Construction of San Diego State University's Aztec Stadium in Mission Valley is underway. / Photo by Noelani Sapla, The Daily Aztec

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San Diego State University sent a sternly worded letter this week from its lawyers to the city of San Diego demanding the city finalize the sale of a small crumb of land left over from the 166 acres the university purchased last year.

The rights of way and 2.1 acres SDSU needs are mostly afterthoughts but the reason the city is balking at the move is not: A vicious dispute between SDSU and labor unions has broken out and the city is holding up the land sale until it is resolved.

The background: The city sold the Mission Valley stadium land to SDSU last year in a historic deal that ushered in the construction of the new Snapdragon Stadium set to open in the fall. But as is often the case, there were a few loose ends. The city was unable at that point to finalize the sale of a small section of land known as San Diego Mission Road. SDSU agreed to pay $240,000 for this land and the rights of way around it when all the bureaucratic steps were complete.

They seemed to be complete this summer when city staff moved the item forward to the Council’s Land Use and Housing committee. You can read the staff report here.

But then the city pulled it from the committee’s docket. SDSU officials said they waited for months for it to come back and it never did. SDSU finally decided to send the letter because it now needs the land to continue with construction.

“Failing to complete the Existing Easements Vacation Approval would render the majority of SDSU Mission Valley site undevelopable,” reads the letter from SDSU lawyers.

The real issue: An increasingly hostile confrontation between SDSU and several labor unions has been brewing. The city is unwilling to go forward on this deal until SDSU resolves the labor problem.

Brigette Browning, the executive secretary treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and the longtime leader of Unite HERE, the hotel and service workers union, says the university has reneged on promises it made to labor early in the campaign for Measure G, the initiative that mandated the city to sell the land to SDSU.

In an interview, Browning said before the university’s allies began collecting signatures for Measure G, she and several other labor leaders met at the home of SDSU President Adele de la Torre, who promised them everything they wanted.

“We had 500 workers at Qualcomm Stadium and she said they would take care of them, and we thought we could trust her but they have completely gone back on their word,” she said. Browning listed other concerns: SDSU was unwilling to provide project labor agreements for ancillary construction around the property and the assurances it was providing labor unions were vague and unenforceable.

She has made her displeasure with the situation known to the city. Most of the members of the San Diego City Council were elected with support from the Labor Council and Browning. So was Mayor Todd Gloria.

“I’ve had lots of conversations with the city about the bad faith,” she said. “The city feels uncomfortable moving forward with this situation. It seems like they would prefer everyone gets along and it just gets worked out.” She would not say specifically if she would fight approval of the remaining land sale were it to go back to Council.

But for now, she doesn’t have to because it is not yet back at Council.

The other side: If anyone made promises to labor, it was Jack McGrory, the former city manager turned trustee on the California State University board and the architect of everything from Measure G to the land sale and now the development. He was at that meeting at de la Torre’s house.

McGrory said he and the university have made several agreements and offers to Browning and her allies. And now he’s exhausted.

Jack McGrory / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“I’ve given them a union hotel, prevailing wage on the hotel, 80 percent union on the innovation district we’re building,” he said. “Prevailing wage on all the grading, labor and cooperation agreements on all the development – I’m not going to give them anymore. We’re done.”

And …

“We’re doing a union hotel. Nobody in CSU history has offered a union hotel. I’ve taken a lot of flack from Long Beach on that but I said I wanted to make this work,” he said.

And …

“If the Labor Council owns the City Council, fine. If you don’t want this to go forward, we’ll just stop all the housing units, all the parks just for a bunch of crap from the unions. It’s economic extortion,” he said.

McGrory said the university made a deal with the carpenters union to pay prevailing wage, gave them the hotel construction work and on two stand-alone affordable housing complexes.

The Politics Report asked Browning about the carpenters deal.

“It’s not worth toilet paper it’s written on,” with an added description of what toilet paper is most commonly used for. “It’s not binding or enforceable.”

McGrory and the university hold that the CSU system never signs so-called project labor agreements, deals where unions agree to guarantee enough labor for the project in exchange for pay and benefits going only to workers through union halls. Maybe some side arrangements can be made?

No. Browning doesn’t care what’s never done.

“You’re telling me that in California, in 2022, the CSU board thinks it’s OK to have a position that it doesn’t do labor deals? Is Ronald Reagan still the governor of the state?” she said. (He’s not.)

The real flashpoint: Of all the aspects of the dispute, the one Browning seems most animated about is the concession and culinary work people used to do at the stadium. She said the promise to protect those workers and those jobs as union jobs was clear. She never would have supported SDSU West were it not for that promise.

