by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

The drawn out saga of the proposed San Jose Earthquakes soccer stadium continued this week with a small but favorable step in the right direction. At Tuesday’s San Jose City Council meeting, an amendment to the land purchase agreement between the city and the stadium developers was passed in a unanimous vote. Basically the amendment gives a multimillion dollar break on the purchase price of the property while also extending the deadline to complete the transition to 2015. Without passage of the amendment, and despite already sinking $5 million in nonrefundable deposits into the deal, Quakes owner Lew Wolff and his developer partners had threatened to walk away from the whole project without the city’s concessions.

The proposed soccer stadium for the Earthquakes is part of a larger development project that would fill a 65-acre site near the San Jose International Airport with retail, office space, and hotel buildings. The 15,000 seat stadium would occupy just 14 acres of the property — land that can be purchased separately to the 65 acres in total — and is expected to be the centerpiece of the completed project. In addition, an already completed training facility for the Quakes and a proposed city run 10-acre recreational soccer complex would round out the development.

The city of San Jose was very keen on passing the amendment on Tuesday, taking less than two minutes from an over 5 hour meeting to approve the changes. As the deal stood before the meeting, Wolff was required to complete purchase of the 65-acre property by 2013 for a total of $89 million. In the current real estate market in San Jose, that price is considered too high based on comparative deals being made in the area, so it was understandable that Wolff might walk away from the project even with a loss of the deposits already paid to the city. San Jose had already capitulated on the purchase price back in 2009 by lowering the original 2008 asking price from $132 million to the current $89 million. The latest deal does not lower the price further, but does provide some concessions to Wolff that make the project more likely to move forward.

“We would really like to get rid of this property,” said San Jose mayor Chuck Reed during Tuesday’s meeting, nervously chuckling at the notion that the city might be stuck with the tract of land they bought and improved for over $100 million in 2005.

The pertinent details of the purchase amendment as it relates to the stadium are simple. The total price for the 65 acres remains the same, but $2 million of the deposit money already paid can now be credited toward purchase the stadium site portion of the land. Furthermore, if the stadium land is purchased before June of 2012, an additional $2 million in savings would occur. Basically, the city gave Wolff more time to develop the whole property, but provided incentives to fast-track the stadium portion of the deal. Given the current economic climate in the Silicon Valley, that compromise by the city makes sense for both sides — especially as the total purchase price was not lowered any further for a city already dealing with cash flow problems.

More indications that Wolff and his partners are ready to move forward on the stadium project came during an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in November. Whereas Wolff had to this point been stubborn in his position that construction would not be initiated until sponsorship dollars were secured from local corporations, he stated that he has changed his view on that stance.

"We had hoped to have more sponsorship leading to the stadium," said Wolff to the Mercury News. "Now, we feel we need the stadium under way before getting sponsorship where we want it."

Wolff, who as part owner of the Oakland A’s baseball organization has also been seeking a new stadium for that team, has finally realized what critics have pointed out for over a year since the stadium project was announced — build it, and they will come. While this requires a significant portion of the $60 million stadium price tag to come from his coffers, that initial investment is unavoidable for the project to take flight. The risk is great for Wolff and his developers that their total capital outlay will be much greater than they would have liked, but that is the reality in today’s real estate market.

Back to the purchase amendment passed by the city this week, one change not made to the agreement was the costs of cleaning up the 14-acre site for the stadium of buildings and debris left over from the previous owner. That preparation of the property is estimated to cost nearly $3 million, and will be paid by Wolff instead of the city. A large factor in asking for the $4 million in savings from the city in this amendment was to defray those costs to the overall project. Basically, the trade-off is a wash, but it does lower the roadblock to initiation of the stadium construction.

So, why should San Jose fans be optimistic at this point? Two reasons clearing point in the right direction — one is the passage of Tuesday’s amendment and the other is the existence of the team’s training facility adjacent to the proposed stadium site. The training site was completed earlier this year at a cost of over $2 million, and stands as a reminder that Wolff is serious about caring for his club. Prior to the facility’s construction, the team trained at various local colleges when fields were available. He could have allowed this scenario to continue, but instead made a commitment to help the team establish roots at the proposed stadium site. That doesn’t happen unless he is serious about seeing the stadium project through to completion.

For now, the team will continue to play its home matches at local Buck Shaw Stadium — an aging college facility that holds just over 10,000 fans — as it waits for shovels to take to the ground on the new stadium. The current paltry season ticket base, that various estimates have pegged at a shade less than 4000, will continue to suggest that the new facility will be difficult to sell-out, but there is evidence to the contrary. After two seasons of scheduling bigger drawing matches at larger stadiums — California Clasicos with the Los Angeles Galaxy were always held an hour away at the Oakland Coliseum — 2010 saw tiny Buck Shaw host the Galaxy and visiting EPL side Tottenham Hotspur. That ownership saw fit to reward the faithful with these matches at home and the subsequent standing room only sell-outs that resulted are good signs that a new stadium does stand a chance of achieving must-visit status for local soccer fans.

There is latent support for the team in the area, but most are waiting for a better facility before signing up for season ticket packages. Throw in the successful on-field performance by the team in 2010, and getting the new stadium construction underway seems more important than ever to keeping that attention on the team.

Nothing is guaranteed in this process, especially with Wolff splitting his attention and financial resources on moving forward with his baseball stadium plans, but the signs of life for the Quakes new stadium are increasing in brightness. A sweetened deal from the city is a good step in that direction as are the significantly lower costs of doing construction in the current economy. Add in the fact that Wolff is now on record as easing off his original sponsorship requirements for construction initiation and the clamoring of soccer fans in San Jose for a new stadium may finally be heeded. “Build it now!” was the message written on placards held up by thousands of Earthquakes fans last season at Buck Shaw Stadium — ownership has finally heard that message and looks ready to embark on the journey.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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