With Stadium Construction, This San Diego Special Is Actually Resolved

Land Use

With Stadium Construction, This San Diego Special Is Actually Resolved

No San Diego Special has changed the identity of the region like this one has. And it offers a lesson for other San Diego Specials: They will meander until something really triggers a critical mass of San Diego’s leaders and population.

Many American cities – despite their unique geography and circumstances – share the same serious, complex problems: things like homelessness, housing affordability, disaster preparedness and inequality. When we talk about San Diego Specials – a unique brand of problems – we’re not talking about those. Rather, the term refers to solvable, long-running issues that have festered here as a result of a lack of leadership and vision. They’re often challenges other cities (or even other San Diego communities) took action on long ago, with far less headaches. In this weeklong series, we are examining five San Diego Specials and the factors that have kept solutions out of reach.

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In a building just outside of the Mission Valley stadium site, San Diego State University has transformed an office into a kind of museum celebrating its athletics tradition and future plans.

At the end of this museum, though, there isn’t a gift shop. Instead, there’s theater seating in front of a large screen where you can see exactly what the new stadium would look like from any seat in it. The Aztec Stadium Experience Center is built to funnel donors and Aztec Club members and anyone else thinking of investing in what SDSU is building to a powerful closing sales pitch.

It appears to be working. The university plans to, by the end of the year, announce a new naming rights partner for the stadium. It has collected major philanthropic gifts and sold out of its $3.7 million founders suites, where major supporters can come and go at their leisure for 15 years to see any of the hundreds of games, concerts and events Athletic Director John David Wicker says are coming.

SDSU has had to borrow about $610 million to build the stadium and prepare the land around it for its university expansion – about $110 million more than originally envisioned.

Construction of San Diego State University’s Aztec Stadium in Mission Valley is underway. / Photo by Noelani Sapla, The Daily Aztec

“No student fees have been or will be used to help,” said Wicker, who is happy to list the enormous donations and sales records the team has already logged, a year before opening the stadium. Wicker and colleagues acted fast and avoided some of the skyrocketing prices for construction materials and supply chain problems the pandemic brought. Within a year, the stadium will be up and the land will be ready for the 4,600 or so housing units, hotels and parks the university envisions.

This San Diego Special – what may be called “What to do about the Mission Valley Stadium site” – has been resolved. It may be the cleanest resolution of a dogged San Diego Special we have.

The grand irony is that it may not have happened as quickly or even at all, if SDSU hadn’t perceived a major threat. And that may offer a lesson for other San Diego Specials: They will meander until something really triggers a critical mass of San Diego’s leaders and population combined. Sports and universities are uniquely suited to tap into much larger popular sentiment than, say, conventions.

But for so many years, it was unable to overcome the dilemma of what to do in Mission Valley. That is, until a group called FS Investors came around with a plan.

When San Diego’s leaders and broader public started to see what FS Investors had in mind, they revolted.

The university flipped rapidly from trying to accommodate and partner with SoccerCity to rallying the community to bury FS Investors’ plan. In 18 years of observing local politics, I have never seen a broader, more diverse political coalition rise up for anything like what assembled for San Diego State. It won decisively. And the university is now well on its way to redesigning and rebranding one of the largest and most valuable plots of land available in San Diego.

It’s a construction project that will probably take decades to complete. It seems the biggest risk the university faces is only that its mascot and branding – the Aztecs – changes sometime in those next few decades. Because the models and pictures of what’s to come have that imagery and branding spreading farther and deeper into San Diego than ever before.

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Beginning in 2002, one central insight about then-Qualcomm Stadium became established fact: The stadium was not worth much, few stadiums are. But the land around it? That is different. If you assume the city needs a new stadium, then you could leverage the value of the land around it to pull something off.

The Chargers went with that for a few years.

But “What to do about the stadium?” became probably the most iconic San Diego Special soon after 2002. Over the next nearly two decades, mayors formed not one but two official task forces to address the problem. Disputes about whether it was even safe to build on the land or how much dirt it would require raged.

Eventually, the Chargers left. Their motivations were mixed. It wasn’t just because of San Diego’s inability to resolve this. But no San Diego Special has changed the identity of the region like this one has.

A Chargers fan holds up a sign during the last game of the 2015 season at Qualcomm Stadium. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The resolution to it, however, was in that same idea from 2002: develop the land and use the wealth from it or the promise of future wealth to build infrastructure for the community. The Chargers abandoned the idea in 2006 after failing to secure a development partner willing to take the risk with them.

But the politicians had a hard time picturing a stadium anywhere else. The public loved the Mission Valley location. It has acres of parking that people transformed into endless tailgating parties, law enforcement driver training and giant used car tent sales. It was there during the fires, when people needed emergency evacuation.

What’s more, again, the only way anyone could picture building a stadium was if wealth was extracted to such an extreme out of something else that it could be repurposed to build a money-losing giant facility. They all knew that there was one major thing that stood in the way of stadium projects in California: the restriction that tax increases for specific purposes, like a stadium, must be approved by a two-thirds vote.

Most other states, from Texas to Colorado to Florida, can raise hotel taxes or car taxes or restaurant taxes with just simple majority support from voters.

This is a big deal, and the genesis of at least one other San Diego Special: the Convention Center expansion.

But this is the story of a special that we actually resolved.

When the Chargers finally left, the stadium became a big hole in the valley that people could fill with different dreams. Few knew it at the time, but the mayor who bid the Chargers farewell had already been having discussions with some new dreamers: FS Investors. The tale of how they and the city and the university danced and then dropped each other is a long one I’ve told before.

The short version is that they all danced around that old idea: develop the land and extract enough promise for wealth that they could finance a new stadium.

The university had always been a bit player in the stadium discussion. Maybe it’d rent the new place, sure. University officials would get some courtesy calls when deals were offered. This time they were partners. It lit a fire.

SDSU’s biggest fans saw what was happening not as an opportunity but a threat. If FS Investors could take the site, why couldn’t the university?

This San Diego Special had suddenly been offered a villain. And the university was ready to fight with more than 120 years of political capital it had accumulated. It mobilized all of it. Nearly every politician and every interest group rallied behind the university and sunk SoccerCity. The California State University regents put their own actual capital into the movement to guarantee a quick deal.

And now, nearly 20 years since this San Diego Special began, a new stadium is rising. It’ll have 35,000 seats. An entrance for the players was designed into the midfield so soccer partners could have their processionals.

A year after it opens for football and other events the stadium will be joined by a big river park promised as part of the package. The land will be ready for investors who want to help build hotels, homes and stores.

It’s an old idea. One that someone finally pursued.

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