We’ve seen this movie before
Think about it. Barely over a year from now, a crew will assemble at Candlestick Point and take down the venerable, unlovable, frequently renamed Candlestick Park. Developer Lennar wants the land clear to redevelop as soon as possible, and that means reducing the drafty concrete bowl to dust. The 49ers’ Santa Clara stadium is moving forward by leaps and bounds, setting aside doubts about its readiness for the 2014 NFL season. As with most big demolition jobs, the ‘Stick’s destruction will have a ceremony for 49ers and Giants fans to remember the old stadium. The Giants moved over a decade ago and haven’t looked back, the 49ers appear to be doing the same in moving two counties south.
There’s time for a proper eulogy when the event actually occurs. For now, let’s look at the events that led up to this point.
It’s easy to forget that in 1997, the Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.-led 49ers proposed a new stadium flanked by a shopping mall and a massive garage (9,000+ spaces) at the ‘Stick. It’s all a very 90′s vision, with a large amount of public financing via sales tax increment, a grossly underestimated construction cost ($200 million added within a year), voting irregularities, and a new outlet mall designed to complement existing SF shopping districts such as Union Square. Voters approved the $100 million set aside for the plan, which languished for years as the 90′s dot-com boom went bust and DeBartolo was caught bribing former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards $400,000 for a casino license. (Edwards, who is also infamous for his “live boy, dead girl” quote, has a reality show starting this month featuring him and his new wife, who is 50 years his junior.)
Even as the plan withered and died when DeBartolo’s less spendthrifty sister and brother-in-law took over the team, the $100 million remained there if someone, anyone was interested in taking over redevelopment of Candlestick Point. So when the team started talking with Santa Clara about building a stadium near the team’s headquarters, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom had the plan dusted off and brought in mega-developer Lennar to give it an update. Lennar moved the stadium site from Candlestick Point to Bayview/Hunters Point, dropped the mall idea, and replaced it with various income-level housing developments and an office park. A carveout for the stadium with a green parking lot was envisioned as a fallback plan just in case Santa Clara fell through. Voters in 2007 (10 years after Eddie D’s plan) approved the Lennar plan. The 49ers remained lukewarm to the stadium because of costs to cleanup contaminated land and the cost of a short bridge to bring vehicular traffic from the Candlestick side to the Bayview. Things only got worse when the stadium was pitched as the anchor for a future Summer Olympics hosting effort, the complexity and uncertainty of the bidding process scaring off the 49ers and the league.
Newsom tried to “warn Santa Clara” not to tie up public funds on the stadium, while State Senator Carole Migden wrote SB 49, a Hail Mary of a bill designed to prevent teams from moving within 90 miles of their current home (within territory). That bill, like the stadium mall plan, went nowhere, leaving SF with no leverage and a still-uncertain plan to keep the team in town. The 49ers and the NFL went on the offensive in Santa Clara, went door-to-door to sell their stadium, and got voter approval in 2010. Since then it’s been all details such as the EIR process and a couple of NIMBY-related lawsuits, bringing everyone to last year’s groundbreaking ceremony and the impressively fast construction work since then.
A footnote to this story is the presence of one Fred Blackwell. Blackwell served as the SF Redevelopment Agency’s Executive Director from 2007 until 2011, then jumped across the bay to take Oakland’s Assistant City Administrator job (also redevelopment). While Mission Bay had most of SF’s redevelopment focus over the past decade or so, the ongoing state of affairs in the southeast part of the city always made it a target area. Mission Bay was always the one with real economic promise. Still, Blackwell oversaw much of the debate between Lennar, SF’s Board of Supervisors, and community groups all looking out for various interests and generally not getting very far very quickly. Eventually, the project’s EIR totaled 7,700 pages and Lennar shelled out millions to nonprofits in the name of affordable housing and other community benefits.
Blackwell may feel he’s in a similar position to 2007. During last month’s Coliseum Authority meeting, it was revealed that the Raiders and the NFL really just want to focus on a simple stadium, not the broad vision that the City of Oakland is considering. Like the scope creep that helped sink the SF stadium concept, a wide ranging and ultimately very complex redevelopment scheme in East Oakland may make it difficult for the Raiders to commit to staying if the vision remains fuzzy and exponentially more difficult to pull off than a stadium-only plan.
It’s easy to see why the Raiders want to narrow their scope. They’re not making claims of a renaissance in East Oakland. The last thing the team or league wants is to see the stadium jeopardized by a dependency on another component of which it has little or no control.
Getting the two visions (one is effectively a subset of the other) together will not be easy. A look at the pattern of NFL stadium development over the past 20 years shows that few have been part of any kind of urban renewal plan, unlike ballparks or arenas. With the limited number of football games in a season, this makes sense. The notable exception to this rule has been Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, which is not part of any redevelopment scheme, but rather an expansion of an existing convention center footprint. The Atlanta Falcons want to move to a site closer to the Georgia World Congress Center for a similar purpose. In Oakland, the stadium may have a retractable dome, which would inflate its cost significantly but also provide greater flexibility to hold different types of events. Even with ballparks, urban renewal is not a given. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Ballpark Village is finally starting construction nearly a decade after Busch Stadium opened.
Can Blackwell and Oakland pols pull together all of the resources, the financing, and the political will to execute a vision that’s projected to be twice as expensive as the scaled down Lennar-Bayview plan? Not even mighty SF could prevent the 49ers from escaping all of the craziness. It would be hard to blame the Raiders for following a similar, simpler path.