Clockwise from top: Midway Rising, Midway Village+ and HomeTownSD.
Clockwise from top: Midway Rising, Midway Village+ and HomeTownSD.

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The Sports Arena, for now the Pechanga Arena San Diego, is 56 years old this year and, if the mayor, City Council and city staff have their way, it won’t reach its 60th birthday.  

They want it gone. In all the talk about what will happen to the Midway neighborhood and the redevelopment of the nearly 50-acres of land the city owns along Sports Arena Boulevard, it may not have sunk in that the entire leadership of city government is committed to demolishing the arena.  

As city staff were urgently trying to advance their top three choices of teams to do this work, some voices peeped that maybe we didn’t need a new arena or maybe there were other priorities or maybe it could be renovated. And if you’re going to build a new arena, why build it there? There’s nothing about the neighborhood, especially with 4,000 more new homes, that makes it an obvious place to put a new arena except that one has been there for so long.  

(And it was only put there after an uncomfortable history with the neighborhood that was there before.) 

In April, Councilman Joe LaCava heard those concerns but dismissed them.  

“I actually kind of agree with you about the Sports Arena but that debate has been risen and resolved. And a sports arena is going to be part of this project. We’re not going backward,” he said.  

If there was a debate about whether we needed a new arena and where it should be, I missed it. The City Council advanced three teams vying to develop the land the city owns under and around it and none of the three wants to keep it to refurbish or revitalize. To help them, the Council also just agreed to, once again, ask voters to raise the height limit for the entire Midway area, which would make it legal for these developers to both build a new arena and reshape the entire landscape of the swath of city land.  

If all goes well – and in this city, that’s a big if – the old arena will fall and a new one will arise. The three teams bidding for that job have picked heavy hitters in the big-building business and laid out very different visions of what should happen there. I decided to talk to them to see what they imagined.  

Sorry Sports Fans, Don’t Get Your Hopes Up 

Erik Judson, the CEO of JMI Sports, and a few others recently went to former Padres owner John Moores’ house to fete their friend Larry Lucchino for his induction into the Padres Hall of Fame because of his role in the construction of Petco Park.  

In just five weeks, Judson’s team will celebrate the opening of their latest project, Snapdragon Stadium, in Mission Valley, when the San Diego State Aztecs host Arizona in the first football game at the new stadium.  

Judson knows something about building big things like that and that’s why he’s the lead on the new arena part of the HometownSD team bidding on the new Sports Arena redevelopment plan.  

But he has a message for sports fans who dream of this redevelopment plan bringing another big-league team to San Diego: It will not.  

“If an owner came to town and wanted to bring an NBA or NHL team to San Diego – and they’re going to be very, very hesitant to do that given our proximity to LA and Orange County – they would be looking at other locations, not Midway,” he told me.  

After years of devouring the storylines about what would happen to the Chargers and then what would happen to the Mission Valley stadium site, some San Diego sports fans turned their attention to the Sports Arena redevelopment effort as the last hope standing that the Padres may someday get another peer in town. But the three remaining proposals would not deliver any top-shelf sports. The arena that replaces it may not even be the dominant feature of what developers put on the land.  

All three bidders are working under the assumption that the city would provide no subsidy for the arena and the arena would have to pay for itself. Without a subsidy, the chance to build to a size that would accommodate an NBA or NHL team is very small. And without a team even looking, there’s even less chance for a subsidy. Adding another level to an arena for those final 3,000 seats or so adds considerable cost to an arena development.  

Not only do they want to demolish the arena, none of the three bidders think that sports will be the main part of what replaces it. The three surviving visions of a new arena in the Midway area are instead proposing entertainment-first venues that would pay for themselves primarily by hosting concerts and other experiences like professional wrestling.  

In short, they’d all take out big loans to build their arenas and pay them off over time with the rents from all the events they host.  

Two of the bidders’ plan to build an arena that is about the same size as the current facility. One, Judson’s, would be much, much smaller. But they all would make it easier for traveling acts to load and unload their equipment, a key complaint about the current facility.  

City staff threw out the two bids that proposed to keep and refurbish the current arena. It’s time to go big, they decided. And the bidders that survived are all in.  

“There’s an instinct to think small and be practical but that would be a huge missed opportunity. We have a chance to put a mark on the city. We don’t want to look back and say, ‘Why did we renovate when we could build something new and great?’” said Kunal Merchant, a partner and COO of the firm Revitate, which is helping lead the Midway Village + team.  

