SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego’s City Council took the first step late Monday toward redeveloping the Los Angeles Chargers’ former home – Qualcomm Stadium – into a Major League Soccer stadium complex by unanimously voting to put the initiative on the November 2018 ballot.
Supporters of bringing soccer to San Diego, however, believe the vote may come too late to score one of four soccer franchises up for grabs.
Hundreds of people packed council chambers and two overflow rooms for hours of public testimony for and against the SoccerCity citizens’ initiative a group of investors brought before the city council.
The group had initially hoped to tack the initiative onto a special election San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer sought for this November.
But the city council voted last week not to hold a special election this year. Several council members cited Measure L, which was approved by San Diego voters last year and requires local citizens’ initiatives to be placed on November general election ballots when the most voters participate.
The council had two options: approve the SoccerCity initiative outright or put it on the Nov. 2018 ballot.
Council members heard four and a half hours of public testimony from various stakeholders, including influential alumni and employees of San Diego State University. Although the university initially supported SoccerCity and was even in talks with developers to expand its campus onto the proposed site, it ultimately pulled its support of the project.
Several council members raised concerns during the meeting about the institution not being on board with SoccerCity, claiming that placing it on the ballot next year would give planners and the school another opportunity to negotiate.
The $4-billion SoccerCity initiative circulated soon after the Chargers announced the team was moving to Los Angeles. Proponents of SoccerCity, a mixed-use project that would include a 32,000-seat soccer stadium, 4,800 housing units, retail and office space, and a 34-acre park, said a special election was needed this year because Major League Soccer is planning to award four new franchises as early as this year. A 2020 deadline for new soccer stadiums to be constructed for the teams hovers over the city’s decision.
Twelve cities are reportedly vying for the new MLS teams.
The initiative would not use tax dollars to fund redevelopment of the Qualcomm site, which was a point of debate when the city was fighting to keep the Chargers in San Diego last year. SoccerCity developers would also pay for a riverfront park the city has wanted to develop for years but hasn’t had the funds for.
More than 100,000 signatures were gathered to bring the initiative before the city council. Using a citizens’ initiative also means the plan would not be subject to significant environmental hurdles and reviews that could stall the huge development project for years.
SoccerCity investors told the city council Monday that they had conducted a recent poll showing 68 percent of San Diego residents supported the project. The investors also commissioned an economic impact report that estimates the project would create 26,000 permanent jobs and $2 billion in annual wages.
Opponents of the project argued it would exacerbate traffic congestion in the central San Diego community of Mission Valley and would essentially “hand off” one of the most valuable public properties in the city without competing projects having a chance to vie for development of the site.
Councilman Scott Sherman said the council was “pigeonholed,” and he was concerned about making a special election happen as soon as possible for the SoccerCity measure.
“I’m very disappointed in the way this whole process has played out … I’ve heard a lot about ‘public land, public vote,’ which is kind of silly, considering they’re trying to prevent a public vote,” Sherman said of the group opposing SoccerCity.
Sherman petitioned his colleagues to seriously consider a special election at a later meeting this year, with a looming August deadline to call a November special election.
Councilman David Alvarez reminded the soccer fans in the crowd that “we’re not voting specifically on soccer, we’re voting on a large-scale development brought forward in an initiative fashion that is flawed.”
Alvarez called the proposal a “backroom deal” and cited local media reports that Faulconer had met with SoccerCity proponents more than 20 times. He asked for an accounting of the alleged meetings.
“The Chargers’ departure represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for San Diego,” Councilwoman Barbara Bry said, calling Qualcomm an important “driver” of the local economy.
“My vote today is about the future of our city, it’s not about whether or not I love soccer,” Bry said. “Let’s not confuse opposition to SoccerCity as opposition to soccer in San Diego,” she added. “SoccerCity is not the only option for San Diego and we shouldn’t buy into the rhetoric that says otherwise.”
Councilmember Lorie Zapf did not attend the meeting.