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Last week’s announcement by the city of San Diego and San Diego State University that they have entered into a confidentiality agreement governing their negotiations over the sale of the Mission Valley stadium site adds to public concerns over lack of transparency in this important public transaction.
Wanting to keep the negotiations themselves under wraps is perhaps understandable due to the sensitivity surrounding such a high-profile transaction. What is harder to understand is the unwillingness of the mayor to allow the public, or even the City Council, a voice in determining what should be included in the negotiations.
After all, this concerns the largest developable piece of public land in San Diego. The initiative approved by the voters last November compels the sale of 80 percent of the 166-acre site to SDSU “at such price and upon such terms as the Council shall deem to be fair and equitable and in the public interest.” With the City Council excluded from the negotiations, whatever emerges will be presented to them as a fait accompli, which they will be under great pressure to approve. And with the public excluded from the process, we will never know whether the terms of sale could have more effectively advanced the public interest. Other city real estate deals, most recently the purchase of the former Sempra office building downtown and the skydiving facility in East Village, do not inspire confidence.
The ostensible reason for proceeding in such a closed manner is to bring the negotiations to a speedy conclusion. SDSU is anxious to commence demolition of the existing stadium and proceed with redevelopment, beginning with construction of a new, more compact stadium. But is such haste necessary? The public endured nearly two years of campaigning over the dual initiatives from FS Investors and SDSU. Had the mayor not precipitously endorsed FS Investors’ SoccerCity initiative, San Diegans might have had an opportunity then to address the future of the site more appropriately. But the time lost in campaigning should not be an excuse for taking shortcuts now. Before the city deeds away the property, the public should have an opportunity to weigh in on the future of the site. SDSU’s plans only allocate a portion of the site to university-related uses, with the rest presumably being leased for private development, so there is ample opportunity for other public goals to be met on the balance of the site. Surely, we can take a month or so to figure that out.
As several civic-minded groups have explained in recent letters, the city and SDSU should consider a number of matters to restore trust in this process. They should, for example, enforce verbal commitments made by SDSU during the campaign, including a pledge to actually build a park on the land adjacent to the San Diego River, and ensure that any new development will be consistent with the Mission Valley Community Plan, the Climate Action Plan, the San Diego River Master Plan and other relevant planning documents. They should also require the project to establish and improve connections to public transit services and other transportation systems, guarantee that a substantial share of new homes will be offered at affordable prices, ensure that development plans integrate with the existing surrounding development, rather than treating the site as an island and maximize sustainable design and development, including water and energy efficiency features, while pursuing federally recognized green development certification. Other ideas would likely emerge from public discussions regarding the future of the site.
Ideally, such public discussions would have occurred as soon as it became clear the Chargers were vacating the stadium, before either of the initiatives qualified for the ballot. Instead, the city allowed the debate to play out through private interests. For a publicly owned site such as this, that would have been the appropriate way to begin planning for its future. Having failed to keep the Chargers here, and then in his support for SoccerCity, the mayor presumably wants to take no chances with the SDSU deal. But it will be a better deal, and one that better serves the people of Mission Valley and the rest of San Diego, if the city takes the time to listen to the voters who approved this sale and then incorporates their input into the negotiations.
Cary Lowe is a land use lawyer who serves on the board of directors of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (C-3).