By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Planning group objects to initiative process
The decision whether to turn the Qualcomm Stadium site into a commercial, residential and entertainment hub centered around a Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium will be turned over to the citizens of San Diego on a special ballot this November.
And just like previous initiative proposals involving professional sports stadiums, the SoccerCity proposal is generating controversy.
On April 5, FS Investors representative Nick Stone returned to the Mission Valley Planning Group to talk about the new initiative before the planning group voted on what action they would take about the proposal.
“As of [April 3] our group asked for the City Council to place us on the ballot for the Nov. 7, 2017 election to allow the people of San Diego to vote,” Stone said. “It’s something we’ve actually been working on the last two months and so it’s really nice to that it’s all kind of come together here.”
Stone said his group changed its strategy for getting the SoccerCity proposal passed after MLS changed its deadline for San Diego to have a plan in place to build a stadium. Previously, FS Investors would have had to pass the proposal through the San Diego Planning Commission and then a vote by City Council by the fall, prompting critics to point out the rushed timeline for such a large project.
On March 28, a group of San Diego community and business leaders launched the Public Land, Public Vote coalition to force a public vote on the proposal.
One of the coalition’s leaders, Joe LaCava, spoke at the meeting and urged the planning group to reject the SoccerCity proposal, pointing to the fact that resistance from the coalition had already helped pressure MLS to change its deadline.
“So there apparently are opportunities to play on the deal points,” he said. “As a taxpayer, that’s where I think there is an opportunity to make a real difference. How much is still sitting on the table that we as taxpayers can claw back from this deal?”
LaCava wasn’t alone in criticizing the proposal. Planning group member Marco Sessa questioned whether an initiative process would allow for public input on the issues in the proposal because once the initiative is written and voted on, very little can be changed. He also pointed out legal language in the proposal that troubled him.
“I think there is really interesting language associated with affordable housing and whether any of the affordable housing will be built,” he said. “I think the traffic mitigation is really concerning. I don’t necessarily see that mitigation will occur as the development occurs — even though it’s implied that it will, but there is legal language that allows an out.”
Stone agreed that the initiative process is locked, but there are still aspects of the project that can be changed depending on public input.
“What is locked is that there is a $40 million park. What is not locked is how we spend the $40 million. What is locked is the total entitlements; what is not locked is where on-site housing exists versus where retail exists, et cetera,” He said. “So there is wide room on some level to move things around. There are also laws with respect to the total entitlements that we cannot go over. The answer, sadly, is not straightforward.”
Stone further defended the initiative process by pointing to the electoral process of campaigning for votes.
“At the end of the day, this is a process that allows the city of San Diego to vote and [groups] will actively spend money campaigning against us … but that is the beauty of the citizen initiative process,” he said.
Sessa, who acknowledged to campaigning against the proposal, said that hiring consultants and lawyers to read the initiative and figure out what is legally binding is one of the problems with the process.
“You’ve put us in a situation to where we had to do those things,” he said. “If you went through the regular public vetting process, the city of San Diego traffic engineers would be reviewing your studies, identifying the fact that the trip distribution is not consistent with the study that was done, identifying the fact that road classifications in your study are not consistent with the future of our community plan, identifying the fact that there are no assurances that those improvements are going to get built.
“Yes, we’ve had to spend money. And, frankly, I believe the money we spent today has forced you to now say that you are going to do a public vote. I think it has also helped drive the language about $40 million instead of $20 million that you’ve committed to do parks and so if us spending money makes Mission Valley a better place, we’re going to continue to do it.”
Stone said that even though the initiative process will sidestep the regular entitlement process, FS Investors is not ducking CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.
“The work is the same,” he said. “The work was done by the same engineers that do CEQA analysis all over the city of San Diego. They follow the same CEQA guidelines and I think that the important thing to remember about the initiative process is that our threshold is higher. We have to clear a vote of the people, not just a vote of nine people on City Council and not just a vote of a planning group.”
During public comments, planning commissioner Theresa Quiroz said the public is being “misled” by the initiative’s claim that there is no public subsidy involved in paying for the project.
“The devil is in the details. Right now, the property is zoned not very dense and it’s just commercial and there’s not much that can be done. This initiative is going to really, really upzone it. And the value of the property once you upzone, it is huge,” she said. “But the actual initiative says that it will be sold and leased to FS Investors at today’s value; that’s $200 million. But it’s going to be worth somewhere around $500 million, so they’re getting a $300 million subsidy.”
Stone said the price of the property is fair market value determined by the mayor’s process.
Planning group member Allan Grant took issue with how the initiative process will circumvent the planning group’s input while the group is in the middle of updating the community plan.
“Every other development in the valley, every other redevelopment that may come forward would now need to take into account what you’re doing, which is outside the community plan and that to me is troubling in the very least,” he said.
Grant said that even though the regular vetting process for projects is “sometimes challenging,” it is one that works for most people, most of the time.
“Never is anything going to be right for everybody but I would like to see the community have been consulted from day one,” he said. “I think it’s a better process.”
After comments were done, the planning group voted to take two actions on the SoccerCity proposal. The first was to form a subcommittee to study the initiative and look for places where the planning group would still have some input, such as the design of the proposed park and the look of the buildings.
The second action was to pen a letter to the City Council expressing the group’s concern over the initiative process that “trivializes” the work of the planning group.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.