“I want assurances that my 65-year-old beer tender gets the right stations. That’s usually a good job because you get tips. For low-income people, $500 during a big event is the difference between being able to feed their family or not,” she said. But the university has rebuffed her demands that extend not only to the new stadium but all the kitchen and related work.

And that’s where McGrory draws the line. He and the university want a portion of the jobs to remain open to students trying to work their way through school.

He said he’s committed to hiring all the workers she can name who were at the stadium before and she hasn’t provided the names. Browning said she wants written deals.

“Their word doesn’t mean a lot to me right now,” she said.

The city and the university: Representatives of the actual university and the actual city have taken a backseat in the dispute.

But this is very much in the city’s power to handle. They have a deal to sell the land. City staff has finished its work. The mayor could say it should go forward or he could say it should not until labor gets what it wants.

So does the mayor want to hold up this process to support Browning and the labor unions that want more enforceable agreements? Or does he want SDSU to be able to proceed?

“We’re contractually obligated to process the street vacation and bring it to the City Council for consideration, and we will do so,” he said. “It’s our hope that SDSU continues to work toward agreement with labor regarding job quality and worker retention at SDSU West. The vision San Diegans voted for in 2018 was a thriving mixed-use innovation district that provides opportunity for educational and economic advancement, and that’s far more likely with strong commitments to job quality.”

As for the university, its leaders are touting how many union jobs it has already created with the stadium construction and the many promises already made.

“We would appreciate the city’s partnership in bringing these already-contemplated actions forward for a vote of the City Council. Any further delay will impact the construction and timeline of SDSU Mission Valley,” wrote Gina Jacobs, the university’s vice president in charge of the Mission Valley development, in a statement.

Parting shots: Browning said the whole experience has soured her on the entire SDSU West development. The whole thing feels like a bait and switch, she said.

“I viewed this SDSU thing as a game changer for our community but only if it had been centered around our community. Instead it’s this cadre of rich white guys calling all the shots and it has seemed like that since the moment it passed. All the shots are being called by rich guys who want to make money off these RFPs,” she said.

McGrory wants to focus on the city. He said he respects Browning and the other labor leaders but he’s befuddled by the city’s decision to apparently intervene in their disputes. He’s carrying some grudges from the struggles to buy the land and the previous administration’s opposition to the initiative and SDSU West.

“All we need is a $240,000 acquisition of 2.1 acres of land. They’re holding up a $4 billion project. Every step of the way, the city has been an opponent. I don’t understand how these are connected but in this crazy land, somehow the unions run the Council,” he said.

LaCava’s Election Reform (for Planning Groups) is On Deck

If Councilman Joe LaCava has his way, the City Council could in the early part of this year reform the city’s community planning group system – an apparatus of 42 groups that advise the city on land-use decisions within their boundaries.

Those changes would include how the groups are allowed to run their elections.

A portion of the reform package LaCava’s office put together went before the city’s planning commission Thursday, winning unanimous approval after nearly two hours of public comment, including substantial opposition from planning group members who said the changes would reduce their influence.

One of those changes, though, was barring the policies many groups have in place that not only require would-be candidates to serve on the groups from attending a certain number of meetings before they can run, but often that impose attendance requirements to even vote in the planning group elections.

“We saw that as a disincentive for folks to get involved,” LaCava said. “I understand the rationale and I’ve defended the rationale in the past, but we really saw that as a discouragement to get involved in planning groups. There is no other organization or commission or running for office that requires any level of attendance… what we are also interested in is conforming voting to our state voting laws.”

The planning commission – led by James Whalen, the vice chair, and supported by Ken Malbrough, previous chair of what’s now called the Chollas View Community Planning Group – encouraged LaCava to consider tempering his changes to attendance requirements. They suggested removing requirements to vote in planning group elections based on attendance, while allowing some form of attendance requirement to serve on the groups.

LaCava’s involvement in planning group reform is itself notable. His path to city politics was through planning groups – he chaired La Jolla’s group for five years, and chaired the Community Planners Committee, a collective group of the city’s planning groups. Previous planning group reform efforts on the Council were spearheaded by former Councilman Scott Sherman, who never had a warm relationship with the system he was trying to change.

“It really can’t be overstated how big of a deal it is that you were willing to take this on,” said Planning Commissioner Matthew Boomhower, who said self-styled progressive, YIMBY candidates had told him they wouldn’t consider taking on planning group reform for fear of being “tarred and feathered.”

LaCava said the City Council could adopt his proposed changes in the first part of this year. That could mean the city re-recognizing all of the planning groups sometime before the end of the year.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

Scott Lewis

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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