Ken Garcia: There’s no trick play in City Hall playbook for new 49ers stadium

I’ve only been covering politics in California for about 25 years, so perhaps I’m out of touch with modern legislative techniques. But I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to run a political Statue of Liberty play, I wouldn’t place it in a bill that would require a public hearing on the floor of the state Senate. And if stealth was my goal, I doubt I would present my plan at a meeting involving a sizable segment of The City’s elected leadership.

But I certainly do understand the desire to clean up the mess left behind by the previous team members — namely, the architects of the stadium mall plan that only achieved victory through some election shenanigans and a fear-mongering campaign that had the subtlety of a blind-side hit.

For those who stopped paying attention to anything 49ers-related when the team stopped being an annual playoff contender, a refresher. Back in 1997, then-Mayor Willie Brown was the point person of a $2 million campaign to convince city voters that they should put up $100 million in bond financing to replace the creaky wind tunnel known as Candlestick Park. The measure was about as popular in San Francisco as Terrell Owens, so Brown reached into his trusty fedora and pulled out a Hail Mary play — a scheme that involved getting a developer to combine the stadium with a mall and entertainment center. With it came the promise of hundreds of jobs to residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point district and other gratuities to union employers.

That campaign culminated in a notorious milestone in San Francisco elections, when it was alleged that scores of dead voters appeared Lazarus-like at polling places to push the stadium plan over the goal line. When the final vote was tallied, it prevailed with 50.4 percent of the vote, causing the ever-image-conscious Brown to wave pompoms for probably the first and last time in his life.

And then reality set in and the result that skeptical votersenvisioned took shape. The mall idea — always a loser — fell apart, and the 49ers ownership changed hands, effectively killing the stadium plan. The only thing about the deal that remained was the voter-approved bonds and a rezoning of the stadium area to allow for commercial development.

The $325 million stadium that was talked about when Carmen Policy was still roaming 49ers headquarters seems almost quaintly affordable now. A recent study by the NFL estimated that a new football stadium in Los Angeles — which lost both its professional teams — would cost around $800 million. So it’s no surprise that an air of desperation envelops both city and 49ers officials over the long-promised 75,000-seat stadium, especially since the number of empty seats at 49ers games is growing faster than the ticket prices.

The 49ers drafted the Lennar Corp. last year to see if housing could be part of the mix with a new stadium — one of many proposals under consideration by the team. And for its part, The City decided to see if any plans other than those specifically outlined in the 1997 election could pass legal muster — a prudent response, since any decision the team makes is going to cost millions in planning, design and environmental reviews.

There is a sound reason for such initial judicial approval to take place. The City is trying to avoid a scenario similar to the one involving the voter-approved underground garage in Golden Gate Park that one tiny group kept filing lawsuits over — contesting that the structure was not the one sold to citizens in a ballot measure.

Those exhaustive attempts by the aptly named Trees Not Cars group ultimately failed, but they cost The City and private garage backers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
So dusting off the civic playbook may be a prudent idea, because dead voters aren’t that easy to come by — and the live ones can be pretty elusive, too.

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