Battle Over New San Diego Stadium Throws Doubt on Public River Access

Plans to transform the former home of the San Diego Chargers from a concrete wasteland are running into controversy: Despite public pronouncements, two competing ballot measures for a new stadium make no guarantees about public access to the San Diego River.

Written by Ry Rivard, Voice of San Diego Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
: The San Diego River is fenced off, for now, from public access. Long-sought plans to open a public river park are bumping up against conflicting development projects along the river.Photo by Ry Rivard, Voice of San Diego

Not far from the parking lot of the Mission Valley stadium is a fenced-off river, the San Diego River.

It isn’t always much of a river. Typically, there’s just a few feet of water lurching through the valley on its way out to sea.

For a long time, the site – its 1.3 million square feet of concrete stadium, its 18,870 parking spaces – blocked off and bottled up the river, which begins in the mountains near Julian and ends in the ocean near Mission Bay.

Now the backers of two competing ballot measures to build a new stadium promise to unlock dozens of acres beside the river for the people of San Diego.

Most talk about both SDSU West and SoccerCity centers on plans to replace the aging thing now called SDCCU Stadium. But both also promise to build river parks. These park plans are supposed to be more than just feel-good ideas to ensure Mission Valley isn’t only parking lots, offices, malls and apartments.

For years, the San Diego River Park Foundation has been talking about similar ideas for a river park on a corner of the vast city-owned stadium site.

In 2016, it put out a plan for what a river park on that site might look like. It’d be about 60 acres, or roughly 45 football fields, of parks, restored habitat and flood control areas.

Half of the 60 acres would be publicly accessible parks that are already called for in city planning documents. Ten acres would be set aside for ecosystem health and flood management. Five acres would be land to link the stadium up with a regional trail system.

A final 15 acres would be to “celebrate the river” and give people who visit a chance to be next to water. The main feature here, though, would be a new artificial pond instead of the river itself. People can’t be in the river, because of endangered species protections for animals that live along it, like a songbird known as the least Bell’s vireo.

The river park, in that sense, will be a park near the river, but set back by a buffer zone to protect wildlife. Until now, though, practical realities kept the project on hold.

First, the foundation didn’t want to look like it was advocating for the Chargers to leave town by pushing a plan that took up part of the site where they used to play football. Now the Chargers are gone.

But the foundation itself doesn’t have money for such a park, which it estimated could cost more than $70 million. It’s already spent four years getting approval for a 17-acre discovery center downstream from the stadium, but it doesn’t have money to build even that less expensive project.

Enter SoccerCity and SDSU West. Backers of both promise that if they can get a hold of the stadium site, there will be a large park along the river. It is a major selling point in both plans.

That’s a big deal for Rob Hutsel, executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. Environmentalists have been fighting off plans to damage the river for years, including one plan by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have lined the river with concrete, ruining its natural beauty forever.

Now two competing developers are carving out land for something other than more concrete. “Both have said, ‘We embrace your vision,’” Hutsel said. “Isn’t that cool!”

Nevertheless, the foundation’s board has declined to support either plan. While SoccerCity and SDSU West’s backers have talked a good game, the foundation may be worried that neither park plan will be as grand as they say.

A conceptual rendering of SoccerCity’s river park plan, along the San Diego River. (Image courtesy of SoccerCity)

The SoccerCity measure, backed by a group of private developers, would force the city to lease or sell parts of the entire 233-acre stadium site to developers, but it sets aside 34 acres near the river for a park. In a side deal, SoccerCity has said it wouldn’t stop at 34 acres – it would spend $20 million to $40 million to create a 60-acre park similar to the one envisioned by the foundation, even though that language isn’t in the measure itself.

SDSU West, backed by a group of San Diego State supporters, would force the city to sell 132 acres of the stadium site to San Diego State or a group affiliated with the university. But, crucially, 34 acres of would-be parkland would remain in the city’s hands. SDSU officials said they have plans to get money that would help create 60 acres of river parks, including on land the city kept. The city attorney, though, worried that city money may end up being spent on the project anyway.

There’s enormous bickering about what is just pre-election rhetoric versus what will happen if either group wins.

SoccerCity, for instance, has floated the idea that it could be illegal for the university, a state-run entity, to build something on city land for the city. SDSU supporters, in turn, have grumbled that SoccerCity has talked about spending up to $40 million but, under certain circumstances, could spend half of that.

In any event, neither ballot measure specifically guarantees the sort of 60-acre river park that the foundation envisions.

In August, the foundation said it would oppose SoccerCity. At a Sept. 15 board meeting, the foundation decided it would take no position on the SDSU West plan.

The foundation has yet to talk publicly about why it won’t support SDSU West. But City Attorney Mara Elliott raised explicit concerns about the measures that might give park boosters pause.

