Chargers treading water in San Diego
Saddled with an outdated facility, franchise does due diligence and weighs options
LOS ANGELES -- Mark Fabiani loves Los Angeles.
The man in charge of finding the San Diego Chargers a new stadium for the past decade once spent nine years serving as counsel, and later deputy mayor, of Los Angeles under Tom Bradley. He frequently makes the two-hour drive north to Los Angeles from his La Jolla-based law firm to visit friends and clients and regularly goes to Lakers games with his family.
Los Angeles has long been Fabiani's home away from home. He just doesn't see the Chargers calling it their home next year.
"I think the downtown L.A. project is years away," he told ESPNLA.com last week while in Los Angeles for a charity board meeting. "I think it would be a miracle like the loaves and the fishes if they could [break ground next year]."
As Fabiani sat in an upscale Los Angeles hotel with the downtown skyline serving as a backdrop in the distance, he began to enumerate the reasons why Farmers Field is, in his mind, a field of dreams for the foreseeable future.
"The downtown project still needs a final agreement with the city," Fabiani said. "What they have now is a non-binding agreement and the devil is in the details with these things so they first need a binding contract. Second, they need to finish their environmental impact report and get it certified by the city. Third, they need to be able to survive the lawsuits and they're not going to get an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act like Ed Roski received by the state Senate. Fourth, they need an agreement with the NFL on a relocation fee because that is going to be a huge number. And fifth, they need to have a deal with a team. If you don't have every one of those things, you're not going to start digging in the ground."
It may sound like a daunting list, but compared to the hurdles Fabiani and the Chargers face in building a stadium in San Diego, the downtown L.A. project may still represent the Chargers' best hope of getting a stadium built in Southern California anytime in the near future.
San Diego Live
Fabiani is hesitant to talk specifically about the advantages for the Chargers in playing in Los Angeles as opposed to San Diego, instead highlighting the difficulties of relocating a team to the country's second-largest market and privately financing a state-of-the-art stadium.
This much is certain, however: He loves AEG's idea of a downtown convention center expansion tied to a retractable roof football stadium.
How much does he love the idea? He admittedly lifted the idea from AEG and is trying to do the same thing in downtown San Diego in a last-ditch effort to keep the team there.
We have an idea of building a sports and entertainment district, which we frankly borrowed from L.A. Live. We're proposing a retractable roof stadium, which is another idea we borrowed from what Tim Leiweke and AEG are proposing. It would be a fabric roof which would not be as expensive as a hard top roof so you can have a combined convention facility with Final Fours, Super Bowls and major MMA and boxing matches. We would combine it with the convention center so it would be used outside of the football season.” -- Mark Fabiani on the
Chargers' new stadium idea
"We have an idea of building a sports and entertainment district, which we frankly borrowed from L.A. Live," Fabiani said. "We're proposing a retractable roof stadium, which is another idea we borrowed from what Tim Leiweke and AEG are proposing. It would be a fabric roof, which would not be as expensive as a hard top roof, so you can have a combined convention facility with Final Fours, Super Bowls and major MMA and boxing matches. We would combine it with the convention center so it would be used outside of the football season."
Fabiani concedes some within AEG have given him a hard time about the copycat proposal.
"We think the world of Tim and AEG, we know them well," Fabiani said. "They're brilliant at what they do. We're not ashamed to borrow from their ideas. I think what they're proposing in downtown L.A. gives a good guidepost as to what you might be able to do [in San Diego]."
There are, however, a variety of reasons Fabiani's idea for a dual stadium and convention center expansion in San Diego are different from the one in Los Angeles, beginning with the fact that the San Diego Convention Center wants nothing to do with a downtown football stadium when it comes to its proposed expansion.
The San Diego Convention Center is two years into plans on a separate $550 million expansion that would be connected to the current facility and give the building the most contiguous convention space on the West Coast. It is planning on breaking ground in December 2012 and completing the project by mid-2015.
"There has been no communication as it relates to the proposal or the characterization that's being put forward by the Chargers that some kind of a joint convention center-stadium is being discussed," said Steve Johnson, the San Diego Convention Center's vice president for public affairs. "It's not even really clear what the parameters are of what they're talking about in terms of a stadium project. I just don't think they've done their homework or recognized the due diligence we've done on that site. It confuses people. It just doesn't make sense as a convention hall."
Johnson spoke about the project last week as he sat in the lobby of a San Diego hotel next to the convention center and pulled out the mayor's citizen task force report on the expansion as well as a project update. The task force's proposed "tailgate site" for the convention center, which would be next to the proposed football stadium and about six blocks from the current convention center, was eliminated by the task force after a site evaluation found that an active earthquake fault ran through the middle of the site. Convention center clients also told the task force the proposed football facility would not meet their primary needs of a contiguous space and was located too far from the current facility.
