Last week, Voice of San Diego asked our city’s pre-eminent local urban planners, architects and community members what they want to see happen to Qualcomm Stadium. I’d like to add my thoughts by stepping back and first asking, what would George Marston do?

Commentary - in-story logoSadly, few San Diegans today remember Marston, our greatest civic philanthropist, affectionately known as our “First Citizen,” who gave the city Presidio Park, Junipero Serra Museum and his home adjacent to Balboa Park.

Marston also initiated our jobs-at-all-costs versus improving the quality of our environment debate that resonates to this day. While he lost his mayoral run to a jobs-creator candidate, his big idea for San Diego lives on in the understanding that building toward cultural and social value always equates to economic value, while the converse is not as true.

Most San Diegans intrinsically feel the cultural value of public stadiums. Dating back to ancient coliseums, these civic forums provide a collective respite from our everyday lives with moments of shared spectacle, mortality and entertainment. And these coliseums have historically been important to San Diego, too. Balboa Stadium, now in ruins behind San Diego High School, was promoted as the first of its kind on the Pacific coast and the world’s largest municipal structure when the Panama Exhibition opened a century ago.

But The Q is today a dated mid-century modern multipurpose stadium. These types of stadiums were once the trend across the nation, and ours is now the last of its kind still standing. That said, it still retains its cultural value by its ability to converge a broad spectrum of society into its 160 acres, 10 to 20 times a year. Thanks to Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos and the NFL, for the past 15 years our conversation about this space has been completely dominated by the tremendous amount of economic value that is generated when 65,000 people show up on a Sunday.

After focusing on economic value in negotiations with a petulant private franchise ownership for far too long, San Diegans now have a moment to collectively reassess and prioritize the social and cultural value of this big old public stadium into the 21st century. Without a plan that builds cultural and social value, speculators will continue to make plans for us based on generating economic value for their private initiatives. We are seeing this with the soccer stadium and development scheme that’s been proposed, and will see it over and over until we have a definite plan.

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

As an urban designer who advises cities to first envision, then codify that vision by purposely building their plans, the following points are intended to reframe the discussion from a return on investment perspective toward our collective vision on the public value of this grand civic space.

Qualcomm Stadium sits on extremely valuable public land, so the public should be involved in the decision-making process.

There is no real urgency to make a decision (the lack of a professional sports franchise isn’t fatal).

We should make a plan of action when we are all confident in that decision.

Test if our collective values state that public interest is more important than a private interest’s.

We should not give away long-term public property for short-term private economic benefit.

The entire Qualcomm Stadium belongs to San Diegans. A stadium is a great amenity to city living, but we must never forget it is on public land with value beyond the return on tickets and turnstiles. Like taxes and fees that pay for Balboa Park, Mission Bay and our waterfront parks, we may choose to collectively finance our higher quality of city life. Let’s figure our priorities out, make a plan and find the right parts and pieces that build what we want.

Mike Davis, urbanist and MacArthur Prize winner, elegantly stated to VOSD that the goal should be “utopia,” a lofty ambition. Davis said the city should build “a utopian residential and learning community that promote San Diego as a cutting-edge laboratory where we solve urban problems.”

A century ago, Balboa Park’s Panama Exposition grounds aspired for the same results that Marston generously funded and stewarded to become the beloved spaces and places we cherish today. Those types of big ideas are appropriate for Qualcomm’s big site, and we need to vet them in a public forum.

So, what would Marston do? Based on his record, I believe he would take the time to reframe the stadium dialog from a narrow and risky economic return on investment toward leveraging the value of this grand civic space – a utopian ambition.

Rather than a jumble of private or politically expedient ideas hamstrung by 15 years of return-on-investment studies, let’s use our planning commission and City Council forums to decide what this 160-acre riverfront site means beyond next season. Let’s really talk about its cultural and social value first, and then measure its economic returns. That is what Marston did for San Diego and what we should do today.

