This is an open letter to the president and trustees of San Diego State University.
By Donna Frye
I write out of a deep sense of concern over the deafening silence from the leaders of SDSU over the fate of the Qualcomm Stadium site. Unless you speak out loudly, clearly and quickly, you will miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something that will forever pay educational, environmental and other public dividends to all San Diegans.
Not long ago, I was reading the latest version of the FS Investors’ plan for a subsidized condo development at the Qualcomm site, and in my head all I could hear was the song by Ben Sidran: “Brand New Music, Same Old Song.”
We’ve heard this Qualcomm tune before. The players have changed, but past proposals all have the same haunting, repeating “Condo City” melody. The FS Investors’ plan is no different.
Back in 2004, the Chargers proposed that the city give them 60 acres at the Qualcomm site to develop more than 6,000 housing units, offices, a hotel, shops, restaurants and some park space. The development revenues would offset the team’s $400 million investment in a new stadium. The city would invest a borrowed $175 million to improve the site, with tax revenue generated by the development used to pay off the debt.
In April 2015, Councilmember Scott Sherman and others proposed developing the Qualcomm site with 6,000 new residential units, 3 million square feet of office space, some retail and hotel space and a measly 20 acres of park space.
Around the same time, a mayoral task force suggested 75 acres of the site should be sold to a developer to build ancillary development to help offset the cost of a new stadium.
Early this year, just a few weeks after the Chargers left Mission Valley, FS Investors brought forward a plan to develop the site with up to 4,800 housing units, over 3 million square feet of office and retail, two hotels, 55 acres of parks (though this is no longer legally required under the plan), a little bit of space for SDSU, and possibly two stadiums.
Called “SoccerCity,” it is being sold as the magic salve to rub on the city’s local and national sports wounds. In reality, it’s snake oil.
No meaningful public input or environmental review has been done on the FS plan and it’s unlikely that there will be any mitigation from the over 70,000 additional vehicle trips per day in an already gridlocked Mission Valley.
Apart from the unvetted development issues, I can’t help but wonder how a professional soccer team, even if FS were awarded the franchise, could survive in San Diego, when the NFL couldn’t make it work. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski, who has looked carefully at the pro-soccer market, described the MLS as a “pyramid scheme” propped up by expansion fees, with the MLS itself admitting that it is losing as much as $100 million per year.
And there’s a long history of lost sports teams in our city. Over the years, we’ve lost plenty of franchises, including the Chargers, two NBA teams and three soccer teams. When you combine the MLS business model with this city’s pro-sports history, the odds are not in our favor that FS’s plan to bring pro soccer to San Diego will be a success.
But you have to hand it to FS Investors. They are smart hedge-fund guys who have figured out a way to avoid risking their own money to get an MLS franchise while using the possibility of winning such a franchise to anchor a massive condo-development campaign.
This happens by getting the city to allow them to lease the Qualcomm site and its companion Murphy Canyon property for compensation of $11,000 and then develop the properties with high entitlements and densities that are fully exempt from customary mitigation obligations like those to offset Mission Valley’s traffic gridlock or other environmental problems.
The plan’s fine print makes clear that FS gets to sell off the development rights immediately even if it is not awarded a new MLS franchise.
In fact, it appears that nothing in the plan requires FS Investors to bring an MLS team to San Diego even if MLS awards them the franchise. Go figure.
The FS Condo City plan is the same old development plan we have seen and heard for more than a decade. The only difference is that this massive development is now being sung to the tune of “Footy McFooty Face” instead of “San Diego Super Chargers.”
But what if we were to change the song entirely? What if we looked to San Diego’s history — not its sports history, but its university history — to learn how to create something of real community benefit for everyone?
In 1955, members of the City Council did something extraordinarily forward-thinking: They gave a large swath of surplus land in La Jolla to the University of California rather than to developers. That leadership and foresight is still being praised. A recent San Diego Union-Tribune editorial called the council’s decision “one of its most inspired moments.” That’s true. UCSD has “become one of the world’s great research universities, and its faculty and alumni distinguish themselves more and more every year.”
The same opportunity exists today for SDSU. But because FS Investors have been quietly laying the groundwork for their land grab for more than a year, currying favor with key politicians, our city’s leadership is not going to propose giving the Qualcomm site to SDSU on its own.
SDSU is going to have to speak up and ask for it, flanked by a team of respected alumni and supporters sharing a community oriented vision for Mission Valley that simultaneously advances SDSU’s educational mission and protects the environment.
As the former council representative for Mission Valley, I know there is tremendous voter support for a 21st-century expansion of SDSU into Mission Valley if designed in a way that pays tribute to the ecological value of the San Diego River, provides park and recreational space for residents, and avoids uses that increase the number of cars on the road.
Not only does the public support that vision, but I believe the public also is ready to mobilize in support of that vision.
The FS plan is filling a temporary void, gaining traction only because of a serious lack of leadership in our city. Educational facilities and parks are the best use of the site, and there is a way forward to make this a reality. This vastly better vision could also include sport facilities like a stadium for Aztecs football and even a joint-use college football/pro soccer stadium. The community is ready to stand with you.
But SDSU must speak up now, and it must speak loudly and clearly. SDSU’s leaders must say in public what many say to one another in private: Why is the city giving away our public land to private interests instead of keeping it for the highest benefit of the community?
If the taxpayers are going to be asked to provide a public subsidy, why should they subsidize another “Condo City” instead of something that benefits everyone?
If you don’t speak out now, nothing will change. Without your voice, that opportunity will be consumed entirely by FS. And lost forever will be the opportunity to make SDSU into the internationally renowned education and research powerhouse that all of us want it to be and know it can be.
We have an opportunity to act boldly and do something truly inspirational, but it won’t happen if we just keep singing the same old song.
Donna Frye is a former member of the San Diego City Council and a past president of Californians Aware.