Rendering of the SDSU innovation district near a new stadium envisioned for Mission Valley / Image courtesy of SDSU

Just over 17 years ago, a task force presented its report to the San Diego City Council on what to do about the Chargers and the aging Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. The city had just hosted the Super Bowl. And even though the stadium had been remodeled six years before — a project we are still paying off — then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made clear at the event that the NFL would never return its glitzy annual party to the city unless we built a new stadium.

Tagliabue’s pronouncement was devastating to the city’s elite, who had just luxuriated in the pomp and publicity of the successful showcase. Looking back, the Super Bowl in 2003 was a climax — the end of a chapter of San Diego marked by exuberance and pride. Soon the city would descend into scandal, political chaos and financial ruin.

But at that moment, keeping the Chargers in town was a top priority and so launched a new chapter about one of the most valuable pieces of land the city owned.

The Citizens Task Force on Chargers Issues recommended that the city lease the entire 166-acres of Mission Valley land to the football team. The team could build a stadium if it wanted and it could build homes or other things around it to finance the whole endeavor.

Lots of political fights followed but one thing never changed in the next 17 years: that central idea that the land could be developed and the money it spewed off could fund a stadium and other public benefits. The Chargers tried it. A group of investors dreaming of a soccer team here tried it. San Diego State University will now actually do it.

Waiting all the while the parking lot – the site of Giant Used Car Tent Sales, the place of refuge for victims of unprecedented wildfires and the place of memories for countless sports fans – sat as a promising swath of blight in the most prominent corridor of the city.

Now, we finally know what’s going to happen. After a unanimous decision Friday by the San Diego City Council, the city began putting together the final legal documents to formally transfer the land to San Diego State University. Every major issue that defined the long and sometimes contentious negotiations has been settled. And the land will become the site of thousands of homes, an expanded campus, a hotel, some retail, a large river park and, yes, a football stadium.

SDSU was once seen as a kind of minor stakeholder in the discussions about this land. The university maybe would put some money into the stadium so it could still play football but it was rarely mentioned in the long soap opera that defined the Chargers drama in San Diego.

Now the university has borrowed $660 million to invest in the land and the new stadium. Barring some unforeseen hangup with the legal documentation, the university will be able to begin moving massive chunks of earth in coming months as it prepares the area for the new stadium and the construction of all the things it has promised. Construction will probably last for decades. And plans have already been approved through the California State University system.

“This will be the largest and most complex land use deal ever made involving the city of San Diego,” said City Attorney Mara Elliott, before the City Council agreed to put to rest,  after 17 years, the question of what would happen to the land.

It would be the biggest story in the city worthy of giant headlines on the front page of the newspaper were those big headlines not already spoken for by the ongoing public health and economic catastrophe.

For one day, at least, it was nice to step away from the crisis and watch a plotline that peppered the city’s political dialogue for nearly two decades finally come to a resolution. Nobody on the task force in 2003 could have imagined this outcome and yet, in a way, it was almost exactly what they did imagine.

Now, the Actual Deal

It was not without last-minute drama. And Elliott was at the center of it. She and the top deputies assigned to work on the deal had been deeply worried about some parts of the university’s proposed final deal. At the top of that list was the city’s plans to make good on its commitment to eventually get about 30 percent of its water from wastewater recycling.

The land sits above a natural aquifer, which is why it is largely owned, in a way, by the city’s water department. Kevin Reisch, the senior chief deputy city attorney, and Melissa Ables, a deputy city attorney, released a memo last week about the “dire consequences” the city may face to its wastewater plans if the deal went forward without resolving their concerns.

That provoked an intense, supposedly nonstop negotiation Wednesday between the mayor’s office, SDSU plus its attorneys and the city attorney’s office.

They made a deal.

It’s complex, and the formal documentation of it has to be hammered out in just over a week, but essentially the city maintained access to the site to be able to build what it needs and to oversee work that happens in the area. SDSU agreed not to disturb some groundwater monitoring wells and to do some wetlands mitigation.

“Some have said this took too long to negotiate, but those who have familiarized themselves with the complexity of this agreement know otherwise,” said Elliott at Friday’s meeting.

The statement was one of many subtle clapbacks Friday at City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who had accused the city attorney of trying to kill the deal behind the scenes. Bry, who is running for mayor, wrote to campaign supporters that Elliott’s demands in the negotiation had been “outrageous” and “ridiculous.” She said the deal should have been done a year ago.

But SDSU officials acknowledged making significant concessions because of the talks.

“The university agreed to unprecedented broad indemnities … many more than is typical of a traditional real estate transaction,” said Dawn S. Theodora, attorney within the Office of the General Counsel of the California State University system.

“We believe we have far exceeded our offer of October of last year. It goes well beyond the requirements of Measure G,” said John Kratzer, CEO of JMI Realty, who helped lead SDSU’s side of the negotiations.

Friday, though, Bry continued to slam the process. She said voters had made their wishes clear with Measure G.