Howard M. Blackson is an urban designer. Blackson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Chargers Stadium, Opinion

    Written by Opinion

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    James Wilson
    James Wilson subscriber

    A New Stadium at No New Cost to the City

    James C. Wilson

    The potential of bringing the Raiders to San Diego means it is time to get serious about a new stadium. It is possible to construct a new stadium in San Diego with no new costs to the city. It must be built downtown adjacent to Petco Park. Building it downtown is advantageous for two reasons. First, it must have a roof that allows it to become an “event center.” Second, it must be downtown to utilize Gaslamp and other restaurants and bars before and after events, as well as close to downtown hotels. This event center can be used over 200 days a year like the center in Indianapolis.

    Placing it downtown allows the selling and redevelopment of the QUALCOMM stadium site and building with a roof allows the selling of the sports arena site. This plan puts both sites back in the private sector. Selling both sites should provide about $250 million for the new center.

    The next move is to use the old redevelopment concept of having local agencies agree to defer the new property taxes from this new private property for ten years. The city can zone these properties to make them very attractive. The deferment of taxes is better for the local agencies than the deal not going through and getting nothing. The deferred property taxes should net another $250 million over the ten- year period. After the ten-year deferral, this additional income would be a windfall for the city, county, and public schools.

    The NFL/Spanos have already said they will contribute $300 million. The new naming rights should be worth $300 million over the thirty-year bonding period.

    The events in the new “event center” should contribute over 200 events a year, in addition to the Chargers, that will make substantial money. Thus, the center itself should contribute minimally $300 million over the thirty-year bonding period. The combination of the various revenues adds up to sufficient financing to build a quality center without new cash from the city or county even though they have already offered $200 million.

    This public/private ownership of a new “event center” in downtown San Diego would benefit San Diegans who might wish to go to basketball games, hockey games, concerts, NCAA events, national political party conventions, as well as the Chargers and Aztec football games and Super Bowls. The coordination with the convention center is obvious. Let us not forget that tourism is our number one private business in San Diego. This “event center” can create thousands of jobs in the center, restaurants, and hotels.

    James C. Wilson

    Mike Burrows
    Mike Burrows

    Why does every idea for this site begin w/ demolishing tons of concrete? And, presumably, pouring tons of new concrete, a carbon intensive material?  Where is the City's commitment to it's Climate Action Plan?  If the repurposing of the site includes a stadium let's see some effort at reusing at least a portion of what we've already been paying (and paying) for and stop buying into the false argument fronted by Spanos & the NFL. 

    The general public apparently does not understand that, assuming it's not exposed to saturation and freezing cycles, concrete strength increases with age .  Remember the Pantheon in Rome?  It was made of concrete nearly 1900 years ago.

    So maybe you want to refresh the outside with an LED orgasm like the Chargers proposal, or sail material that relates to our coastal proximity, or (the now ubiquitous in every bar) recycled wood, or whatever. The utilities are there.  The restrooms are there (remodel them?).  The corridors, ramps, stairs, elevators etc. are there.  If a proposal starts with A stadium start with The stadium. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Mike Burrows I like that. You could replace the bleachers with little hillside cottages and turn the concourse into restaurants and offices.

    Daryl Biggs
    Daryl Biggs

    A bit odd to call it a backward approach to anything, at the moment. First off, no one has committed to anything at all at the moment. Both the city and the investors group are doing their due diligence and developing a plan that they feel works. Second, this write-up dismisses the only plan on the table right now as one groups private interest in squeezing profit out of San Diego's crown jewel property, but it's almost like he didn't read the part where the bulk of the land and the stadium that they're paying half the bill on will be donated to San Diego State. Third, he doesn't address how much political pontificating will need to go on, and more importlantly, how much said pontificating will cost taxpayers, before a decision is made to move forward with developing a site that, in its own right, is leaking taxpayer money every year. Fifth, we all want to have a conversation about what's in the best interest of the city, and we all want something built on the Qualcomm site that will last for ages and that other cities will look at in envy. The real problem with the above piece is that it comes across as if it's attempting to convince people that the project currently being worked on wasn't, isn't, and won't be carefully planned, and that just sort of spits in the face of people that are working hard to try to meet the collective wants and needs of city of San Diego, and the concepts and ideas that have been publicized over the last 15 years. Just because it was announced 2 days after the Chargers left doesn't mean they saw Spanos' letter and ran down to Reggie in graphic design and told him to spin out a pretty stadium picture by the end of the day.

