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Fight over SoccerCity heats up

Posted: June 9th, 2017 | Features, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Jeff Clemetson | Editor

Community divided over plan for Qualcomm site

At its June 5 meeting, San Diego City Council threw a proverbial wrench into a plan to develop the Qualcomm Stadium site with housing, commercial buildings, retail space, and a park surrounding a stadium for Major League Soccer.

The council voted 8–1 to strip $5 million from the budget to fund a special election this November seeking voter approval of what is called the “SoccerCity plan” for Qualcomm, as well as a vote on the expansion of the Convention Center. Mayor Kevin Faulconer vowed to veto the council’s decision.

FS Investors representative Nick Stone addresses the San Diego City Council alongside backers of the SoccerCity proposal. (sandiego.gov)

“A City Council majority is supporting the unprecedented step of blocking a public election by stripping funding from the budget. This short-sighted move results in denying the public a vote and getting nothing accomplished for our city,” said Faulconer in a press statement. “I intend to use my veto authority to restore the special election funding, while still retaining the added funding for our police, so the City Council can take an up or down vote on these urgent ballot measures.”

Funding for the special election will likely be restored because the rules in the city charter say the council needs six of nine votes to override a mayoral veto and four councilmembers — Chris Cate, Mark Kersey, Scott Sherman and Lorie Zapf — expressed their strong support for the special election, even while some voted to pass the budget without the funding.

“For the first time in recent memory, San Diegans are being denied their right to vote on a certified citizens’ initiative,” said Councilmember Scott Sherman, who represents Mission Valley and was the lone vote against the budget. “A handful of council members have decided they are smarter than San Diego voters and effectively killed SoccerCity through budgetary maneuvers to please union bosses and special interests. Today’s actions by the City Council are absolutely shameful.”

Councilmember Barbara Bry, who initiated the amendment to strip the special election funding, said she is not against soccer, but called the development of Qualcomm a “once in a lifetime gift” that should be given greater opportunity for public input.

“I want to ensure that this valuable piece of land in the heart of San Diego is utilized to the maximum benefit of our city and our region,” she said. “I believe we must act swiftly but with full comprehension of the fine print and an informed buy in of the community. That’s why I support a RFP process — a fair and transparent process.”

Councilmember Chris Ward cited the inability of previous initiatives involving sports franchises to make the two-thirds threshold of votes to pass.

“Why would I spend $5 million of your public money on something that is doomed to failure?” he asked.

The City Council’s decision came after several hours of public comments. Over a hundred people from both sides spoke in favor or against the SoccerCity plan.

Opponents of the SoccerCity special election — which included labor groups, an SDSU alumni group and voting rights advocates — pointed to Measure L, which requires all initiative and referendum measures to go on high-turnout, general election ballots, unless the City Council decides the issue is worthy of a special election.

“As a strong advocate for Measure L, the council should respect the will of 306,000 informed voters and schedule local measures for the next general election,” said Joe LaCava, leader of Public Land, Public Vote Coalition, the most vocal group opposed to SoccerCity. “Deferring to 2018 on the FS Investors proposal gives the city time to pursue an open and transparent process to solicit competing proposals. The council should also reject any attempt by FS Investors to fund a special election. Allowing anyone to effectively buy an election to suit their political needs violates Measure L.”

FS Investors representative Nick Stone — backed by local soccer players, coaches, league organizers and fans — said if the vote was postponed to the general election in November 2018, San Diego voters would be given “a choice between no soccer stadium and no soccer stadium” because Major League Soccer needs a decision made by the city before the end of this year.

Stone also told the City Council that a $5 million investment in a special election could save the city hundreds of millions more, because maintaining Qualcomm costs the city around $12 million a year.

Public campaigns

The City Council vote and the now-expected veto by the mayor is just the beginning of what is already turning out to be a very public fight between supporters and opponents of SoccerCity. Television ad campaigns from both sides have already begun to flood local channels. And other public events are already underway to sway voters as well.

The same night as the City Council vote, FS Investors held the first of a series of open houses on its SoccerCity plan. Around 50 people attended the open house, held at the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center.

San Diego residents asked questions and voiced concerns about the SoccerCity plan at a June 5 open house. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

Information areas were set up around the room with SoccerCity representatives answering questions. Participants were also asked to fill out comment cards with suggestions for what they would like to see in the architecture, choices in entertainment, park design and more.

Just like with the City Council meeting, the open house drew both supporters and critics of the plan.

Anita Haefner, a resident of Serra Mesa, complained that FS Investors is not emphasizing the residential and commercial impacts of the SoccerCity proposal.

“They just talk about the wonderful park and the stadium for soccer,” she said. “But they don’t talk about how they are getting the land for basically pennies and that they are going to build condos. And we don’t want any more traffic.”

Haefner, an alumna of SDSU, said she would like to see the college get the Qualcomm land to build a football stadium for the Aztecs and more student housing and classroom facilities.

Birdrock resident Dave Dunbar said he supports the SoccerCity proposal, even though he is only a “casual fan” of the sport who would go to some MLS soccer games, “but not many.”

Dunbar is mostly supportive of building the proposed park along the San Diego River.

“We have lots of areas that are shortchanged in parks, especially Mission Valley,” he said.

Tim O’Reilly of Mission Hills thinks the FS Investors plan is not even real.

“They’re flippers. If you look at FS Investors, do you see anybody in there who’s a developer, anybody there who has any experience at all at building?” he asked. “Hedge fund investors, they don’t know anything about building. They understand the idea of getting beaten-up assets, dressing them up and flipping them.”

Greg Shields, a civil engineer for the SoccerCity plan from the firm Project Design Consultants, refuted that claim. His company has only been working with FS investors for a few months but was hired, he said, for its previous experience in helping to build Petco Park.

After the open house at Town and Country, FS Investors held two more that week — one on June 6 at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and another at the Cesar E. Chavez Continuing Education Center.

Two additional open houses are scheduled. One for June 12 at the Carmel Mountain Ranch / Sabre Springs Recreation Center, located at 10152 Rancho Carmel Drive; and another on June 13, at the University City Library, located at 4155 Governor Drive. Both meetings run from 6–7:30 p.m.

For more information about the SoccerCity plan, visit goalsd.com. Those interested in the opposition, visit publiclandpublicvote.com.

—Reach Jeff Clemetson at jeff@sdcnn.com.

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