- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

The Urbanist Case Against a Downtown Convadium

After the Carson embarrassment, when the NFL refused the Chargers’ bid to relocate to the Los Angeles suburb, many of us thought the team’s owner Dean Spanos would return to town a little more appreciative of his fans and what he has here — and willing to pay his fair share.

Instead, Spanos has fabricated a false and cynical choice for San Diegans: We must choose between the future of football and the future of downtown. No matter that Mission Valley is the ideal location and the team’s former general manager has said the NFL will never leave the lucrative San Diego market.

Commentary - in-story logo [1]Our city has an unfortunate history of getting taken in these situations [2].  The ticket guarantee, the infamous Chargers “early shopping clause” and the “Super Bowl improvements” that we are still paying for are just some examples. Do you know that you and I are being charged $500,000 just to print his initiative for the ballot?!

But let’s say you are convinced that this time it will be different. And that the Spanos lawyers who put Measure C together without any public input whatsoever somehow had our best interests in mind.

And let’s say you think gifting $1 billion to one of the most profitable businesses in the country is a good use of our tax dollars. And that you aren’t concerned that we taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for the costs.

And you are absolutely OK allowing the Chargers to abandon the stadium 10 years before it is paid off.

Then is Measure C a good idea?

No! Because the downside is about much more than money. It is about the future of downtown.

Let’s just say our football team would get failing grades in urban design and city-making. But what do you expect?  They are entertainers, not urban planners.

A stadium located downtown would be an irreversible and unprecedented planning disaster. Urban planners and architects, whose job it is to envision the consequences of things like this, are unusually united in their opposition to Measure C. Even the American Institute of Architects, representing more than 900 professionals and cautious with political issues, has taken a forceful public position against the downtown stadium location. The Downtown Community Planning Council, a democratically elected group of residents, land owners and business owners, has just released a scathing indictment of the Spanos Plan on a 17-1 vote.

NFL stadiums, unlike baseball parks, simply are not physically or functionally compatible with a city’s urban core. Even the city of Phoenix refused to put one next to its baseball park downtown.  So did San Francisco. And no city has ever proposed locating a NFL stadium directly adjacent to its central library.

When I bought a small lot in Little Italy 35 years ago to build an office and our home, people thought it was crazy.  But it wasn’t hard to look beyond the boarded-up storefronts and cardboard shanty encampments and see Little Italy as it is today. Similarly, at the recent planning workshops for East Village South, it was not difficult for people to foresee a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented community leveraging its unique urban vibe and concentration of academic institutions into an employment-rich innovation district.

In fact, unlike Little Italy all those years ago, East Village is already well on its way. This is a geographically pivotal part of downtown and can connect Sherman Heights, Barrio Logan and Balboa Park with the Gaslamp and Ballpark districts.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [3]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

That is, unless someone builds a massive 12-block square monolithic wall up to four and a half blocks long and up to 400 feet tall — robbing East Village South of both its potential and livability.

You don’t need to be an urban planner to understand that, above all, good urban planning is about building connections not walls.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [4]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

You may think the stadium renderings on TV are beautiful, or you may think that it looks like a pointy foreign object suddenly fell out of the sky on an unsuspecting community. Either way, the architecture (which will have massive multistory digital advertising screens covering the facades of an often empty building) is irrelevant. The issues are urban, not how pretty the building might be.

Take the central 14th Street promenade, for instance. This will be a coveted green street and the prime north/south connector that will link City College with Chicano Park. It is the backbone and heart of our neighborhood.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [5]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

The stadium will sever it completely!  Architectural lipstick won’t help because the stadium part of the convadium is just too big. It will even loom out over the sidewalks all the way to the street. Imagine an opaque wall this size blocking India Street in Little Italy or Prospect Street in La Jolla or the main street of any other community. The mammoth shadow alone will stretch almost two blocks in the winter.

Including the parking lot used for tailgating, Qualcomm covers 66 city blocks. The Spanos convadium site is 12 blocks. It just does not fit. Even his architect acknowledges the problem.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [6]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

The views down the city streets to the bay and bridge give East Village a strong character and are legally protected by the current Downtown Master Plan, the neighborhood’s long-term growth outline. Walking along 13th Street, 14th Street and 15th Street in the afternoon with the buildings in shadow and the Coronado Bridge alive in the afternoon light is one of the qualities most cherished in the community. The “Welcome to San Diego” view of the library dome from I-5 traveling north took 35 years of civic effort to create.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [7]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [8]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

Despite the Master Plan and because of the physical requirements of an NFL stadium, the Spanos stadium will completely block all five of the primary view corridors in East Village, even in its lowest possible configuration. Permanently. No amount of well-meaning, post-election negotiating by Rep. Scott Peters, the mayor or anyone else can change that.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [9]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [10]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

The recent East Village South Focus plan for this area, created by urban planners, architects, residents and citizens from all over downtown, maintains all of the view corridors, celebrates 14th Street and still allows for a series of major park spaces and an impressive 4 million square feet of development. It builds on the current momentum, our unique concentration of academic institutions and the blossoming tech IDEA district. Seventy-five percent of downtown residents commute to the suburbs to work. Skilled millennials are currently leaving us for San Francisco [11] because they miss the urban vibe in our current suburban office campuses. The East Village plan will change that.

It is not difficult to see why Sherman Heights and Barrio Logan are so opposed [12]. The monolithic development – Measure C says that fully 85 percent of the ground level walls can be blank! – will push hundreds of homeless into their neighborhoods, isolate them from downtown with the Great Wall and flood their residential streets with tens of thousands of cars looking for an affordable parking space.  Arrogantly, Measure C does not include one new parking space, or funds to bring mass transit infrastructure up to even the standards of Qualcomm Stadium.

Lastly, and ironically, the Spanos plan doesn’t even work for his own fans.

No parking, no access, no tailgating. All in a neighborhood that does not want them.

Why would any fan want to leave Mission Valley, especially if a river park and academic buildings are added?

Measure C is a model for wealth transfer, not wealth generation. More importantly, it is an unprecedented repudiation of our entire planning process.

The 119-page initiative creates a massive unregulated design envelope in the center of a community undergoing a vibrant but fragile renaissance.

Image courtesy of Rob Quigley [13]
Image courtesy of Rob Quigley

The basic building blocks of good urban design are ignored, universal municipal codes are void, public and civic input is forever “advisory only” and the fruits of 40 years of redevelopment are discarded. Measure C dictates that only Spanos makes decisions that impact his neighbors’ quality of life. There are 3,26l new homes permitted or under construction within two blocks of the stadium. Many will be as close as 65 feet to the stadium.

Only Spanos decides how loud the amplified music is (up to a hearing-damaging level of 105 decibels), how large and bright the exterior digital advertising signs are and how much of his street frontage is a blank wall. The documents, institutions and codes that revitalized downtown are void and binding public input is never allowed.

What kind of a city would let its football team plan its largest, most valuable remaining land? A yes vote means the language in Measure C will become law that can never be amended or modified. “Trust us,” Spanos says.

The ticket guarantee and other unfortunate negotiations of the past were financial mistakes. However painfully, the taxpayers will eventually pay them off. The convadium proposal is different.

This is a permanent and irreversible urban design mistake.

It can’t be corrected by throwing public money at it.

Rob Quigley is an award-winning architect whose projects include downtown’s Central Library and The New Children’s Museum.