True friends stab you in the front.
At Monday’s jam-packed No on Measure C press conference, barely a harsh word was uttered about the elephant not in the room.
In the dark of night slightly more than 12 hours prior, a strange embargo had been lifted from the friendly shoulders of The San Diego Union-Tribune, which proceeded to announce that Mayor Kevin Faulconer had finally returned from the mountaintop with a caveat-riddled endorsement of the Chargers’ struggling ballot measure to get a new stadium built in downtown San Diego.
For months, the mayor held city leaders, football fans and residents in suspense as he fended off queries about his stance on Measure C, which if approved by voters in November would raise the city’s hotel tax to 16.5 percent from 12.5 percent to help pay for an estimated $1.8 billion, mammoth multi-use facility in the heart of East Village that would house the Chargers and a convention center annex.
When team Chairman Dean Spanos let loose a few of the details of the negotiated agreement with the mayor to gain his endorsement late last week, the mayor could stay silent no longer—particularly since measure opponents were having a field day kicking the concessions to the curb.
Which made Monday’s presser all the more intriguing, considering that ballot-measure proponents packed the small Central Library conference room rented for the occasion. Just before the press conference began, dozens of orange-shirted members of Laborers Local 89 hopped off a white shuttle bus to attend the event.
“I had a little over 24 hours to organize,” said Gretchen Newsom, political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569. “This was an easy effort due to the amount of enthusiasm our members have for the Chargers and the opportunity to build a world-class facility and stadium.”
Save for a singular “Boo!” and a few taunts, measure backers were generally respectful of their outnumbered opponents, a loosely knit coalition of political insiders, urban planners, tax-hike combatants and gentrification skeptics who sense nothing but doom for the future of East Village and the neighboring underserved communities of Barrio Logan and Sherman Heights, should Measure C pass.
Opponents immediately pounced on the eight concessions the mayor boasted about gaining from the Chargers, including a cap on project costs, guaranteeing full funding of tourism marketing as well as no dipping into city general fund money, a commitment to stay in San Diego until the initial debt is paid, replacing Padres parking that would be lost to construction at Tailgate Park and addressing “quality of life” issues in the neighborhood.
April Boling, a Measure C opposition organizer and Faulconer’s longtime campaign treasurer, said those concessions are not enforceable but rather “an acknowledgement of the flaws in the measure.”
“I think that that list is a good starting place when the Chargers come back to the table to negotiate after Measure C fails,” she said. “If you read it carefully, you’ll also see that the language is pretty vague in a lot of them.”
San Diego City Council member Scott Sherman, a loyal ally of the mayor but a staunch Measure C antagonist, declined to criticize Faulconer for his decision. “I think he’s trying to position himself for what happens after [the November vote],” he said afterwards. “I think it’s more if the Chargers do come back to the table, he’s trying to position himself.”
Sherman, who meets with the mayor regularly, said his next get-together should be interesting, “especially since we’re put—for the very first time, actually—on the opposite sides of each other.”
He saved his harshest words for the Chargers, who he said “have proven over and over they can’t be trusted at their word.” Sherman pointed to the team’s flirting with Los Angeles, its indifference then opposition to remaining in Mission Valley, and then when rebuked in Los Angeles proposing its own initiative “with zero input from the city, its leaders, the mayor or the community.”
“At the end of the day, the only thing you have is your handshake and your word,” Sherman said. “And we’ve seen from the Chargers organization many, many times that their word doesn’t really mean much.”
Councilmember-elect Chris Ward, whose district includes downtown, blasted the negotiated agreement because it “summarily disregards community work which took years of effort in the making,” a reference to proposals to focus development in the area on high-tech jobs and the amenities younger workers and families are seeking.
Councilmember Chris Cate, another Faulconer loyalist, said even with the concessions, “there are still too many risks that this measure poses to the city. This is still a $1 billion tax increase that hurts our taxpayers and tourism jobs. There are still too many missing details that are in the actual legal language.”
Faulconer has reportedly acknowledged that the language of the ballot measure cannot be changed but that future decisions by the City Council on design plans and the sale of bonds will influence the final project.
Architect Rob Quigley, who designed the Central Library, said San Diego “will be the butt of a lot of jokes” if it decides to place a noisy stadium adjacent to its main library, which he said would be a first in the country.
None of the concessions, Quigley noted, force the Chargers to build something amenable to East Village. Unlike baseball parks, which he said have a “proven history” of reinvigorating urban settings, “football stadiums by definition have to be inwardly pointed. They have to be closed. They have to be, in essence, anti-social when they’re not being used. That’s why everybody else puts them in big parking lots.”
To highlight the diversity of the opposition, Barrio Logan artist Mario Torero noted that Petco Park “destroyed a dream” for a burgeoning arts district that is now firmly entrenched in Barrio Logan. But with the added stadium, “for sure artists will leave San Diego,” he predicted.
“This is a permanent urban design mistake,” Quigley concurred. “It cannot be corrected with money.”