Will San Francisco 49ers New Stadium Be Good for Santa Clara?

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Will San Francisco 49ers New Stadium Be Good for Santa Clara?
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Let’s assume the city council of Santa Clara, acting as the city’s stadium authority, has its numbers right and the city will get its $850 million back through naming rights, rentals to the San Francisco 49ers and other entrepreneurs (such as concert promoters) and ticket sales.

There are some, such as the stadium opponents Santa Clara Plays Fair, who would say that’s a big “if.”

But let’s say it happens, and the city avoids running aground financially on the stadium deal.

Other than civic pride, what’s in it for the average Santa Claran? That all depends on what Santa Clara does with the opportunity.

As models for how to build a new stadium right, one can look to San Francisco’s AT&T Park and Denver’s Coors Field. Both transformed rundown industrial areas and vacant land into thriving commercial and residential districts, with ballparks as the centerpieces.

In both cases, the stadium and the new neighborhoods are well-integrated with the rest of the city. In San Francisco, it’s safe to say AT&T Park—now over a decade old—helped fuel massive development that now includes high-tech firms and a second campus of UC San Francisco.

I, for one, was skeptical of the San Francisco Giants’ claims that their new stadium would revitalize the area. I believed that, realistically, economic development would be mainly in low-wage restaurant and retail employment, and that significant activity would be restricted to the 80-plus dates when the Giants were playing there.

I was delighted to be proved wrong.

I never imagined the high-rise condos, thriving nightlife and well-paying companies that now occupy the area. As downtown San Francisco has steadily marched south of Market Street, it essentially now stretches all the way to AT&T Park and beyond.

It’s doubtful that it all happened because of the ballpark. Among other things, the city has invested in a streetcar line and improvements to the Embarcadero, the main avenue along the waterfront.

But the stadium certainly has played a significant role.

Shift now to Glendale, Arizona, home of University of Phoenix Stadium (the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals) and Jobing.com Arena (the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL). The two venues are the lynchpins of an envisioned “sports and entertainment district” that has yet to happen on any significant scale.

Yes, the sports are there—from August through April or May—depending on whether the Coyotes are in the playoffs. (By the way, if I were President, I would end hockey after March.)

But the “entertainment” part of the deal is still, as they say, developing.

I was there for the Fiesta Bowl, and the area consists of a couple of blocks of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops plunked down in a parking lot. The place has an artificial, Disneyland kind of feel, not at all like the authentic buzz generated by the numerous eateries, stores and drinking establishments that surround AT&T Park, Coors Field and, for that matter, Wrigley Field in Chicago.

The question for Santa Clara is this: Does the city want just a stadium and a parking lot, which is pretty much what Glendale has? (According to the Arizona Republic, Glendale also has a lot of debt on a project that didn’t turn out as planned, but that’s another story, and a cautionary one, at that.)

Or does Santa Clara want to make the new stadium into the centerpiece of what could be a new and attractive extension of the city? (A development such as Santana Row in San Jose comes to mind, or perhaps the stunning retail, residential and entertainment zone that graces downtown Glendale, California.)

To be sure, the challenge is different from that in San Francisco and Denver. Santa Clara is a suburb, not an urban center. For its own part, the stadium will be located across the 101 freeway from the main part of town.

On the other hand, it will be near not only the Great America amusement park, but also Mission College, the Santa Clara Convention Center and the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara.

In short, the stadium has the potential to become the anchor of a newly developing section of town—one that, over time, can become an attractive destination for residents of the city and the surrounding area.

I emphasize “over time.” The upwelling around AT&T Park didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it’s been a decade-plus of steady growth. Attempts to drop down a big development from the sky—as if one were playing with Legos—could well create something plastic, unappealing and ultimately unsuccessful.

It's better to let the interplay of city planning and private development take advantage of the opportunities presented by land, location and economics.

Santa Clara may or may not be able to recreate the miracle of China Basin in San Francisco. But for all the money that the city is investing on behalf of the 49ers, it can surely do better for its residents than just a stadium and a parking lot.

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