Regardless of which team wins the Super Bowl, the 49ers’ San Francisco-dwelling fans will soon be losers. That’s because the franchise is leaving the city it has called home since 1946. The team’s first kickoff in a new stadium 40 miles away in Santa Clara—a sunny city wedged between San Jose and Sunnyvale that’s home to tech companies’ headquarters and 120,000 residents—is expected in 2014. Construction is well underway.
Why are the 49ers leaving town? The city of San Francisco—perhaps to its credit—didn’t offer a sweetheart land deal or a financial lure enticing enough to hold on to its football team. But former Mayor Gavin Newsom deserves a good share of the blame. For years, he pressured the 49ers to build a new stadium inside a deserted and radioactively polluted naval shipyard. The team resented the proposal, and the city didn’t make any serious offers that didn’t involve relocating to a Superfund site. In the meantime, Newsom did propose a sweetheart deal to lure a more esoteric event to San Francisco. As the 49ers get set to leave town, the America’s Cup’s 72-foot catamarans will set sail in San Francisco Bay later this year.
You can’t fault the 49ers for wanting out of the team’s current home. Candlestick Park is one of the NFL’s most outdated stadiums—little more than a wind-whipped concrete bowl at the city’s southern outskirts. It is flanked by down-on-their-luck neighborhoods, and there is virtually nowhere nearby to stop for a meal or a drink after a game. Its barren Thunderdome aesthetic begets thuggish behavior and frequent brawls in the stands, bathrooms, and parking lot.
The South Bay’s adoration of a team that is losing fans in San Francisco also played a large part in the 49ers’ decision. But the roots of the team’s southern migration can be traced back more than 15 years. In 1997, San Francisco voters still giddy from recent Super Bowl victories approved a $100 million bond to help the team build a stadium and shopping mall at the current Candlestick Point location. But that same year, 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. stepped down from his post amid a federal investigation into bribery allegations related to a riverboat gambling license. He would eventually plead guilty to a felony and shed his financial stake in the team. Control of the franchise shifted to DeBartolo’s sister and brother-in-law. The efforts to rebuild at Candlestick Point collapsed.
The team’s new bosses began looking around at alternative stadium sites, including land just south of San Francisco in the tiny city of Brisbane. In 2006, Santa Clara became the team’s favored new home. Gavin Newsom, by this time San Francisco’s mayor, responded quickly to the announcement, pressuring the team to relocate instead to the shipyard. In 2008, San Francisco voters repealed the $100 million bond measure from 1997 and approved a shipyard redevelopment plan anchored by a 49ers stadium.
The stadium was to be a fantastical anchor in homebuilder Lennar Corp.’s plans to refashion hundreds of acres of weedy wasteland into a thriving metropolis for well-to-do residents. Lennar offered the team virtually free use of shipyard land and $100 million, a liberal chunk of its anticipated redevelopment profits, to help meet stadium construction costs. Rep. Nancy Pelosi helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government for environmental work at the shipyard, which was used in part to clean up a neat rectangle of land where the stadium would be built. Surrounding shipyard soil remains heavily polluted.
But never once did the 49ers say they wanted to move to the shipyard, which is one of the nation’s most polluted places. An underground landfill at the site filled with petroleum and other toxic chemicals burned for more than a month in 2000, releasing an acrid cloud through the soil.
By 2010, even as Newsom offered the 49ers a polluted shipyard, he proposed giving away an estimated $128 million worth of prime waterfront property rights and other public benefits to Oracle Corp. co-founder and America’s Cup holder Larry Ellison for the right to host the America’s Cup regatta. That was despite there being few other serious bidders for the event. Warm-up racing began in 2012 and the America’s Cup will be raced in San Francisco Bay later this year under a less generous deal approved by city lawmakers.
So are the 49ers leaving town because they hated the city’s proposal, or was that just a pretense for a move they wanted to make regardless? Michael Antonini, a city planning commissioner who has done perhaps more than any other San Franciscan to rally support to convince the team to stay, said the DeBartolo family’s “allegiance is to Youngstown.” That comment, referring to the family’s hometown in Ohio, reflects a view that has become widespread during the past 15 years. “They’re not San Franciscans, and that’s the big problem,” he said. “They don’t really like to be here.”
In 2009, when I was working as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, I interviewed Jed York, Edward DeBartolo Jr.’s nephew, about the plans to move to Santa Clara. This was shortly after the 28-year-old had been appointed president of the 49ers. At that time, many San Franciscans wrongly considered the proposed shift south to be little more than a bluff aimed at securing a richer deal from San Francisco. Newsom’s administration was perpetuating that myth, asserting that a 49ers stadium would yet be built at the shipyard.