Last week, Voice of San Diego asked our city’s pre-eminent local urban planners, architects and community members what they want to see happen to Qualcomm Stadium . I’d like to add my thoughts by stepping back and first asking, what would George Marston do?
Sadly, few San Diegans today remember Marston, our greatest civic philanthropist, affectionately known as our “First Citizen,” who gave the city Presidio Park, Junipero Serra Museum and his home adjacent to Balboa Park.
Marston also initiated our jobs-at-all-costs versus improving the quality of our environment debate that resonates to this day. While he lost his mayoral run to a jobs-creator candidate, his big idea for San Diego lives on in the understanding that building toward cultural and social value always equates to economic value, while the converse is not as true.
Most San Diegans intrinsically feel the cultural value of public stadiums. Dating back to ancient coliseums, these civic forums provide a collective respite from our everyday lives with moments of shared spectacle, mortality and entertainment. And these coliseums have historically been important to San Diego, too. Balboa Stadium, now in ruins behind San Diego High School, was promoted as the first of its kind on the Pacific coast and the world’s largest municipal structure when the Panama Exhibition opened a century ago.
But The Q is today a dated mid-century modern multipurpose stadium. These types of stadiums were once the trend across the nation, and ours is now the last of its kind still standing. That said, it still retains its cultural value by its ability to converge a broad spectrum of society into its 160 acres, 10 to 20 times a year. Thanks to Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos and the NFL, for the past 15 years our conversation about this space has been completely dominated by the tremendous amount of economic value that is generated when 65,000 people show up on a Sunday.
After focusing on economic value in negotiations with a petulant private franchise ownership for far too long, San Diegans now have a moment to collectively reassess and prioritize the social and cultural value of this big old public stadium into the 21st century. Without a plan that builds cultural and social value, speculators will continue to make plans for us based on generating economic value for their private initiatives. We are seeing this with the soccer stadium and development scheme  that’s been proposed, and will see it over and over until we have a definite plan.
As an urban designer who advises cities to first envision, then codify that vision by purposely building their plans, the following points are intended to reframe the discussion from a return on investment perspective toward our collective vision on the public value of this grand civic space.
• Qualcomm Stadium sits on extremely valuable public land, so the public should be involved in the decision-making process.
• There is no real urgency to make a decision (the lack of a professional sports franchise isn’t fatal).
• We should make a plan of action when we are all confident in that decision.
• Test if our collective values state that public interest is more important than a private interest’s.
• We should not give away long-term public property for short-term private economic benefit.
The entire Qualcomm Stadium belongs to San Diegans. A stadium is a great amenity to city living, but we must never forget it is on public land with value beyond the return on tickets and turnstiles. Like taxes and fees that pay for Balboa Park, Mission Bay and our waterfront parks, we may choose to collectively finance our higher quality of city life. Let’s figure our priorities out, make a plan and find the right parts and pieces that build what we want.
Mike Davis, urbanist and MacArthur Prize winner, elegantly stated to VOSD that the goal should be “utopia,” a lofty ambition. Davis said the city should build “a utopian residential and learning community that promote San Diego as a cutting-edge laboratory where we solve urban problems.”
A century ago, Balboa Park’s Panama Exposition grounds aspired for the same results that Marston generously funded and stewarded to become the beloved spaces and places we cherish today. Those types of big ideas are appropriate for Qualcomm’s big site, and we need to vet them in a public forum.
So, what would Marston do? Based on his record, I believe he would take the time to reframe the stadium dialog from a narrow and risky economic return on investment toward leveraging the value of this grand civic space – a utopian ambition.
Rather than a jumble of private or politically expedient ideas hamstrung by 15 years of return-on-investment studies, let’s use our planning commission and City Council forums to decide what this 160-acre riverfront site means beyond next season. Let’s really talk about its cultural and social value first, and then measure its economic returns. That is what Marston did for San Diego and what we should do today.
Howard M. Blackson is an urban designer. Blackson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here .