Keeping the Chargers in San Diego could come at the cost of destroying East Village.
That’s what a few dozen architects, developers and urban planners are trying to tell the city.
They’ve banded together to reframe what they say is an unbalanced conversation on the future of the neighborhood, home to an iconic library and established arts community, along with blocks of warehouses and homeless encampments.
Right now, there’s one vision for the neighborhood floating around, the one proposed in the so-called Citizens’ Plan, an initiative that would, among other things, build a convadium  – a football stadium-convention center – next door to Petco Park. It’s backed by an unlikely but powerful  team: attorney Cory Briggs, the Chargers, former Councilwoman Donna Frye, former Assemblyman Steve Peace and former Padres owner John Moores and his company, JMI Realty.
This group of city-planner types doesn’t like the plan. In fact, they think it could prove fatal to a neighborhood that’s expected to shoulder a significant burden of providing new homes to the city’s growing population.
“Decisions are being made, but we haven’t been asked for feedback in our own community,” said David Malmuth, a developer of the I.D.E.A. District, a cluster of projects in the neighborhood.
He was joined Saturday by 100 or so other architects, developers, community members and city leaders, convened by Citizens Coordinate for Century Three and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects as the first of three sessions meant to articulate an alternative vision of East Village’s future. They’d like to eventually submit the results to Civic San Diego, a city-owned nonprofit that regulates downtown development, to incorporate into official development regulations.
The Citizens’ Plan promoted by Briggs and the Chargers is a Rube Goldberg machine of city changes. It would clear the way to build a downtown convadium with a boost from hotel-room tax funding. It would also give a path for SDSU and UCSD to expand at the current site of Qualcomm Stadium, create a legal mechanism to promote San Diego as a tourist destination and raise hotel-room taxes to fund basic city services.
Even if the Citizens’ Plan passes, it does not necessarily mean a new convention center campus or stadium would be built. Both would require additional investments or City Council approvals.
If the convention center expansion isn’t built, the entire hotel-room tax increase in the measure goes into the city’s general fund. At that point, since they’ll be getting taxed either way, the hotels would have a healthy incentive to approve a convention center expansion.
City leaders and the press have scrutinized the plan’s legal framework and political feasibility. But no one’s been too focused on a simpler question: Is it a good idea to build a facility like this in the middle of downtown San Diego?
Malmuth and a group of like-minded urbanists say “no.” Other prominent land-use voices, like Rob Quigley, architect of the Central Library, and Mike Stepner, the former city architect and now director of the New School of Architecture, agree. They’re calling the new group they created the East Village People (seriously).
“This is a chance for the East Village to determine its future,” Quigley said.
Briggs couldn’t make it to the first event, but said he was thrilled his plan had sparked the conversation.
An Alternative Vision
During the meeting Saturday, attendees outlined their priorities for the community. They drew out how they’d like to see it develop, and listed the most important considerations.
The emerging consensus didn’t leave much room for a stadium.
The group wanted to break up Petco Park’s primary parking lot and the Metropolitan Transit System’s bus yard into a grid of smaller blocks, ripe for development, park space or a campus for a university or major tech company to anchor an employment hub.
“A convadium is the most selfish use of that land,” said Andrew Malick, a developer, during his group’s discussion. “We have some amount of unbuilt land in the middle of an urban neighborhood, and to use it for that is just so wasteful.”
“Large, super-block developments don’t allow for a comfortable urban fabric,” said Diego Velasco, an urban designer and principal at M.W. Steele Group.
But the most common priority voiced by attendees was for East Village to develop a better connection to Barrio Logan and Sherman Heights to the east.
“This is so close to Barrio Logan that you cannot separate it,” said Mario Torero, a mural artist who works in East Village and Barrio Logan. “There has been a wall here at 16th Street.”
The plan for a massive convadium would solidify that, they said: It would be a giant wall between downtown and everything to its east.
Downtown development has turned its back on Barrio Logan for too long, Quigley said. “This is an opportunity to reverse the cold shoulder we turned on these neighborhoods,” he said.
Malmuth said he didn’t want to shut down any particular idea, but he can’t imagine a scenario in which the convadium fits into the principles the group described as what’s best for East Village.
“Convention spaces that extend into East Village, they could work just fine,” Malmuth said. “The problem is football. Stadiums are inward-facing, they create giant walls that shut off communities. They just aren’t friendly neighbors in an urban setting, and that’s why people don’t usually build them there. They are structures that want to be in a field of parking.”
A Matter of Trade-Offs
Briggs has fashioned the Citizens’ Plan as a solution to a handful of the city’s most intractable problems.
The visitor industry says a convention center expansion is essential, and the plan proposes a legal way to do it. Briggs is currently suing the Tourism Marketing District – a city-created entity that collects money from hotel guests to market the city to tourists – as an illegal tax, and the plan proposes a legal reincarnation of that, too.
Plus, it proposes a way to build a stadium that’s been compelling enough to win over the Chargers, after the team spent a year spitting on every proposal the city rolled out.
“We are trying to facilitate a compromise that is good for the city,” Briggs said.
He’s got a handful of responses to the planner-developer contingent.
First of all, Briggs says, the plan itself doesn’t build a stadium. It removes some of the regulatory hurdles to getting a stadium project approved, and it diverts hotel-room taxes to pay for the portion of the new structure that would be home to conventions – which makes the stadium itself more financially feasible. But the Chargers would still need to put forward a more detailed plan of their own in the future.
“People lighting their hair on fire are grossly misrepresenting what’s going on,” Briggs said. “This makes it possible; it doesn’t just plunk a stadium on a convention center tomorrow.”
That’s technically true, but the Chargers didn’t get behind the plan because they’re passionate about reinventing the Tourism Marketing District, or facilitating an SDSU expansion. The plan can rightfully be described as a way to build a convadium in East Village.
Nonetheless, Briggs has a question for Malmuth, Quigley and crew.
“What’s the alternative?” he said. “It’s not this, compared to some vision they have yet to articulate. It’s this compared to the status quo. People need to ask themselves whether they like the status quo of East Village and the waterfront. Different people can answer that differently – some people might love the status quo – but that’s the question.”
Even if a new convadium isn’t the best option for that site, he said, it should be considered against the good the plan achieves. The plan would likely prevent a contiguous convention center expansion that would wall off the waterfront – a long-time fight of Briggs’. It would add money to the city’s general fund. It would let the city keep promoting itself without legal concerns.
“If you don’t do a big list of things at once in San Diego, you can’t get anything done, because someone is always trying to shit on you,” Briggs said. “And if you do a big list of stuff, you’re consciously making trade-offs.”
Malmuth said it’s best to have options.
“Since there’s nothing else being talked about, people are gravitating to it,” Malmuth said. “So we said, we need to have an option on the table so people don’t say it can only be one thing, it could be multiple things.”