In a pair of legal filings unsuccessfully challenging both measures, she said neither plan guarantees the sort of park that supporters are talking about. For instance, SoccerCity’s ballot measure “does not actually require or guarantee” that a river park would be built because future negotiations could change what actually happens on the site. In other words, SoccerCity’s measure, she found, “does not guarantee what it purports to promise.”

Likewise, SDSU West “does not directly require” a river park be built, Elliott argued.

In another analysis of the SDSU West plan, Elliott told the city clerk:

“The land specified for the location of a river park would not be sold as part of this measure. The measure does not specify who would pay for, develop, build, or maintain a river park. The measure would prohibit the use of the City’s General Fund to pay for the development of the river park, but does not prevent other types of City funds from being used.”

If you’re inclined to take both sides at their word, however, each of their visions promises a vast improvement from the concrete wasteland that exists today. Anything is liable to be better than what’s there now.

Before it was developed, Mission Valley was farmland and the soil was rich because it flooded. Now, the San Diego River has been dammed several times, but the floods still happen occasionally.

The river is divided into two braids as it passes the stadium. Both river channels are largely invisible and off-limits, though homeless people have lived along them in recent years, sometimes using the river as bathroom, which has contributed to public safety worries. At the corner of the stadium parking lot, a fence blocks access to the river with a “Do Not Enter” sign posted by the city’s Public Utilities Department.

Murphy Creek, which runs along the eastern edge of the Mission Valley stadium site before dumping into the San Diego River, would be part of a hoped-for river park. (Photo by Ry Rivard, Voice of San Diego)

On the eastern end of the stadium site is one of the river’s tributaries, Murphy Creek. On a recent day, it was green, slow-moving and surrounded by thick brush, an uninviting place for a stroll.

The site where the park would be has other challenges. Interstate 8 runs parallel to the river’s south bank, Interstate 15 runs by Murphy Creek. Even when the stadium parking lot is empty, there’s a roar of traffic and the occasional whir of the trolley, which cuts through the site on an elevated track.

When the site gets developed and the concrete is removed to make way for the park, some of today’s noise will be muffled or absorbed by new parkland, including ball fields and shrubs.

Designers for both competing plans have beautiful artistic renderings of what they’d like to see.

In SoccerCity’s renderings and plans, people walk along paths next to a pond covered in lily pads with birds flying overhead. Its plan includes a detention basin that could hold water and marshland. Plus, there will be bike trails, walking trails, places to exercise and play, including six recreational fields that will be privately funded but publicly accessible. Some of those features could change, though, based on what the community wants there.

“They are going to be super parks, and we’re going to ask people what they want to see as part of that,” said Nick Stone, the public face and lead organizer of SoccerCity’s effort.

In plans produced by SDSU design consultant Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, there are playgrounds and several ball fields and courts, as well as trails and plenty of greenspace.

Gordon Carrier, of Carrier Johnson, said he and his team started designing the whole site for SDSU with the river in mind. The rest of the plan includes a new stadium, of course, plus new academic buildings, an underground parking garage and thousands of new housing units.

“You can go to the site right now, stand on the site and not actually even realize there’s a river there,” he said. Instead, there is the parking lot, which he called “kind of the world’s largest heat island.”

He and fellow planner Amber Lake said the SDSU plan is designed to protect new buildings from flooding. They would do that by taking material from the southern end of the site and piling up on the northern end and then creating a slope back toward the river, where the park would be. They could also create another channel for Murphy Creek to flow through part of the park.

“It’s another way to channel water out of here, so there isn’t a lot of flooding here,” Carrier said.

Stone said his plan takes material from the northern and middle part of the site and moves it all around to make things more level. He said SDSU’s plan could contribute to flooding of the parkland.

“If you’re diverting the water and lowering the land, you run significant risk of it being flooded a lot,” he said.

Lake said the risk of flooding was minimal, maybe a few times a century.

The other major difference, oddly enough, is over what’s known as a “water feature,” like a pond or fountain.

SoccerCity’s plan includes a pond, which Stone said was included at the request of the river park foundation. The two had many meetings before the foundation ultimately decided to oppose SoccerCity.

“What they really want is the ability for people to see water,” Stone said.

Carrier is not a fan. He said adding a pond would be “completely unnatural to the place.” Plus, he said, it doesn’t make any sense in a region that is prone to drought to add something that requires more water.

“I’d rather see no fountain than a turned-off fountain, or no pond than an empty pond,” he said.

What actually happens depends on the November election and beyond.

“I think everybody wants to try to do the right thing when it comes to the river,” Hutsel, of the river park foundation, said. “It’s just, how much of the right thing?”

This story was first published by Voice of San Diego. Sign up for VOSD’s newsletters here.

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