Posted by: cantmisssd | October 11, 2010

On stadiums

After several days of tweeting semi-seriously about developments from the new state budget that will impact the possibility of a new Chargers stadium, I suppose I should actually have it out with the internet all at once.

When a last-minute trailer bill snuck into the state budget late last week, potentially paving the way for up to $500 million in support of new Chargers stadium by allowing the Centre City Development Corp to raise its cap from $3 to 9 billion, it sparked a new wave of frantic reporting and commenting (including me) about the impact and importance of a new downtown Chargers stadium.

It comes at a tricky time for redevelopment as Scott Lewis notes, as the city was in the midst of studying the development needs for the downtown area- which apparently is now irrelevant. It also comes at a bit of a broader crossroads for the city and the region, at a time when the demand for development is shifting towards mixed-use, walkable communities that’s significantly at odds with how San Diego has been put together until now. All of which raises questions about the efficacy of chasing the same old economic model (which hasn’t been working so well) to the neglect of basic issues challenging the city.

A recent bipartisan study found that our national infrastructure is on the brink of collapse, yet is largely being neglected in the national discourse despite the dramatic capital it will require to even maintain basic functionality in coming years. Compounding that is the basic economic structure of San Diego that relies on tourism and entertainment and neglects a fundamental base that both employs and directly re-invests in the community.

As one example, it’s long been openly known that the biggest reason there’s no NBA team in San Diego while places like Portland and Oklahoma City carry on is that there’s no economic base in San Diego to support the luxury boxes and corporate sponsorship. As another, the city of Escondido is currently in the midst of debate over whether to spend tens of millions on a minor league ballpark at the same time that the Padres can’t sell cheap tickets to a surprising contender throughout the season. And finally, conceding that Qualcomm is no particular treat, the Chargers have been blacked out 100% of the time so far this season, and I have yet to see a compelling case that a new stadium with more expensive tickets would change that. And as has already been noted, just servicing the annual debt on the stadium would require $5 billion in development. In short- despite the easy PR push that stadiums are a one-size-fits-all panacea for local economies, there’s no particular reason to take that at face value while ignoring literally every existing economic indicator.

All of which, I swear, is not to say that it can’t or shouldn’t work. In principle, a stadium as a primary anchor of a major and fundamental redevelopment push that includes basic sewer, mass transit, biking, pedestrians, and mixed-use redevelopment, prioritizes shared open space and collaborative community opportunities, and generally reconsiders the traditional model of community building has the potential to be fantastic. But thus far, there’s nothing close to that actually happening. The project is being approached from fundamentally the wrong angle- “We want a stadium, what’s the minimum additional development we can do to scrape by?” is the question that dooms a project like this from the start.

What we need to be asking (and what we were inching towards before this latest legislative deal), is- what is the vision for the ideal community in the areas of downtown targeted by CCDC, and can those goals realistically be achieved in a way that includes a stadium?

A partial list of answers to that extremely broad question will come later in the week, but in this context what matters is that it’s fundamentally different from striving to make an excuse for a stadium. But is there even an opportunity to ask the right questions? The disheartening part of the most recent development is that there very likely won’t be a vote. Because frankly, having an optional vote just cause it seems like the right thing to do isn’t actually going to happen. And frankly, the cost of running those campaigns and administering the vote would be a silly waste of time and money within the context of the current structure.

If a new stadium is the goal, we’ve already lost because we’re fighting the wrong battle. If, however, the stadium is part of the means to reach a more holistic vision of a better downtown, built to last, to attract new businesses and residents, and to foster a strong and productive community, then it’s an asset. Right now we’re at the former, we need to be at the latter.

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