The 49ers Are Moving to Santa Clara. Why Didn’t San Francisco Try Harder To Keep Them?

The stadium scene.
Jan. 31 2013 5:28 PM

The San Francisco Retreat

The 49ers are moving to Santa Clara. Why didn’t the team’s longtime home try harder to keep them?

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“It’s sad,” York told me during that nearly hourlong interview in his Santa Clara office, which looked over the team’s training fields. “We had worked in San Francisco for such a long time to try and get something done, but it just wasn't feasible.”

Newsom, who is now California’s lieutenant governor, declined to be interviewed for this story. But his office pointed out that a long list of football and political powerbrokers, from former 49ers president Carmen Policy to Rep. Pelosi to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, worked hard—but collectively failed—to lobby the team to stay in the city. “The City worked tirelessly and diligently to develop and advance plans to provide a world class stadium for the 49er franchise,” Newsom’s spokeswoman, Deirdre Hussey, said in a statement. “It became clear that no matter how many hurdles we cleared or hoops we jumped through, the 49er ownership had decided that regardless what the city provided, Santa Clara was the home for their new stadium.”

“The Newsom administration had all their eggs in the Lennar basket,” counters local lawmaker John Avalos, who was beaten in the race for mayor in 2011 by Ed Lee, Newsom’s handpicked successor. “The 49ers had their eggs spread around.”

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The 49ers groused for years that San Francisco failed to properly maintain Candlestick Park, which it leases from the city’s parks department. A lawsuit was threatened. The maintenance woes climaxed spectacularly with what Lee described as “a national embarrassment” when the lights went out twice during a Monday Night Football game last season. Aging electrical infrastructure, some of it owned and maintained by San Francisco, failed, causing the outages and delaying a national telecast.

“There were lots of maintenance issues at The Stick that made it difficult to discuss other matters with a clean slate,” Avalos says.

San Francisco ultimately did not offer the terms or land needed to keep the team. That could be viewed as a good thing: Games register barely a blip in the city’s economy, save for game-day jobs for the surrounding hardscrabble communities. The city makes a few million dollars every year leasing the outdated stadium to the team and taking in some taxes. But it could expect to rake in far more annually in taxes if the waterfront land upon which the haggard stadium sits is turned into a planned neighborhood of stores and exclusive homes. Meanwhile, the 49ers already train in Santa Clara and the team’s corporate offices are there. Santa Clara voters approved a $114 million publicly funded package to help build the $1.2 billion stadium. The site is close to freeways and, unlike Candlestick Park, is easily accessible by public transit.

But losing the 49ers is nonetheless a bitter pill for the city’s football fans, especially now that the team has pulled itself out of a decade in the doldrums.

The team’s departure is just one of many signs that in San Francisco, the times they are a-changin’. Blacks are evacuating the city. Artists and working class families who can no longer afford the rents are resettling eastward in Oakland and beyond. Entire apartment buildings have been turned into dorms for rich kids studying at the Academy of Art University, while city planners have refused to enforce zoning rules that could have saved the rent-controlled homes. Homeless people, hippies, junkies, and smalltime pot dealers are being arrested and chased out of town by cops at the behest of billionaire bankers and dainty dot-commers.

The San Francisco Giants left Candlestick in 2000 for a new stadium, built by the team’s owners at an attractive site leased from the city’s port near downtown. And Mayor Lee is coaxing the Golden State Warriors to move west from Oakland by offering a lease of prime piers near the ballpark for a basketball arena.

But the city never offered up any appealing sites for the 49ers. In private talks, city officials left a rebuild at the Candlestick Point location on the table, and the site in nearby Brisbane continued to be discussed. But when it came to a new location for a stadium, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was the only site that the city offered. Take it or leave it was Newsom’s ultimatum.

“There was not a lot of cooperation,” said planning commissioner Antonini. He said the franchise must share some of the blame for the bad will that mushroomed between team and city officials. But he criticized Newsom’s administration for not working with the 49ers to come up with a more appealing alternative to the shipyard. “People weren’t foresighted enough to work with them,” he said.

Take it or leave it? The 49ers decided to leave it. Soon, Super Bowl victory or not, they’ll be gone.

 

John Upton is a freelance journalist. He blogs about ecology at wonkonthewildlife.com and can be reached at johnupton@gmail.com.

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