San Diego City Council boots SoccerCity to 2018 vote

After four and a half hours of public testimony on June 19, San Diego City Council voted 8-0 to place the SoccerCity initiative on the November 2018 ballot, instead of the 2017 special election that FS Investors were shooting for to bring a Major League Soccer team to San Diego.

Council’s decision followed last week’s 5-4 vote against a November special election on any measure, including the proposed hotel tax to expand the downtown convention center. After City Council voted to remove the money from the city’s budget for the special election, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who supports SoccerCity, used his veto power to restore $5 million in funding for a special election by cutting funds from both Carmel Valley’s District 1 and District 3, a move some called “retaliation.”

“The Chargers’ departure represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for San Diego. I want my children and grandchildren to have the same opportunities that I’ve had and the Qualcomm site can be an important driver for our region,” said District 1 Councilmember Barbara Bry. “My vote today is about the future of our city, it’s not about whether or not I love soccer….Let’s not confuse opposition to SoccerCity with opposition to soccer in San Diego. SoccerCity is not the only option for Mission Valley and we shouldn’t buy into the rhetoric that says otherwise.”

FS Investors wanted the special election in 2017 as the MLS will award a team to an expansion city by the end of the year and San Diego is one of 12 cities contending for four MLS expansion spots. City Council said they were following the guidance of Measure L, which San Diego voters passed in November 2016, stating that any major initiative or measure should be voted in a general election when the most people vote.

In a statement following Monday’s decision, Mayor Faulconer expressed his disappointment that the council shelved a plan that over 100,000 people supported with the citizen’s initiative petition.

“The Council’s decision significantly jeopardizes our chance to bring Major League Soccer to San Diego and create a river park at no cost to taxpayers. Regardless of whether they personally supported or opposed SoccerCity, Councilmembers should have given San Diegans the chance to vote when it mattered the most.”

Opposition group Public Land Public Vote encouraged the city to now move forward with an open and transparent process for soliciting competing proposals for the redevelopment of the Qualcomm site, “in the hopes of identifying a project that better meets the needs of the City, taxpayers and SDSU.”

However as Nick Stone of SoccerCity’s FS Investors said in his testimony, all of the alternatives are “slow, expensive and riddled with legal challenges.” Voting to send the initiative to the 2018 ballot was a vote for a “decade of delay.”

“My 3-year-old will be driving before something happens on that site,” Stone said.

Councilmember Bry said she was confident that the city can move forward expeditiously to bring alternative options to public by 2018.

“I want to see a once-in-a-lifetime project with community input and buy-in take place in Mission Valley and create a legacy that our grandchildren can be proud of,” Bry said.

That legacy was also driving Landon Donovan, the former MLS player and U.S. Men’s National team member. Donovan was leading the charge for SoccerCity despite his wife being in labor with his second child (by the time the meeting had concluded, Bry was congratulating Donovan on the birth of his son). Donovan was in council chambers at his wife’s insistence, to show the importance of the “legacy” he was hoping to build for his new home of San Diego and his kids.

SoccerCity support also came from World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist and Carmel Valley/Del Mar Sharks Director Shannon MacMillan, former San Diego Sockers player Brian Farber and lots of soccer fans, many of them in SoccerCity San Diego jerseys — over 2,000 were sold, with the hopeful 2017 date on the back.

Steve Altman, member of the FS Investors group, said they worked to craft an initiative that they believe is the best use for the property — to pay fair market value (the land was recently appraised at $110 million), to build a joint-use stadium for SDSU football and a MLS soccer team, and build a river park that the city has wanted but couldn’t afford for decades, promising no use of public funding.

“Unfortunately in this city and especially in today’s divided environment, even the best intentions get mischaracterized and attacked,” Altman said, noting the opposition, “funded by two very politically-connected local developers seeking to protect their nearby projects,” painted them as a bunch of “hedge fund sharks,” rich guys from La Jolla and “greedy land developers trying to make windfall profits at the expense of the city and its taxpayers.”

Paying $110 million that the land was independently appraised for, is hardly swindling the city, Altman said.

“Our partnership group has been financially successful. That doesn’t make us bad people. That doesn’t make us greedy people,” Altman said. “This group deeply cares about San Diego and none of them deserves to be characterized the way they have been.”

He said FS Investors does not contribute a lot to political campaigns but gives time and money to support local charitable causes, including SDSU, homelessness, medical research and invests in businesses to help create jobs in the city.

“If the council pushes the vote to 2018, they are taking the outcome out of our control — our chances on getting an MLS franchise depend almost entirely on the hope that eight of the 11 competing cities will fail to get their approvals before we do,” said Altman. “That’s a terrible business strategy, to base your success on your competitors failing.”

Those in opposition of SoccerCity included several SDSU supporters, who look at the site for its potential to expand the university past “landlocked” Montezuma Mesa and as a home for SDSU football, which has no place to play after the 2019 season.

Joe LaCava of Public Land Public Vote reiterated his group’s viewpoint that FS Investors were attempting a massive land grab, “the largest transfer of taxpayer wealth to a private developer in San Diego history,” one that creates traffic gridlock, bypasses environmental review and represents a deal made behind closed doors with no community input.

“The real reason why SoccerCity is failing is because, from the very start, the project violated almost every principle of open government and fair competition,” said Gretchen Newsom, speaking on behalf of the 3,400 members of the IBEW Local 569 electricians union. “This unfair proposal is bad and it’s worse than just hand-selecting a ref, it also smacks of choosing the winning team of the World Cup without having to play in the tournament like everyone else.”

Councilmember Scott Sherman said he was very disappointed in how the whole process played out, saying he was “pigeonholed” at this point and had no option but to put the initiative on the ballot for next year, which effectively kills it.

“I heard a lot about Public Land Public Vote which is kind of silly because they’re actively trying to stop the public from voting,” Sherman said. “This is the will of the voter at this point. Our job is to implement the will of the voter and not impose our will on the voter and that’s what we have been doing around here for the last couple of weeks…All we can do is move it to November 2018 and pray that MLS makes a decision to delay. I don’t have anything else I can do, I wish I could do something different.”