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How SoccerCity Dies

Soon, signature-gatherers will get to work on behalf of the plan to build an MLS stadium and development on the Qualcomm Stadium site. If the City Council green-lights the project, you can likely expect to see a new round of signature-gatherers in town, this time as part of an effort to kill the plan by forcing it to the ballot.

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 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.

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