Merchant helped bring on CAA ICON, which oversaw the construction of Golden 1 Center in Sacramento and Chase Center in San Francisco, where the Golden State Warriors play. That building can hold more than 19,000 people for concerts and 18,000 for basketball. It cost $1.4 billion to build.  

In comparison, the biggest of the visions for Midway is the one from the Midway Rising team led by Zephyr Partners. They brought on Legends, a name in big sports venues and they propose a 16,000-seat arena Bill Rhoda, president of Legends Global planning said would be able “to accommodate a future home for an NBA or NHL franchise.” 

It would cost just $400 million here though, he said in a written statement. The most direct comparison to the Legends vision for San Diego, Rhoda said, is The Star, in Frisco Texas, the 91-acre headquarters and practice facility of the Dallas Cowboys. San Diego city staff visited Frisco last week with the Midway Rising Team.  

The Differences 

The Legends team is the one currently in the pole position in the race for the job – it’s almost theirs to lose with the rules the city and state have put in place for how the city could lease or sell this surplus land. If Zephyr and their partners can prove they can do what they say they can do, they’ll probably get the gig.  

“A new, full-size arena will unlock the full potential for housing, jobs, parks and neighborhood improvements the Midway community has needed for years,” Rhoda said.  

But Judson thinks that’s way too big. The HometownSD team he’s part of believes the new arena should be much smaller (about 8,000 seats and more for certain events) and more “conscious” of the surrounding area.  

“The idea of putting 15,000 seats without the infrastructure to support that kind of traffic and activity does not equate in my mind. That’s not the location for an arena larger than what we’re envisioning,” Judson said.  

Then there’s the most sportsy of the bidders: Midway Village+, the team that also wants to build a temporary home for the San Diego Loyal soccer team on the land while the whole project proceeds in phases. That’s the one Merchant and CAA ICON is working on.  

Chart by Megan Wood

Their arena would hold about 15,000 seats, close to what Legends imagines. Those 15,000 people would need to get there and with the vast parking lot of the current arena full of homes, I asked how they would all get there. Merchant hopes 10-20 percent of them would not use a car to get to an event there. They’d have a parking garage for 2,200 cars and 4,500 total stalls near the facility. If three people go per car, you’re getting pretty close to accommodating everyone.  

“Nature finds a way. People will figure out how to get there,” he said.  

The Legends/Zephyr plan would have a bigger arena, 16,000 seats. The team didn’t address how it would specifically accommodate all those people, but its leaders are very bullish on the potential.  

“We’re reimagining the site to add thousands of affordable homes while relocating a new transit-oriented arena at the heart of a vibrant entertainment hub that all of San Diego can enjoy and be proud of,” Rhoda said.  

The Need 

One of the things I had never understood that kept coming up in my conversations was how important it was for an arena to have loading docks. Big shows, like say a WWE wrestling event, could come with two dozen semi-trucks filled with stages and equipment. Right now, at the Sports Arena, they can’t go right to a loading dock but instead workers must push the equipment first down then back up a long ramp.  

Many shows pass over the area because of this hassle.  

And it’s that ramp where Richard Disbrow the business representative of IATSE Local 122, the union of stagehands and other entertainment workers that handle most of the labor for big concerts and similar events in the San Diego region, said most of his members’ injuries occur.  

Disbrow is all in on a new facility and he supports all three teams of bidders.  

Though he does lean to the bigger ones.  

“We need a larger sized arena. We deserve to have full-sized shows with anywhere from 15,000 to 19,000 people. We’re not going to get NBA or NHL but we have enough pull in our market to attract big talent shows if we have the space. We don’t have it now,” he said.  

A local firm that brought us Petco Park and Snapdragon Stadium, a national one that build the Golden State Warriors their new arena in San Francisco and the group that turned the Dallas Cowboys headquarters into an entertainment district all want the chance to build something that takes up some of that demand in Midway.  

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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6 Comments

  1. Two thoughts:

    If the height variance is rejected by the voters. . .??

    Has any Arena subsidized by a city ever made money?

  2. Lets not forget about the longest running tenant of the sports arena property Kobey’s Swap Meet!

  3. There is no question that in the year 2022, the City of San Diego is maybe 20 years behind in building a state-of-the-art Sports Arena and bringing back the NBA plus maybe the NHL. Hell, I saw the Moody Blues at the Sports Aroma in 1971. Saw every Gulls game from 67 to 69 and the Rockets too! San Diego needs this now!

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