A brown, empty stretch of hills near Otay Mesa and the industrial brownfields surrounding a decrepit power plant in Chula Vista are all that's left of the once multitudinous options for a new Chargers stadium. The team's special counsel, Mark Fabiani, says it's all part of the plan--they want to get down to one site by Thanksgiving. But the hurdles the stadium plan must leap seem higher than ever.
The Chargers currently lease Qualcomm Stadium from the city of San Diego, which owns both the structure and the land underneath it. But a clause in the lease says the Charges can leave after the 2008 season.
Fabiani often says the Chargers will “privately finance” a new stadium, but only Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, has financed an NFL stadium himself. Instead, the Chargers promise a new paradigm. Instead of a stadium built and owned by the city, the team will take on all construction costs, along with any necessary infrastructure improvements. All the team wants from the host city is development opportunities--land leased or given to the team on which it can then build condos, offices or hotels. It's a similar model as the one employed by John Moores for the Padres in East Village, or the one Sacramento wants to use with the basketball-playing Kings.“That's the new model--we'll put up some money if you'll put up the land that will make us a lot of money,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who has studied stadium financing at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Fabiani told CityBeat that the Chargers expect the stadium to cost $850 million to build and another $150 million in infrastructure improvements. Back in February, he told CityBeat that the team hopes to get at least 65 percent of that, some $650 million, in development revenue.
The team originally wanted to build a new stadium on the Qualcomm site, but in January 2006, Mayor Jerry Sanders gave the Bolts the brush-off. The city has neither money nor time to work out such a deal, he said. Possibly, Sanders, knowing the city's history with the team, wanted to avoid another disastrous lease. The current one puts the city at such a disadvantage that Sanders was, for a while, ready to pony up some property for development just to get out of it. George Biagi, a Sanders spokesperson, told CityBeat this week that the city is totally out of the stadium-site search.
The end of dealings with the San Diego kicked open the door for the 'burbs. Oceanside, Chula Vista and National City launched their own campaigns for a new stadium. After all, if Glendale, Ariz., can steal the Cardinals from Phoenix, why not have the Chargers in the South Bay or North County?
But reality soon dashed the cities' dreams.
National City realized in May that although it had a decent stadium site on its waterfront, there was inadequate available land to offer. In September, Chula Vista released a consultant's report that winnowed its four proposed sites to two. Soon after, Oceanside released a financial assessment that showed its development opportunities--class-A office towers near the stadium--simply would not provide enough cash.
Chula Vista became the last one standing.
Both of its remaining sites are far larger than the 75-acre Goat Hill site in Oceanside. Chula Vista would not limit the development to office space, which creates more revenue-generating options. And as the last player at the table, Chula Vista might persuade the Chargers to take less of a land subsidy.
“As a team's regional options narrow, so too does its leverage and ability to extract added benefits,” said David Carter, a professor of sports and business at the University of Southern California.
Chula Vista officials have had only a few weeks to get a sense of whether the tone of their conversations with the Chargers has changed. “We're communicating more,” said Chula Vista City Councilmember John McCann. “They've been more aggressive.”
The first site stretches for a mile south along the bay, between J and Naples streets west of Interstate 5. It faces out on wetlands and the Pacific Ocean. The South Bay Power Plant currently on the site is scheduled to close by February 2010, and the stadium would replace it entirely. The site has easy access to nearby Coaster and trolley stops, in addition to the highway.
But, as the consultant's report pointed out, the Chargers would have to navigate multiple government bodies. Chula Vista, the Port of San Diego, the California Coastal Commission and, as the report neglected to mention, the California Energy Commission, all have some authority over the land.
Chula Vista officials are enthusiastic about the project and statements made by individual port commissioners to the press have indicated a willingness to deal with the team and the city, but Irene McCormack, a spokesperson for the Port of San Diego, said there have been no official discussions yet.
A planner for the Coastal Commission, Diana Lilly, said her agency hasn't been approached, either, but she did say the commission had discussions with National City about its bid. She said the Coastal Commission had concerns about the impact of stadium construction and traffic on marine life in the area. The Chula Vista site is very close to the Chula Vista Wildlife Preserve and the San Diego National Wildlife Preserve.
Compounding matters, California has annually placed a “must run” order on the South Bay Power Plant to ensure sufficient regional electricity production, which raises questions about whether the plant will be decommissioned on schedule.
The second site, in eastern Chula Vista near the Otay Ranch development, is as rural as the bayfront site is urban. The stadium would back up against the mountains just west of the Lower Otay Reservoir, about a mile east of the under-construction Highway 125. At the moment, the property is barren, though located adjacent to a residential area, providing a blank slate for a developer's or designer's imagination. Chula Vista officials hope to use a stadium to lure a satellite of San Diego State University to the area.
But major infrastructure improvements would be needed, including extending gas, sewage and water mains, building public transit lanes, and the expanding the 125 freeway, which is still under construction. Residents in the area already complain of traffic problems, and the highway access is poor. A trip from CityBeat's Mission Valley office to the bayfront site took only about 15 minutes while a drive from the Otay site back to Mission Valley took 35 minutes. Crucially, Chula Vista has not yet commissioned a financial analysis for either site--the consultant's report focused only on the possibility of construction, not the bottom line.
“The numbers on this project have been moving in the wrong direction for quite some time,” Fabiani said. “The construction costs have skyrocketed, and the housing market is down.”
Regional home sales are indeed down, and more Chula Vista homes have gone through foreclosure than anywhere else in the county. In addition, stadium construction costs have doubled from a 2005 estimate of $400 million.Still, the bayfront appears to be the early favorite. Councilmember McCann indicated that he prefers the site. And, at an Oct. 8 community meeting of Chula Vista's Northwest Civic Association, Fabiani gave attendees the impression that the Chargers also prefer that site. After the city and the team agree on a site, residents will have the final say via a ballot initiative.
But choosing the bayfront property would delay a formal proposal and ballot initiative. In February, Fabiani told CityBeat the team wanted a referendum on a stadium site to go on one of the 2008 ballots, preferably June. However, earlier this week he said the team might be able to get a proposal for the Otay site on the November ballot, but, because of the number of stakeholders involved, the bayfront site would mean waiting. And then the team has to win the vote.
“The Chargers have a perception problem. We look at the city of San Diego, the trouble that they had. We have to be sure that we don't get stuck in those same type of problems,” said Frank Zimmerly, the Northwest Civic Association board member who organized the meeting. “We haven't given a stadium endorsement yet.”
Even outside observers have noticed the lack of fervor.
“The more problematic news is that San Diego itself has evinced next to no interest,” Zimbalist said, referring to the region's residents.
Zimbalist and Dan Shea, a longtime proponent of building a new Chargers stadium, both argue that if people don't get excited about getting a new stadium--and soon--they may find themselves without a team in a couple of years. Shea, who heads the Fans, Taxpayers and Business Alliance, believes San Diego is in the same bad spot that Baltimore, Houston, St. Louis and Cleveland were in the months before their teams moved.
“There's not enough community support,” he said. “The last four cities who lost their teams, this behavior is exactly the same. It is predictable now. The community waited until the 11th hour, believing the politicians would solve the problem. When they found out their teams were leaving, there was complete pandemonium. In all four cases, it was too late.”
And he warned of dire consequences for politicians who let their teams depart.
“The entire political leadership of the cities were wiped out when the team left,” he said.