SoccerCity likely headed for citywide vote

The San Diego Chargers may be bolting town but the stadium drama remains as the SoccerCity initiative seeks to bring a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise to a revitalized Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley.

La Jolla-based FS Investors gathered over 100,000 signatures in two weeks to put the SoccerCity sports entertainment district before San Diego City Council on June 19. As it is a citizen’s initiative, the council has the option to approve it outright or send it to a citywide vote in a special election in November 2017 or the general election in June 2018.

Measure L, which San Diego voters passed in November 2016, states that any major initiative or measure should be voted in a general election when the most people vote rather than in a special election. The measure, however, does give the council the authority to put initiatives to a ballot earlier.

FS Investors is shooting for that November special election as the MLS will award a team to an expansion city by the end of the year — San Diego is one of 12 cities contending for four MLS expansion spots.

Both SoccerCity and opposition group Public Land Public Vote came before the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board on May 25.

On May 16, Joe LaCava of Public Land Public Vote gave a presentation to the Torrey Hills Community Planning Board and the board voted to send a letter to City Council reiterating the need for a public vote instead of an outright approval.

FS Investors, a group that includes Nick Stone, Mike Stone, former Qualcomm President Steve Altman and Peter Seidler (part of the San Diego Padres ownership group), believes that San Diego has the potential to become the new soccer capital of America.

Nick Stone told the Carmel Valley board that in addition to bringing a MLS soccer team to the city, they will also be able to draw international teams to their state-of-the-art facilities and SoccerCity’s community benefits will be “above and beyond.”

“We’re taking a massive civic liability and not asking for a single penny of taxpayer dollars, creating a development that will generate 26,000 permanent jobs, $2.8 billion a year in ongoing economic impact, cuts $12 million a year from an ongoing liability, and solves a huge environmental problem because today when it rains all the pollution that sits in that parking lot goes directly into the river and creates $21.6 million a year in tax service for the city, county and schools,” Stone said.

The SoccerCity plan also includes homes, hotels, retail and office space and 55 acres of green space with a “vibrant” new river park with biking and running trails and active-use playing fields.

The plan also includes a training academy for youth soccer at the former Chargers training facility in Murphy Canyon. Former MLS and Team USA star Landon Donovan and National Soccer Hall of Famer Shannon McMillon, executive director for the Del Mar/Carmel Valley Sharks, are on board to help develop the youth academy. The facility will also be able to host international soccer squads Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona for “friendlies” in addition to 17 MLS games a year.

SoccerCity’s fast timeline has some people concerned with the process, including the Public Land Public Vote, the opposition group funded by Mission Valley property owners H.G. Fenton Company and Sudberry Properties.

At the Carmel Valley and Torrey Hills planning board meetings, Joe LaCava spoke for Public Land Public Vote.

“We’re against their proposal. They have been selling this with three ideas: soccer, soccer and soccer because they think that’s the way to appeal to the average San Diego voter. But from our point of view, a group of investors has taken advantage of a loophole in state law to use the citizen’s initiative process, which was really designed for grassroots efforts, to find a way for them to take over the Qualcomm Stadium property,” LaCava said.

“That’s our property, that’s city-owned land. But they’ve jumped in front, they have behind closed doors created what they think is the vision for that property, crafted an initiative that outlines a deal structure, a permit process and implementation process of what they want to do for that property. We think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go about it for over 200 acres of publicly-owned land,” LaCava said. “It’s a unique opportunity for us as San Diegans to create a vision of what we could do with that property if Qualcomm Stadium is no longer part of that picture.”

Carmel Valley planning board member Ken Farinsky said planning by initiative scares him because a lot of analysis that would otherwise happen gets lost and the development just “magically happens because people voted on it.”

Stone said they did conduct a full environmental impact report and are proposing mitigations that include contributing $50 million toward traffic improvements. Environmentally, he said, they can’t do much worse than the existing parking lot.

LaCava argued that FS Investors’ analysis is “flawed” and that trip generations are understated, that the study area doesn’t meet San Diego standards and mitigations are “not adequate, not guaranteed and not possible.”

Board members also voiced concerns about SoccerCity bypassing public input, particularly with the Mission Valley Community Planning Group.

Stone said that they do plan to hold community meetings specific to the design of the river park and said a subcommittee has been formed at the Mission Valley Community Planning Group.

The park is going to be built early in the process and Stone said they have a real incentive to create something for the community that’s really valuable and a place where people will want to come to.

Stone said that FS Investors will pay the fair market value for the land as determined by a third party independent appraisal. The appraisal and lease will be known before the vote happens.

LaCava said not only is it “unprecedented” that the mayor will write the lease without City Council input, he believes that the proposal is just a “massive land grab.”

LaCava said the city has a policy about selling city-owned land that includes a request for proposals (RFP) process — the city puts the property out to as many bidders as possible to create competition, the price gets driven up and the city can get a better deal. LaCava said the city could add zoning and development rights to the land to make it more valuable but what the initiative does is allow FS Investors to purchase the land as is, at fair market value, its “rock-bottom price”.

Carmel Valley board member Shreya Sasaki wondered how long such a process could take and said the last thing people want is for Qualcomm Stadium to sit vacant for years.

“A motivated city should be able to do an RFP in the course of a year,” LaCava said.

Stone was less enthusiastic about the timeline.

“Dysfunction for a decade, let’s be clear that’s what will happen,” Stone said.

Carmel Valley board members Debbie Lokanc and Laura Copic also expressed concerns that San Diego State University (SDSU) is no longer on board — SDSU announced on May 16 that they have not been able to reach a “fair, equitable deal that would provide opportunity for the long-term success of SDSU and Aztec football, as well as a transparent deal for the citizens of San Diego” and have walked away from SoccerCity.

Stone said they worked hard to create a project that could work for both MLS’ needs and SDSU football’s needs. For MLS soccer, they need about a 23,000-seat stadium and SDSU wanted slightly more — its games average about 25,000 fans. The proposed “hybrid” stadium would seat 33,500 and FS Investors also offered SDSU the option to purchase up to 47 acres for its long-term expansion needs in the future.

Stone has said that despite SDSU’s statement that it is walking away from the table, FS Investors would still like to work with SDSU “to support long-term goals of an institution we care about deeply.” The university and SoccerCity are in the midst of a “sadly, a very public jumble,” Stone said.

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