San Diego Business Journal Lucchino Reaffirms Commitment Despite Ongoing Delays

Larry Lucchino says he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, asking himself what he's doing.

The queries have nothing to do with the Padres president's worries about his team's starting pitching, but about the baseball club's master development obligations for a combined ballpark and commercial redevelopment project in the East Village section of Downtown.

"Make no mistake, what we are doing here has never been done before by a baseball team," Lucchino told a group of about 200 people last week, attending the annual conference of the California Redevelopment Association at the San Diego Concourse.

Lucchino told the group that his past experience in helping create Oriole Park at Camden Yards as president of the Baltimore Orioles did not prepare him for what he has encountered in San Diego.

When the Padres made their pitch for constructing a new baseball-only stadium, team owners were told that for the project to become a reality, it would have to be done "the San Diego way," he said.

That meant building a new ballpark without imposing any new taxes and with maximum public debate, Lucchino said.

While new sports facilities are built "almost universally" through an increase of some type of taxes, the Padres owners were told very directly, "There was no way that we could do that here," he said.

Instead, the concept was to form a public-private partnership for a much larger project that entailed not only a 46,000-person capacity ballpark but the construction of hotel rooms, commercial office and retail space, and residential units within a ballpark district.

Unique Matrimony

The "marrying of redevelopment with baseball" outlined in a voter-approved agreement in November 1998 required the Padres to construct 850 hotel rooms, 600,000 square feet of office space and 150,000 square feet of retail space.

By developing the hotel rooms, office and retail around the ballpark, the new businesses would generate new hotel, property and sales taxes that would be applied to repaying public bonds issued for the city's investment, according to the plan.

"Those numbers and concepts were new to us," Lucchino said. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, and still seems like a good idea, but the burden is substantial."

Lucchino said the redevelopment responsibilities attached to the ballpark project make the San Diego project far more difficult and complicated than any other new sports facility in the nation.

In comparison, the ballpark project in Baltimore was easier by a factor of 10 or 20, he said.

The way things are done in Maryland and other parts of the country bear little resemblance to the way things are done in California, Lucchino said.

As an example, Lucchino recounted a discussion he had with his brother, an elected official in Pittsburgh. Although voters in that city rejected a plan for a new stadium in that city several years ago, the project somehow got off the ground and is nearly halfway completed today, he said.

Fill Out The Forms

When Lucchino asked about how Pittsburgh officials dealt with the ballpark's environmental impact report, his brother replied, "Oh, we filled out those forms."

The remark drew laughter from the primarily municipal staffers who are well aware of the extensive mitigation process associated with large projects in this state.

Lucchino concluded his speech by saying while the process of getting things done in San Diego was "very different in a thousand different ways," that getting the ballpark project built was "highly likely."

He did not say whether the original timetable of April 2002 would be met.

Peter Hall, the president of the Centre City Development Corp., the city's Downtown redevelopment agency and the agency working closely with the Padres on the ballpark project, said Lucchino's comments and apparent frustration are understandable in light of his experiences in Baltimore.

Hall said the reality of the situation is that in California, there is much heavier emphasis on following state environmental laws covering new development, and making sure that the process is carried out publicly.

And while the project is still facing outstanding litigation from a variety of plaintiffs, "I don't think the project is in harm's way," Hall said.

Since November 1998, when the ballpark measure was approved, the city has assembled all of the land needed for the ballpark, has finished two-thirds of the necessary environmental remediation of the site, and completed all the relocation of existing tenants in the impacted area, Hall said.

Of all the things the city has responsibility to do, "we're 80 percent done," Hall said.

Once the city gets past the remainder of outstanding lawsuits against the project, the plan calls for issuing lease revenue bonds in either April or May, Hall said.

"And when they issue the bonds, steel will be ordered and construction will start," he said.