A conceptual rendering of SDSU Mission Valley’s river park plan. / Image courtesy of SDSU

Ten years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for Voice of San Diego arguing against building a new Chargers stadium. It was 2009, and we were plunging deeper into the recession. The numbers just didn’t add up. Rereading the column today, some of my points were naïve — maybe appropriately so for a high school student. But I did get some things right. I predicted that “since football has become more of a business than a sport, the Chargers will undoubtedly follow the laws of the market and choose the most profitable location.”

Now, with the stadium site open for redevelopment, San Diegans must envision a transformation for Mission Valley. Measure G unlocked the possibility of the university’s expansion, a proposal appropriately ambitious for the site’s strategic location. It promises to bring a sense of place to what is now a sprawling sea of asphalt. Most importantly, it is rooted in advancing San Diego’s civic assets.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

Yes, the development will benefit SDSU. But the 170-acre plan also has notable community benefits. Half of the area will be dedicated to parks and open space, including a 34-acre river park with four miles of pedestrian and cycling trails. For a city that always lacked a relationship with its river, this is unprecedented. Moreover, the environmentally sensitive design will work with, not against, the natural floodplain.

The plan will also right-size Mission Valley’s sports footprint. At 35,000 seats, the new multipurpose stadium will halve the capacity of SDCCU Stadium, but it will be more suitable for collegiate events, from NCAA football to concerts. It is slated to cost roughly a fourth of what the Chargers planned to spend to replace Qualcomm Stadium 10 years ago while promising to require no taxpayer funding.

Additionally, the 4,500 units of townhouses, mid-rises and high-rises — much of which will be available to the general public — will bring vitality to the area. SDSU’s proposal is exemplary of the type of residential development of which San Diego needs more: higher densities and greater transit accessibility. The impact of this housing cannot be understated. As a point of reference, take the number of apartments permitted for construction per year locally. Since 2013, that number has run between 5,000 and 7,000 — countywide.

Like all redevelopment projects, SDSU Mission Valley will involve financial risk. The university will offload much of it onto private developers, who will be responsible for the financing, construction and operations of many of the campus’s non-educational buildings. Higher education is countercyclical: Demand increases when the economy does poorly. This means that these privately operated properties should be better-positioned to meet their debt obligations with SDSU’s presence. Even in a recession, there will still be students to buy burritos, rent textbooks and live in apartments.

Indeed, SDSU’s involvement may make the development a safer bet. The properties that SDSU itself commits to occupying will secure favorable financing terms through Cal State’s excellent credit rating. Only a handful of private companies could come close.

What more could San Diegans ask for? More than anything, a partner that acts in good faith.

SDSU has a history of acting as a behemoth that plays by its own rules. It hasn’t improved this reputation by withholding records about its financing plan for SDSU Mission Valley. Skeptical that SDSU will be able to foot the bill without raising student costs, Voice of San Diego is suing the university for those records.

It’s right to be concerned. The portion of the project that will be built and managed by SDSU will be funded by Cal State revenue bonds. The university stresses that these obligations will be repaid by the earnings from the project — such as retail rents, stadium ticket sales and hotel leases — not student tuition or fees. Since 2016, however, student tuition has been included in the pool of revenues that back Cal State’s revenue bonds. This point is important: Revenue bonds issued for SDSU West can contractually be repaid by student tuition.

SDSU must clarify its position. If it is committed to protecting students from bailing out the project in a downside scenario, the public must understand how. The university can start by being transparent with the journalists who will rightfully continue to press for evidence.

The proposal for SDSU Mission Valley remains compelling, even inspiring. If negotiations are successful, San Diego will gain a development that both energizes its economy and proves sensible for its taxpayers. SDSU will spill over the freeway, expanding the city’s innovation economy as much as the university’s physical footprint. Instead of an imposing concrete behemoth, the next generation of San Diegans would be lucky to see this new community asset framed by the contours of our desert city’s river.

But, SDSU, we need answers.

Anna Ponting grew up in San Diego and is pursuing a joint master’s degree in public policy and business administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School.

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