"The important distinction to what's happening in L.A. and what the Chargers are proposing here is that the convention center in L.A. would be connected to the stadium," Johnson said. "We already have a stadium adjacent to the convention center now in Petco Park if we need to use it. The football stadium they are proposing here is substantially further away and is not an adjacent contiguous facility. Exhibitors are looking for flat contiguous convention space, not football stadiums."
Because of that connection and contiguous space, Los Angeles Convention Center general manager Pouria Abbassi has been one of the biggest advocates for Farmers Field, saying the L.A. Convention Center is in dire need of the upgrades AEG has proposed, and that without them the facility is "going to be out of business in the next 10 years."
Whereas AEG wooed the L.A. Convention Center from the birth of its proposal and has been working hand-in-hand with it to make the partnership work (AEG actually chose the architect for the convention center expansion), Fabiani is essentially hoping for an arranged marriage against the San Diego Convention Center's will in order to make the football stadium seem less, well, like a football stadium to taxpayers. And all that is provided the Chargers' proposal even gets on the ballot in San Diego next year.
Magical Mystery Tour
While Fabiani was in Los Angeles last week, San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders was in the midst of a three-city tour of stadiums in Kansas City, Indianapolis and Denver to gather ideas for a future Chargers stadium.
Fabiani said Sanders' fact-finding mission showed his "strong commitment" to the development of a new Chargers stadium. What it didn't show, however, was his commitment toward a stadium project tied to convention center expansion.
Sanders, who has been championing the convention center expansion from the beginning, has said the stadium and the convention center are separate projects.
"We hope to break ground on the convention center expansion next year. That's moving on a separate track," said Darren Pudgil, the mayor's chief spokesman. "From the city's perspective the stadium has nothing to do with the convention center expansion. We have a project that is almost ready to go that is a massive jobs generator and will bring in a significant amount of tax revenue to the city.
"We're talking with the Chargers to come up with a proposal that works for the Chargers and the taxpayers. There could be some synergy between the two but the expansion would not be part of the stadium. The expansion would be contiguous to the existing convention center."
The challenge for Fabiani and the Chargers is to tie public financing of a new stadium to convention center expansion.
If every team in the league gets an average of 65 percent public subsidy, how do we make up that difference if we're not going to get that here? That's something we're struggling with and what they're struggling with in Oakland and San Francisco.” -- Mark Fabiani on on the enormous hurdles franchises face building
stadiums in California
"You have a much better chance of broadening your support if you're not just talking about a football stadium that's used 10 times a year, plus occasionally for postseason and college games," Fabiani said.
The most important difference between the Chargers' stadium proposal and the one in downtown Los Angeles is that Farmers Field is being privately financed by AEG whereas the Chargers are trying to build a stadium which would be largely publicly financed. The Chargers and the NFL are willing to pay for 35 percent of the project but the expectation is that the city would pick up the tab on the other 65 percent -- a number or threshold pointed to by developers.
"If every team in the league gets an average of 65 percent public subsidy, how do we make up that difference if we're not going to get that here?" Fabiani said. "That's something we're struggling with and what they're struggling with in Oakland and San Francisco."
Such lopsided public-private partnerships might work in other cities but likely won't fly in San Diego, or anywhere else in cash-strapped California, where you need to get two-thirds of voters to approve tax increases.
"That's a killer and people don't understand that," Fabiani said of the two-thirds vote. "I get calls from people saying, 'I want to help you build a stadium, I've got some great ideas,' and I meet with every one of them. They all come in and they all present their plan and none of them has ever accounted for the two-thirds vote. Either they don't understand or they simply didn't know about it. I don't want to say it's impossible but it's virtually impossible to get a two-thirds vote for anything, let alone for a sports facility, so you have to structure something that doesn't require a two-thirds vote."
That is why the Chargers' stadium hopes hinge on the outcome of two events which won't take place until next year.
First, the California Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the legality of two new laws signed by California governor Jerry Brown.
Last month, as part of his budget, Brown signed into law two statutes, AB 1x26 and AB 1x27, which essentially eliminated the state's 400 redevelopment agencies but allowed them to reopen if they collectively paid $1.7 billion to the state. Redevelopment agencies allow property taxes gathered within a specified area to be captured and used for other projects in that area, and the Chargers were counting on money from redevelopment agency coffers to make a private-public partnership a reality.