    The real question is why, after 15 years of NFL vs City browbeating on what to do with this site, when at NO point was leaving Qualcomm stadium standing part of any feasible solution for the area, is there no other offer on the table? What is stopping all the city planners, architects, and urban designers from coming together and forming other proposals? Why aren't the comment fields for all these editorials a bunch of people saying "I like this part of this plan, but I also like the idea this other plan had?" Why? Because the city planners and urban designers are all too busy writing editorials trying to lobby the public away from backing a proposal that sells off half of the available land to one group. They want everyone to hold their horses and wait to see if someone comes up with a more slick idea.

    Now, I don't think this proposal should be backed because it's the only one on the table. I think it should be backed because it offers the city the opportunity to invest in its community, its education, and a drastic improvement to its infrastructure without having to touch its bank account. You can try to tell people it's rushed all you want, but it's been there for years, waiting for the right moment to present itself. Here it is. Figure out how to make it right and make it happen.

    Lawrence Herzog
    Lawrence Herzog

    Well, Howard, let's deconstruct an important point completely missing in your otherwise well-written essay.  First of all, a century ago, San Diegans, including Marston, did not fully embrace the city's inherent cultural, historic and geographic inter-connection with Tijuana and with Mexico.  Ironically, the Panama Canal Exposition did not entirely embrace Mexico-- indeed, the architectural style chosen in Balboa Park was Spanish Baroque Revival, not Mexican or even Mission Revival. The world has changed since then, and, notwithstanding the troubling post-truth, nationalist chaos coming out of the White House, we live in a global society.  San Diego's future lies in its connection to Mexico, as Lynch and Appleyard so brilliantly wrote in their classic study "Temporary Paradise".  Mike Davis' idea of a utopia, and a 'cutting-edge laboratory for solving urban problems' would most surely include the vision of San Diego's inherent ties to Tijuana (indeed Mike has written many times about the importance of that Mexican connection; so have I!)  What better way to challenge the misguided anti-Mexican, inward-directed hyper-nationalism of the current president, and what better way to solidify our connection to Mexico, then to re-design Mission Valley in a way that includes the most popular sport south of the border-- soccer.  A soccer stadium would send the message that we view the future of San Diego as one that fully integrates the cultural importance of the four plus million Mexicans who will live in Tijuana/Ensenada/Rosarito/Mexicali, etc.  As you well know, every time San Diego has scheduled a Mexican or international soccer event, huge crowds show up, including Latinos and residents of Baja.  So, yes, San Diego has an opportunity to rethink the bland shopping mall/freeway/suburb paradigm of Mission Valley, and create an extraordinary and visionary mixed use urban design plan-- why not give it the Latin American flair that our border location cries out for? Why not include Latin-style plazas, paseos, promenades, the color and excitement of Latin American cities as part of the urban design vision for Mission Valley. The future of Mission Valley could send a loud message about the future of San Diego-Tijuana as a cutting edge international, multicultural region built partly around the most popular sport on the planet.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Mr. Herzog, I certainly hope you are posing this as a talking point, not a real reason for building the current proposal. Your argument is that futbol is the best way San Diego can show solidarity withTijuana? 

    Latin-style plazas have a good urban design use, but to design a NEW Mission Valley around another sports venue (AGAIN?!) doesn't sound sound to me. After all, MLS soccer teams are private businesses, just like the NFL.

