Planning is nothing more than built politics. In that light, cities are a kind of fossil record of all the arm-twisting, back-scratching and sheer chutzpah that has brought about the creation of cities through time. Give me the map of any major city, and assuming I have adequate knowledge and discernment, I will show you the major landowners, the political donors, the power cliques and the philanthropy that are responsibility for that city's built form.
Normally, I have to turn to historians and biographers of people like Robert Moses or William Mulholland to gain a sense of the day-to-day politics that led to the lasting streets and buildings, parks and monuments of a mature city. In present-day San Diego, however, the highly public evolution of the Ballpark District is giving a front-row view of politics — punctuated by lawsuits, collapsing financial arrangements, political scandal and stalled-out construction projects — that may someday translate itself into memorable urban form.
The ballpark and the city need each other, according to ROMA Design principal Boris Dramov. "The East Village was looking for the catalyst, the project that would help it reinvent itself," he said. "At the same time, the ballpark was looking for a site where it could become an integral part of the urban fabric, rather than a stand-alone facility" like San Diego's existing Qualcomm Stadium. In short, "you have a project looking for a place and a place looking for a project."
The story of the Ballpark District, so far, has been messy and drawn out. The new Padres' baseball stadium began as a popular issue. In 1998, 60% of San Diego voters approved the issuance of $166 million in tax-free bonds to assist the completion of the $400 million ballpark. (Padres' Owner John Moores had begun the project with private capital a few years earlier, and run out of money.) Predictably, people who dissented from the idea of public subsidies for the ballpark sued the city. About 15 lawsuits have gone nowhere in court but they have been partly responsible for delaying the bond sale and, since late 2000, halting stadium construction. Last year, City Councilwoman Valerie Stallings pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in federal court — she failed to report personal gifts from Moores — and resigned from office.
If the politics of the Ballpark are messy, the site plan for the district is orderly and straightforward. The goal of the plan, according to ROMA's Dramov, is to create a mixed-use urban district where the ballpark is only one event out of many. Here, the model is clearly cities like Baltimore, Denver and San Francisco, where in-town stadiums have become engines of pedestrian movement and commercial development.
The ballpark itself is squeezed into the equivalent of nine city blocks; although enormous, the ballpark is tightly hemmed in by streets, with the goal of making it accessible by foot. Presumably, this means the city must rely on a peripheral parking strategy, which is exactly what makes Denver and other downtown ballparks so successful: Baseball fans walk to the game.
ROMA has extended and made regular the existing north-south grid into the former industrial areas of the East Village, which had been interrupted in spots by railroad spurs. The boldest move in the design is the creation of a new diagonal street immediately south of the ballpark, Park Boulevard. This four-lane street is designed to be the major commercial boulevard of the district and opens a view to San Diego Bay. To the east of the ballpark, Park Boulevard makes an elbow connection (a traffic circle) with 12th Street, where a large public library is planned. And 12th Street provides the important connection between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park to the north.
Beneath the orderly site plan, however, we get a glimpse of the politics, or at least the mutual back-scratching of the city and the developer. Moores must be an extraordinary negotiator, or the city must be frantic to give the incentives to build the ballpark, or both. In any event, the city has been generous in granting Moores entitlements to build high-density projects, which are arranged around the ballpark like tiny boiled potatoes around a giant slab of sirloin.
East Village Square, which occupies the three blocks immediately north of the ballpark, is a 500,000-square-foot retail, entertainment and office development. The Padres are listed as the developer. The remaining projects are listed as JMI, Moores's real estate alter ego. West of the Ballpark, on L Street, JMI plans a 512-room, 32-story hotel, although Westin Hotels dropped out of the deal in October. Also west of the ballpark, on J Street, Moores plans a mid-rise, 203-room all-suites hotel. On Park Boulevard, Campus @ The Park will offer 436,000 square feet of office/high-tech space in three mid-rise buildings. On the residential side is Island Village, a three-block compound off of Park Boulevard containing 455 multi-family units, including flats, townhomes and lofts.
The city's deals with Moores may turn out to be unfortunate. The city and the developer are prisoners of each other. Everything — including financing for commercial projects — appears dependent on the completion of the ballpark. The ballpark cannot be completed until the city sells the bonds, and the city seems bogged down by lawsuits, and high interest rates that may make the bonds unattractive to all but the most risk-tolerant investors. Although Moores is a brilliant and versatile businessman who has proven himself in a variety of fields, the city may regret putting so many of its urban-redevelopment eggs into this developer's unsteady basket.
Now, just because a project has heavy political overtones does not necessarily cast a shadow on the quality of the site planning. The ROMA scheme for the Ballpark District is a model of economy and clarity, which accomplishes a number of complex goals with a minimum of moves. This is a plan that knows what it wants to do.
And, probably, the city will find the financing, or the developers, who can build it. Someday, only history buffs will be able to discern the political ruckus beneath the crystalline order of the Ballpark District.