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A Stadium Isn't the Measure of a City's Greatness

With Measure C, the Chargers may have unwittingly presented San Diego a once-in-a-generation opportunity to actually have a civic conversation about how we define ourselves. Will we write our own future story, or will we succumb to the ransom demands of an outside force, the NFL?

Like many San Diegans, I have heard the slickly professional radio and TV ads promoting a new downtown stadium for the Chargers. We’re told “it’s about the future,” or, “about jobs and the economy,” and that, “we can’t be a world-class city without a world class stadium.” They inform us that the Chargers, as opposed to other essential elements of the community, are the “heart and soul of San Diego.”

Commentary - in-story logoI was here in 1961 when the Chargers arrived, and rooted for them in old Balboa Stadium. The ads, with classic footage of former great players, pull an emotional cord with me.

But is a sports stadium, however elegant in design, the definition of a world-class city? Is that really the 21st century description of civic greatness?

If it is “about the future,” the cities of tomorrow will be defined by innovation, technology and creativity, not sports teams. How a city supports the arts and culture, creates new parks or builds an inclusive society with economic opportunity for all will be paramount as cities across the globe evolve and re-define themselves.

With Measure C, the Chargers may have unwittingly presented San Diego a once-in-a-generation opportunity to actually have a civic conversation about how we define ourselves. Will we write our own future story, or will we succumb to the ransom demands of an outside force, the NFL? Should we listen when the Chargers tell us we can’t be America’s Finest City unless we give them the stadium they insist is their birthright? Will just that edifice make us great, or world-class, or finest?

Decades ago, San Diego gave itself that rubric America’s Finest City. While many of our attributes merit the moniker, in general, do we really deserve it? Our downtown and its waterfront are only partially renovated, and not yet first-class. Balboa Park and other civic treasures face hundreds of millions in delayed maintenance costs. Freeways, often the first thing visitors see, are generally strewn with trash, weeds and poorly maintained landscaping.

A world-class city would have safe, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, with excellent, not just adequate, schools. It would have efficient and easily accessible mass transit, extended to every corner of the region. And housing first rate in quality and quantity, affordable to all. By these and other metrics, we obviously have a long way to go.

The Chargers tell us “it’s about jobs and the economy,” and that they’re “helping San Diego realize its full potential.” Their new economic study touts the purported benefits of the “convadium” they propose, including thousands of construction jobs and thousands more permanent jobs once the facility is operating. They forecast significant revenues from those jobs and from events held there.

Unquestionably, jobs will be generated just building a structure as mammoth as what the convadium would be. Assuming enough events in the facility are actually booked, jobs serving those events will also clearly emerge. But will that economic impact be enough to justify the massive public subsidy of the project? The eminent urban expert Richard Florida said it best in a 2015 article: “The overwhelming conclusion of decades of economic research on the subject is that using public funds to subsidize wealthy sports franchises makes zero economic sense and is a giant waste of taxpayer money.”

An alternative vision exists for the same East Village parcels the Chargers covet. Promulgated by a consortium of planners, architects, land-use experts and area residents, the East Village Focus Plan also projects significant revenue to the city from the jobs generated. In fact, an almost equal number of permanent jobs would be created by the proposed mix of office, residential, educational and arts uses, except they would be much higher-income jobs than those at a convention center annex. Additionally, the plan for the neighborhood would not require an enormous public subsidy like the convadium, and all of the development would ultimately be on the tax rolls generating property tax income, unlike a publicly owned convadium.

Ironically, the Chargers may indeed help San Diego realize its full potential. By rejecting their bloated and self-serving concept, we can begin a community dialogue about what we want to be when we grow up as a city. It’s past time for us to have that conversation and articulate our own definition of world class.

Wayne Raffesberger is a lecturer in urban studies at both UCSD and USD, a land-use lawyer and an original member of No Downtown Stadium – Jobs & Streets First! Raffesberger’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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