It is a good thing that the New York Post is not published in San Diego, because it if was, a recent scribble by Rob Quigley in the Voice of San Diego might have been titled A Publicly Funded NIMBY Pimps to Protect His Sacred Corner instead of The Urbanist Case Against a Downtown Convadium .
A little background. I had the honor of serving as an (unpaid) downtown redevelopment official and volunteer for two mayors (three if you include interim mayors) and a downtown city councilman by the name of Kevin Faulconer. During that period, some amazing things happened to our city. Petco Park. The Balboa Theatre renovation. A permanent homeless shelter. More low- and moderate-income homes and apartments built and approved than any other comparable period in downtown’s history. An expansion of the North Embarcadero. An iconic pedestrian bridge allowing the opening of Park Boulevard. The reopening of the historic Horton Plaza Park. A Downtown Green Streets initiative. And a new Central Library, to name a few.
How, you ask? Because of their vision, their leadership and their willingness to take on the naysayers and small town undertakers that have inhabited our city since the days of John Spreckles. Small town undertakers like Quigley.
Quigley writes, referring to a downtown convadium, “It is the job of urban planners and architects to envision the consequences of things like this.” Really? Well, where was Quigley on any of those downtown victories? Vacant, absent and nowhere point nada, except for one: the Central Library. No doubt he was hard at work building transit stations at Solana Beach or art centers in Fallbrook or a visitor center in Imperial Beach. Hardly the seminal work of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas or Robert A. M. Stern.
But Quigley showed up in force for the Central Library — cajoling, lobbying and groveling for government funding. That effort took years and was opposed by some of the same folks who oppose the convadium today. Though over budget and delayed (original budget $62 million, with a final cost of $196.7 million), it was built with $80 million of public money. Correct. $80 million.
And, you may ask, what were the architectural fees for the library? Spoiler alert: $18 million for Quigley and his cronies. That is correct. $18 million. Enough even to build a new mansion in the East Village for our esteemed architect.
Now, I was and I am a huge supporter of the library and believe the ongoing general fund investment of $10 to $15 million a year is well worth the cost. And, while it may be a “Welcome to San Diego” view, it was never to be at the cost of festooning Quigley’s calling card and website.
NIMBY? Sure, we see it all the time. Small-town undertaker? Sad, but I get it. But opposing a downtown stadium and convention center expansion, which will be the completion of a long planned and awaited sports and entertainment district downtown – one which, before the library, Quigley never voiced objection to, is the height of hypocrisy and self-interest. And Quigley’s desire to choose his home’s view or protect particular views of his pet project – at the expense of the region’s long existing plans – is exactly the kind of conflict of interest we would expect any planning board member to fess up to when reviewing the most innocuous neighborhood project.
So let’s talk about some of the site issues raised by Quigley. He speaks of a utopian plan to build a futuristic urban oasis on one of the most distressed pieces of real estate in all of San Diego. He promotes an I.D.E.A. District, which in his parallel universe stands for “I Don’t Envision Anything,” because that is exactly what will happen if we pursue Quigley’s distorted view.
There is a reason architects take fees and not risks. Fundamentally, they don’t understand basic real estate economics; it’s not their business. In 2010, Mayor Jerry Sanders, asked me, based on my 25 years as a real estate developer, how much I would pay for the parcels that encompassed the stadium site. I told him if he gave them to me plus $50 million, but I would have to build a stadium, I would not take it. Today, if he offered those sites for free, plus $200 million, I would still say no. Why? The cost of replacing the parking of Tailgate Park alone is in excess of $50 million, without even addressing the mitigation and replacement of the MTS bus yard, which could be well in excess of $100 million. But Quigley and his fellow undertakers want to build an urban oasis. I don’t think so.
Measure C provides the scale and financial wherewithal to finally complete this vision for downtown, including cleaning up and relocating the bus yard, and will do it in our lifetime. It provides $650 million from the Spanos family and the NFL, and they should be heralded, not vilified, by the likes of Quigley. It creates a new visitors tax to pay for it and if you don’t stay in a hotel in San Diego, you will never pay a dime. And last, it will create a new governing authority to oversee the design, development, operation and maintenance of the facility and ensure no general fund money is to be used.
Don’t take my word for it, look carefully at the initiative and the significant compromise between Spanos and the mayor that garnered his endorsement. Look at the endorsements of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership, BIOCOM, the San Diego Restaurant Association, multiple labor organizations, the Associated General Contractors and Reps. Juan Vargas, Scott Peters  and Darrell Issa. But, whatever you do, do not let the small town undertakers send the Chargers packing and deny this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a multi-use convention center and stadium for Super Bowls, X Games, NCAA Final Fours, World Cup soccer and so much more.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.
Fred Maas is special adviser to the Chargers and former chairman of Centre City Development Corp.