no problem working for someone else trying to kill the same project in six months.

    This article relates to: Chargers Stadium, Land Use

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Glen Gallo
    Glen Gallo

    I am not against the project but there are a couple of things that bother me. First is if we were to get an MLS team I do not see it being named anything but the Sockers. Since there is ownership of that name now the group should be in negotiation to secure the name rights for an MLS team. The history of the San Diego Sockers is rich and goes all the way back to the NASL. Just as the Gulls secured the historical name so should this group. I have not heard of any indication they intend to do so. Second the current proposal is simply too small for SDSU. With the Chargers gone and a good current SDSU program this is an opportunity for SDSU. Even at the proposed 40k expansion I feel is too small. The group needs to think bigger. I would say a 50k plus stadium is more like it. I do not see the NFL coming back anytime soon and think we could have a premier program here in San Diego State. San Diego has been a football town and still is. With the Chargers gone and a vibrant and deep alumni base I foresee increased ticket sales. Even 40k is too small for the Aztecs moving forward. I think this is the biggest problem before the group right now how does it attract the intimacy of MLS with the potential of San Diego. We are not a small market, this stadium proposal is simply too small

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    @Glen Gallo While the Sockers name goes way back, the success of that franchise was all indoors.  It's an indoor name.  If MLS comes, a new fresh name should be chosen.  The indoor game presumably will still be played here as it will be a less expensive option for fans who may find MLS ticket prices too high.   MLS games are not cheap to go to.

    The Aztecs don't need anything above 40,000.  We aren't living in Lincoln, Nebraska,  Ann Arbor, Michigan, Tuscaloosa, Alabama or Austin, Texas.  40,000 will be more than enough for a football program that, until recently, has struggled and will have a hard time ever getting into a "power" conference.  The main ingredient for a new college football stadium is "fan experience".   Keep the capacity to a reasonable level and the full houses, hopefully, that ensue, will ensure a fun time for everyone.

    Glen Gallo
    Glen Gallo

    @Robert Cohen 

    1978 through 1984 the Sockers NASL Outdoor team only failed to qualify for the playoffs one season out of seven and made the conference final three times during that run. I would call that successful.

    They then took that coach and name and dominated the indoors for many years

    I attended both in and outdoor games The name is desirable has history for generations of San Diegans

    I attend Aztecs games now and while competing with the Chargers drew more than 30k per game. It will be interesting what next year brings in

     I appreciate your reply but respectfully disagree on both of your points.  

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    @Glen Gallo @Robert Cohen I keep hearing that MLS is what the "millennials" are into.  If so, they don't remember anything about the "outdoor" Sockers.  The NASL was a long time ago.  The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps kept their NASL names because those teams continued on in various outdoor leagues.  Unless FS Investors buys the indoor team too, I doubt the Sockers will want to give up their name, though of course, money talks.

    Speaking of the NASL, remember the Toros?  They moved to SD from LA and played one year here before folding.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    This whole "citizen initiative" thing has gotten out of hand.  A relatively few people can force a whole community to cater to their whims. Is this what Gov. Hiram Johnson intended when his Progressive Party took office back in the day?  Seems to me that the venture capitalists and the hedge fund managers are what the railroad barons were in days of old.  Want to do a project?  Let's hire some signature gatherers and pressure (or grease) city council members to approve it without going to the voters as a whole.  I guess we should be thankful that the referendum system works both ways and a decision by the council can be put to a public vote.  But it sure seems to be a waste of money and time for everyone involved.  

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    The vast majority of the local San Diego construction workforce (non-union) will have to assume there would be a secret backroom deal giving organized labor a monopoly (Project Labor Agreement) in building / running the stadium. The problems brought through union environmental extortion (greenmail) will manifest AFTER a blessing by the city council or vote by tax payers in the form of union hiring halls in LA. / No-Cal emptying out to build San Diego while local state approved non-union apprentices sit on the sidelines.

    Not going to happen, stick a fork in this one...

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Is San Diego destined to forever be a rube at a carnival?

    DavidM subscriber

    @Chris Brewster So long as "the People" are too busy to actually learn what is going on . . . yes.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    Gee, Nick, if you actually have renderings on how your little soccer stadium could be expanded to 40k--show them already.  Just so I can see it.  Before I vote against it.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    You need to fix the grammar in this line above:  "This donation will make you a Inside Voice member." 

    Re SoccerCity - the sooner it dies, the better things will be for San Diego.  SoccerCity is simply a consolation prize for those who want something to replace the Chargers.  San Diego has one major league sports team and that's enough.  But this is not really about sports teams.  It's about big money ego in San Diego.  I've watched it over and over.  There are a lot of things to love about this city, but Big Money Ego is not one of them.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    What is the liability for San Diego in this project?  Are we being paid market rate rent?  Are we selling the land at market rate?  Who pays for the up grade to the infrastructure that putting in so many businesses and homes will require?  Is there an irrevocable bond to pay for the remediation of the site at the end of its use?  Will the Coastal Commission sign off on the project?  Does San Diego get a cut of the gross from the stadium?  Will the operators commit to hiring locally, both for construction and operation of the project?  Will there be low income housing as part of the project?

    Lots of questions and very few answers at this point.

    One last question:  Are we being asked to buy a pig in a poke? (Have someone old explain it to you) 

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    Two things my parents drummed into my head while I was growing up.

    1.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    2. If you are being rushed into making a decision, don't.