'Politics is like football—if you see daylight, go through the hole.'
—John F. Kennedy
The light rains have come and polished the backyard view of Downtown, and only a few remnant clouds hang to the east. Bob Sinclair scans the horizon from the roof of his Wonder Bread building in East Village, and immediately the ideas spew forth.
“You've got three or four blocks around here where nothing's going on,” Sinclair preaches, his fingers roughened by years of metalwork and hard labor stabbing at the landscape.
Sinclair, who made his fortune in the coffee business before there was a Starbucks on every corner, would buy a piece of property every year. Starting in 1970, he began assembling a portfolio of East Village properties that would total 18. The building boom prompted him to sell some, but he's still holding on to 10.
It's Sunday afternoon, and Sinclair has agreed to meet to talk about the speculation whipping around clearly one of his favorite possessions: the renovated—pulled from the wreckage, really—Wonder Bread building just east of Petco Park, a magnificent two-story brick warehouse-turned-commercial space that still sprouts one rusting flour silo from its bygone bakery days. Strapped around the top of the silo, a large banner beckons, “NOW LEASING.”
The San Diego Chargers are shredding the Kansas City Chiefs on this day just up the road, but the home team has also clearly opened up an offensive on Sinclair's 'hood—this building in particular, where it's now widely known that city leaders and the Chargers are focusing their stadium-site hunt.
And it has Sinclair conflicted.
“I've taken this attitude that, personally, I really don't want to see this torn down. It's too good a building,” he says as we tour its cavernous, sky-lit, steel-trussed, wood-and-brick interiors. “I'm not a football fan, but I like San Diego. And I think it's important that we have a football team here.
“So, if this is where they have to put the stadium to make it work—.” He shrugs, and his voice trails off with an uncertain laugh. It's not a ringing endorsement.
Sinclair detects a turn in the economic climate. “Some of the leases in this building aren't shabby,” he hints, and he tells of other potential tenants, including an upstart brewery. On up-raised concrete foundations on the ground floor that look up into circular skylights where silos once rose, he envisions a restaurant and perhaps an art studio above.
Sinclair's eyes dart around under silver locks contained by a bright-red fedora. He sweeps his hand across his bushy mustache. You feel his connection to this building, which sat dormant and rat-infested until he bought it “for cheap” in the late '90s.
“They didn't clean up very good, I will say that,” Sinclair laughs. Racks upon racks of bread-making equipment took eons to clear out, but now the block-long place is coming to life.
“And I've got the Chargers knockin' on my door,” he says with a slight smile.
Sinclair learned of the Chargers' interest by reading about it in the newspaper as he returned to town from Taos, N.M., where he now spends a good chunk of his time pursuing his love of rehabbing old structures for new times. “It's mostly adobe work out there, though,” he noted.
Since then, he has traded a few e-mails with Mark Fabiani, the team's special counsel and front man in the Chargers' seven-year campaign to acquire new football digs.
Sinclair said he's invited Fabiani over for a tour. Fabiani told Spin Cycle that he'd like to take him up on the offer. “I'll call him today,” he said smoothly.
“It goes without saying, I hope, that we are willing to engage in an open dialogue with anyone interested in this issue, including, of course, the property owners in the area,” Fabiani insisted. “That has certainly been our practice over the last seven years.”
Sinclair said he recently had coffee with Shearn Platt, owner of the property to the north that's also been ogled in this latest stadium-site search, and he liked his advice. “He said, ‘I think it's just like fishing. Let's just leave the line out there for a while and see what happens.'” (Efforts to contact Platt were unsuccessful.)
Still, Sinclair gets drawn into the majesty of the building and wonders if it would survive in any form in a new stadium design. “I just don't see how they could preserve it,” he worries. “Maybe a corner wall, but it's smack dab in the middle of their proposed site.”
That site, as currently envisioned, incorporates the Metropolitan Transit System bus yard next door to the east and a possible portion of Tailgate Park to the west (depending on where earthquake fault lines lie). It would extend north to K Street and south to Imperial Avenue.
The site is frequently described as encompassing 15 acres, but Fabiani said the team's architects are saying “if you exclude fault-impacted areas, it is pretty close to a 10-acre site, which would certainly put it on the extreme side of smallness, as NFL sites go.”
MTS spokesperson Rob Schupp said he was busy scrambling for information and could offer few insights or details. “We're just at the very beginning of the process,” Schupp said. “I mean, it's kind of been thrown out there, and we've only had a couple of information meetings with city officials. No official proposal has been made.”
But he added: “It's really an interesting idea. We've got this valuable Downtown property. It's long been considered for redevelopment. So it's an opportunity for everybody, I think.”
Schupp said MTS does maintain five other bus yards in the county—one in Kearny Mesa, two in Chula Vista and two in El Cajon—“but they're all maxed out, too.” For a deal to make sense, he suggested MTS “would need a brand-new facility somewhere.”
Meanwhile, Sinclair runs through the potential scenarios. The Chargers sit down with him, offer a good deal and also make sure his tenants are happy. Or it becomes, as he describes it, “one of these bureaucratic CCDC things,” à la Petco Park, where property owners faced offers that “were a third too low.”
“You could hire a lawyer and fight it, but guess what the lawyer got? A third,” Sinclair says with another laugh and shrugs, adding, “I'd much rather have the bus yard as a neighbor and just keep the property.”
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