A ruling is expected by Jan. 15 and if the new laws are not overturned it would eliminate the preferred revenue source which would have been used on the new stadium. Second, the Chargers are hoping the current convention center expansion plans fail, forcing the city and the convention center to look toward the Chargers for a dual facility. Not only do the Chargers want to partner with the convention center to diversify the stadium in the eyes of the public, but they also want to tap into the convention center's expansion funding, which is largely coming from hotels and not from taxpayers and therefore isn't subject to a vote.
The financing plan for the current convention center expansion calls for hotels to add a surcharge of up to 3 percent to their guests' room-tax bills to pay off construction bonds.
"The convention center has an expansion plan that is pretty far along," Fabiani concedes. "Our attitude is we need to see if that plan is going to go forward or not. If that plan goes forward, we're going to have to go back to the drawing board. If that plan doesn't go forward, then we think there is an opportunity for a combined facility that will help everybody. But clearly if the current convention center expansion overcomes all the hurdles before it, then our idea doesn't make sense and we have to look at our other options."
That the Chargers' last best hope of getting a new stadium in San Diego depends on the failure of a politically backed plan nearing completion tells you all you need to know about the team's predicament.
Not So Fast
Even if it seems as if the odds of the Chargers getting a new stadium in San Diego are long, it doesn't necessarily mean the team is set to move to Los Angeles next year. Remember, they've been going at this for about 10 years, which is just as shocking to Fabiani when he thinks about every proposed site he's been a part of since joining the team in April 2002.
"Nobody thought this would be going on nine or 10 years, I certainly didn't when I started," Fabiani said. "When I took this job, I thought we'd work on it for a couple of years and if we couldn't get a deal done [Chargers president and CEO] Dean Spanos would move the team. I really believed after working on this for a couple of years he would move the team. I never anticipated Dean and his family would do what they've done, which is stick with this thing through all sorts of ups and downs and difficulties. Dean could have easily said I'm done and moved. We've had the option of terminating our lease every year since 2007. That says a lot about Dean and his family and what they want to achieve in San Diego."
The reason the Chargers are the team most commonly linked to a move to Los Angeles is because they can announce their intentions to leave San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1 of each year through 2020 by paying an early-termination fee which would be $24 million next year, a fee AEG has said it would pay. Chargers owner Alex Spanos, who will turn 88 next month and suffers from dementia, is also looking to sell a minority stake in the team to help with estate planning.
Fabiani, nicknamed "The Master of Disaster," is no stranger to being the front man in difficult situations. In 2000 he served as the deputy campaign manager for Al Gore's presidential campaign and was responsible for coordinating the campaign's media strategies and tactics during the post-election Florida recount. He provided legal, communication and political counsel to Bill and Hillary Clinton during their Whitewater land scandal in the 1990s and was recently hired by Lance Armstrong to serve as a media strategist for the seven-time Tour de France champion as he faces doping allegations from former teammates and associates.
"This is probably the hardest project I've ever been involved with," Fabiani said. "I have tremendous respect for Dean Spanos and his family and they really want to get this done, and so when you can't deliver for them it's hard because millions of people care about this and this is their sports team."
Unless things change on the stadium front, however, San Diego may not have a team for long. In addition to attaching the stadium to the convention center, Fabiani has suggested one of the ways to raise money for the project would be selling or leasing the city-owned land that Qualcomm Stadium and the San Diego Sports Arena sit on and redeveloping the areas after the downtown stadium is built. How would a 63,000-seat stadium replace the 15,000-seat San Diego Sports Arena, which recently secured a naming rights deal, a multimillion-dollar renovation and is now operated, coincidentally enough, by AEG?
"They do it at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse," Fabiani said, referring to the 31-year-old college building as a multipurpose facility. "They have the arena at San Diego State University and other venues for smaller events."
If it all seems likes a long shot, one last Hail Mary before the team leaves town, it's because that's what it looks like to many in San Diego, who have yet to even see drawings or financial projections of Fabiani's proposal, which he said will come sometime this fall. Fabiani said he'll know by the end of the year if downtown San Diego is a viable option for the Chargers, and he'll know soon after February 2012 if it will be possible to qualify for the November 2012 ballot. San Diego residents don't need to be reminded how significant the period between Feb. 1 and May 1 is when it comes to keeping the Chargers in town.
After seeing plans in Mission Valley, Chula Vista, Escondido, National City, Oceanside and now possibly downtown San Diego come and go over the past 10 years, it would appear even the most loyal and optimistic owner has a breaking point, and that this may be it for the Spanos family.
"I think if we didn't make the ballot in 2012 we would have to seriously look at our other options," Fabiani said. "I don't think there's any way to avoid saying that to people."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLA.com