I like a lot of things about the vision to build a small, intimate stadium, surround it with an entertainment district and some new housing and a big, beautiful, much-needed riverfront park in Mission Valley.

So of course I had to find something wrong with the plan. It’s just my way. Think of it as a service to help identify problems and overcome them.

Just like the NFL, our new professional sports suitor, Major League Soccer, is in a hurry of its own design. Ten cities are vying for the league’s two expansion teams. The league is demanding winners be able to prove they can build a stadium by 2020.

San Diego’s bid, endorsed by the mayor and several city leaders, is led by the group FS Investors, which features an obscure but apparently quite effective investor named Mike Stone, plus Steve Altman, the former chairman of Qualcomm, Peter Seidler, one of the owners of the Padres, and Nick Stone, who is serving as the de facto spokesman for the group.

A project of this magnitude could take years to approve. To get around that, the group is going to try to do what stadium proponents across the state have done: a ballot initiative that never actually makes it to the ballot.

It’s the same loophole that the developer who wanted to build a mall in Carlsbad used. It’s the same loophole through which the owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke, drove to bring the NFL to Inglewood.

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

At the moment, ballot measures supersede environmental permitting regulations. It works like this: You gather the needed signatures for an initiative. Then, the government agency in charge, rather than put it on a ballot, just accepts it as a fait accompli and the ribbons get cut.

Will it work for the people who want to bring soccer to Mission Valley? It won’t be easy.

That Carlsbad project didn’t make it – voters so wanted a say on the project that they forced it to a vote, despite the City Council’s sign-off.

But in this soccer deal, there’s an additional twist. Not only do the investors want to expedite the permitting, they want the land. I’m not sure how that’s going to happen – and they can’t tell me.

Here’s what I do know. FS Investors wants to purchase 75 acres of land, and lease much of the rest.

The number 75 is important because, if they wanted to buy more than 80 acres, it would require a public vote.

Remember, there’s no time for that.

FS Investors wants to be in charge of the whole swath of land. Here’s how Nick Stone, described their vision to us:

“We’re kind of the capital organizers, and we’ll serve as the very high-level master developer. But there are a lot of guys out there who want to develop parcels on this and we’re going to entitle them and allow people to compete for that.”

The land he’s talking about is, right now, city land. The city itself could do what he’s talking about: set a process to outline its desires for the area, rezone it appropriately and then seek proposals for the design and development – either selling or leasing the land to builders. It’d be much like what the Port of San Diego is doing at Seaport Village.

Georgette Gomez, the new city councilwoman for the College Area and City Heights, was thinking about Seaport Village when she said this at a recent committee meeting:

“I want to be very clear that I’m not speaking at all against the potential initiative. But I do want to emphasize the importance of us creating a space, a process, in which we’re leading the vision of what happens at that site.”

What she might be missing is that this will have to happen in some fashion if the city is to actually transfer all this land to FS Investors. We can make sure we are in charge until that happens.

I’m still not sure, though, how it would happen.

While the ballot measure loophole may help them get the permits needed to build the entertainment district and stadium they envision, ballot measures cannot explicitly state who is to be the beneficiary of the initiative. The Chargers had to deal with this, you might remember, with their initiative. They solved it by awkwardly suggesting that if their plan to build a stadium downtown passed, “a professional football team” would put up $650 million to be a part of it.

It could have been any team.

I asked FS Investors what they might do about this. How could they arrange it so they get to buy the land without having to go through some sort of competitive auction? How would they write it into their initiative with this restriction? Nick Stone offered me a prepared statement:

“The specific details of the initiative are probably best left for discussion until they can be viewed as a whole within the scope of the document.”

That didn’t answer much.

Whatever process the city would take to make sure Nick Stone and his partners get that land will not only have to slalom through these legal obstacles, it will also have to handle a tough price negotiation.

The mayor’s task force on the stadium problem in 2015 determined the city could sell 75 acres of land at Qualcomm Stadium for $225 million. That is far more than the partners want to spend.

Their argument is the same one I had with the mayor’s boosters then: that $225 million was based on the assumption that the land would be rezoned for development for things like apartments and then graded. It assumed the city would provide all the infrastructure needed.

It was a fantasy. The land, as is, is worth much less. As unattractive as it is, though, FS Investors, are likely not be the only group interested in buying it.

How, legally, are we supposed to sell the land to them without letting others bid? And even if we decided they shouldn’t get a shot to bid, how would we pull it off?

