The Only Problem With the Pro Soccer Plan Is a Big One: How Will They Get the Land? - Voice of San Diego

Land Use UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Only Problem With the Pro Soccer Plan Is a Big One: How Will They Get the Land?

The effort to build a Major League Soccer stadium is in a hurry of its own design. But a project of this magnitude could take years to approve. To get around that, the group backing the project 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.

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.

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.

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