    James Stroud
    James Stroud

    Why do we need to wait? I don't agree that this plan is rushed. the FS Group has been been putting together their plan for over 2 years and have had much input from city planners to do so. The plan looks fantastic, it's a privately funded way to get San Diego on the map as a world class sports city and they are even gifting the city a huge river front park, infrastructure, demo of the Murph, and more. We cannot say "No tax payer money for stadiums!" then say "We want the public's input on the planning!" as well. that ship has sailed and as long as the group has San Diego's best interest at heart, which they obviously do, then we should be supporting this plan and this group 100%. Yes, we should be made aware of the specifics to see if there are any pitfalls, but right now, with what we know of the plan, it is absolutely fantastic for San Diego. If we "take a step back and collectively assess what SD wants out of the stadium space", then this one of a kind opportunity will be gone and nothing will step up any time soon to take it's place. San Diego has had 15 years to come up with a plan and i believe that has already been put into this group's proposal. This is what SD wants! make it happen!

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    @James Stroud I wonder why this, "a privately funded way to get San Diego on the map as a world class sports city" is important? We've held Super Bowls, we're on a map. I ask if that is a top civic priority? I'm not so sure.

    And, why can't we say, "no tax payer money for (public) stadiums" while "asking the public for its priorities in this new context?" When else would you ask? 

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I look forward to the dialog.

    James Stroud
    James Stroud

    @michael-leonard I like soccer? This "get 'er done" rhetoric you speak of. when has it ever worked before? It hasn't, because the plans proposed have been terrible, and a waste of public money. The city voted NO on that. Now we have a good plan and it's privately funded. Yet here we are, with opposition from the same people who voted NO on measure C. So what is it you DO want? because obviously nothing will please you.

    James Stroud
    James Stroud

    @Howard Blackson @James Stroud I feel the author of this article doesn't truly care what the public wants. He is a businessman and wants to get in on the game and make money off this. that's why he's opposed to this plan and wants to wait and come up with one himself. FS beat him to the punch and he doesn't like that. The public has expressed it's opinions over the last 15 years and they are all very obviously considered in this plan. A new facility, new sport, new SDSU expansion, taxable property, low income housing, infrastructure development, river front park, demo of the murph. The only negative i see is how much this group is willing to pay for the land. but that remains to be seen and i know the city will negotiate a fair price, and if the group has San Diego's best interest at heart, they will agree to the fee.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Any time someone spouts that ol' "get 'er done!" rhetoric, that person usually has a dog in the fight. Mr. Stroud: what is YOUR bias?

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Huh? Obviously nothing will please me? Do I know you? More to the point, do you know me? I don't think so, so don't get personal, sir. 

    The "git 'er done" stuff I I was referring to in more of a general way, not about this proposal.

    What I want is, in Mr. Blackson's words a "collective vision on the public value of this grand civic space." In other words, I want PLANNING, not thoughtless action (as in "git 'er done").

    and, if you just like soccer, there's a WINNING team about 15 miles south of downtown -- TJ Xolos.

    Emily Gomez
    Emily Gomez

    "As an urban designer who advises cities to first envision, then codify that vision by purposely building their plans, the following points are intended to reframe the discussion from a return on investment perspective toward our collective vision on the public value of this grand civic space."

    Agreed, but, the City lacks the leaders to put something like this together. Backward approach is snoozing on plan that will revitalize and re-build the Qualcomm site location while we sit around hoping a private developer steps up.

    Andrew Malick
    Andrew Malick subscriber

    Mr. Blackson makes wonderful points. A project of this size and scale would attract the top urban thinkers and design talent in the world. Isn't that what America's finest city deserves?

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    Absolutely agree with Howard.  This is a major project, and there is no reason to rush.  If San Diego gets a MSL team, they can play in the Q or PETCO until a soccer facility is built.  Rushed jobs lead to poor results.