The only leverage FS Investors have in this is that FS Investors is the only group allowed to apply with Major League Soccer for one of the expansion teams. Thus, if we want an MLS team, we have to deal with them.

And they’re not coming out of nowhere. Four City Council members are already on the record supporting giving a sports league the land in Mission Valley for basically nothing.

I believe the stadium could be an amazing development, provide some much needed parkland, housing, entertainment and a long-term home for SDSU football.

FS Investors has given the city an opening bid, and it might be hard to just hand them this jewel.

It’d be wise for the city to respond with a worthwhile counter.

    This article relates to: Land Use, Sports

    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.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    FS investors are not the enemy of the people of San Diego. The ballot initiative has been certified and only needs the City Council to approve a vote in November. Entities all around are crying foul, but they have little leg to stand on. These same entities ended up costing PETCO Park and its developers far more than the initial cost estimates with litigation after litigation.

    Taxpayer organizations wanted nothing to do with the Chargers and a new stadium. Now FS takes the cause of Mission Valley and the "Q" with little impact on taxpayers and helps relieve the City of the high annual costs of the "Q".  FS offers some really great amenities and provides real new tax revenue for the City, in the future.  

    It very sad that SDSU wants to be stubborn. And, they want a new stadium, but they don't want to help pay for it. They want space to expand the campus, but they want to expand their way...only. 

         FS Investors will be holding PUBLIC MEETINGS next week to obtain input on the  various aspects of this very major project. The "haters" have been saying from the start that FS, the City, and others have been dealing in secret all along. Nothing further from the facts can be stated. FS and the City and others have been very transparent about the proposed project. 

          Taxpayers will NOT have to flip a dime for this proposed project, except the cost of a vote in November. That some are insinuating that FS is creating a land grab and that the City should be in line to receive fair market share for the property in Mission Valley. Fair market share? The way things are today at the "Q" property, the costs to improve the acreage would not approach anyone's idea of a fair market price. FS is doing the City and its taxpayers a huge favor. Taxpayers and the whining corporate sponsors can't have "it" both ways. Either cough up the money to improve the Q or shut up. 

           Furthermore, all these "haters" have to do is vote the initiative down and everyone can continue to look at the dying Q and the empty parking lot. 

            No one figures that MLS nor an SDSU presence could replace the glamour of the NFL . But, the shame remains on Mr. Spanos. His loss and the City's potentially vastly improved carbon footprint.


    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    Will San Diego even support soccer? I have my doubts. Professional woman soccer was a flop in San Diego. Why would mens team be any different. You would need the Mexican national team to draw 25,000.

    Why don't they relocate another soccer team and get attendance for a few years before building a new stadium?

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @mike johnson We had to play soccer in high school.

    What is it, a ball game for animals without arms?

    I imagine T-Rex would do well on the field if they don't eat the ball.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    The investors could always BUY the property (what a concept)--something the former NFL team in San Diego refused to do years ago.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    I'm seriously getting sick of this city's insistence that San Diego needs some sort of major league sport, paid for with public money.

    And this desire to GIVE AWAY a valuable chunk of city-owned property in Mission Valley is just mystifying to me.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    I think the Soccer stadium is worth considering however I see no need for the "urgency" of making a decision, any decision of this magnitude.The mayor or any member of the council that votes for this 75 acre ploy deserves to be voted out of office.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @Mark Giffin If they can't distract us with sports, we might start watching our electeds instead.

    I'm sure they wouldn't want that!

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    This is just another example of a real estate developer trying to use the urgency of a sports league application to force the city council into making yet another stupid move with the city owned Qualcomm site. Having just escaped the clutches of the NFL and the Chargers, the city shouldn't put itself at the mercy of yet another sports team league. This developer is trying to get the city to sell them the stadium site at "market rates" as is, while asking the city council to then increase the value of the property by billions of dollars via zoning changes. The city should consider keeping ownership of the whole site, and just leasing the property to this or any other developer, as the port district is doing with state owned public tidelands under its control, instead of selling the property to any private parties. In addition, if the city were to sell the property to anyone based on market rates, any sale should be at market rates after any requested zoning changes are adopted by the city, not before. Otherwise the city hall politicians would be just sacrificing taxpayer property to subsidize and enrich another private developer. Been there, done that. If the city council bends over for this developer, voters need to throw them out of office, and field a referendum on any actions to sell or otherwise give away city property.