“Here we are 18 months later, after another series of closed-door negotiations from which the public and City Council have been excluded. That is not the way government should operate,” she said.

Council and Mayor Laud City Attorney

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott appears at Golden Hall on election night. / Photo by Megan Wood

Other Council members, though, were pleased with how the city attorney had performed. Along with the mayor, many of them specifically acknowledged Elliott, Reisch and Ables.

“I am proud of our city attorney, who withstood many stones and arrows and who did what is right for the citizens of our city,” said Councilwoman Jen Campbell.

Councilman Scott Sherman was more effusive. He said he had always known the city attorney had the best interests of the city in mind.

“You doing your job and pointing out some pitfalls the city faces with this agreement – people were using that as an opportunity for personal or political attack and that just saddens me it got to that point,” Sherman said.

Some context: There’s no love lost between Bry and Elliott. Elliott endorsed Bry’s rival in the mayoral campaign, Todd Gloria, very early in the primary race. And Sherman ran against Bry in that primary and traded attacks with her as they both realized they were fighting for the second spot in the runoff.

Next steps: The final agreement still needs to be actually drafted and signed by the CSU chancellor. Council is coming back hopefully June 9 but maybe June 16 to sign off on the final wording of the compromises and then they will close the deal in July. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Labor Douses Fire for Height Limit Changes

As you Politics Report junkies no doubt remember, one of the biggest issues the City Council is thinking of putting on the November ballot is the question of whether to eliminate the building height limit for the land around the Sports Arena in the Midway District. The city has been lining up plans for years to redevelop the entire area and it’s generally assumed that the public benefits and design of the area are largely dependent on how high developers can build.

Right now, the height limit on construction, though, on the coast is 30 feet — a product of the a 47-year-old ballot measure. To change it, you need to have a vote of the people. Campbell, who represents the area, and Councilman Chris Cate, proposed a ballot measure to do just that.

But at least one top labor leader isn’t on board yet. Tom Lemmon, the business manager of the Building Trades Council, a consortium of construction unions, sent an email to the City Council with a list of demands. He wants the city to require, with the ballot measure, that the workers on all the construction that happens in the area get paid by prevailing wage standards. (Right now, that only applies to the actual public projects.) And he wants at least 20 percent of the housing units to be restricted in rents to be affordable to people making 60 percent of the area median income.

For comparison: The big SDSU project in Mission Valley has also not agreed to require its private contractors not building university facilities to pay prevailing wage, and that project will only have 10 percent of its 4,600 housing units restricted to affordable.

About that: Labor doesn’t seem that pleased with the SDSU West deal. But U-T columnist Michael Smolens wrote that it looks like they’ll save their fight on that for the CSU headquarters.

The politics: You don’t really want to have labor opposed to an effort to raise the height limit in a part of Point Loma. It’s already going to get a little sticky. But also, if it gets too bogged down with labor negotiations, it could lose the support of the mayor and Cate himself, who first proposed it. And any delay in campaigning will hurt. The City Council Rules Committee has not yet advanced it to the full City Council.

The Tweet That Disappeared

San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar speaks at the unveiling of a federal medical station at Palomar Medical Center. The station will be used if there’s a surge of COVID-19 patients who need hospitalization. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar blasted the Brown Act, California’s open-meetings law Thursday.

As an elected leader of the 2nd largest county in CA, I’m not even allowed to be in the County’s afternoon COVID19 briefings – bc of the Brown Act. Only 2 Supervisors in the subcommittee are privy to information & allowed to make decisions for 3.3 million San Diegans.

There’s a lot going on in this tweet worth explaining. What she’s talking about is the COVID-19 subcommittee created by the five-member Board of Supervisors, of which she is one of five. Gaspar voted for its creation and for putting Supervisor Greg Cox and Supervisor Nathan Fletcher on it. The county’s public health officials, as we have seen, have enormous powers and challenges. Fletcher and Cox were supposed to be the board’s influence on their discussions and to help them connect with other political leaders across the state and country to handle the crisis.

The Brown Act prohibits a majority of elected officials on a body like the Board of Supervisors from meeting without following all the rules for telling people when they’re meeting and what they’re going to talk about. It’s a basic principle of open meetings laws. But it also means that they can’t end up hanging out at ceremonies or, say, daily press briefings about the status of a crisis. If three of the five members of the board were to get together in the same place and talk, that would be a violation of open meetings rules.

That’s what she’s talking about

As we discussed a few weeks ago, Fletcher’s maneuver to get onto that subcommittee was now, looking back, quite the political move. He is the only Democrat among the five supervisors and yet because of this post, he has built the biggest presence representing the county in public — so much so that the county’s decisions are being attributed to him personally quite regularly (not always in a positive way).

I’d link to Gaspar’s tweet. But she deleted it.

I asked her office if she wanted to add more context to her point and she sent back this statement: “It’s funny… I’ve been working hard advocating for youth sports, mutual aid to our neighbors to the south, and safely reopening our economy and not a mention… but an old tweet gets sent out in error and now all of a sudden you care. Got it”

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Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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