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It’s official: San Diego’s sports arena is historic

By Jennifer Van Grove

April 26, 2024

The San Diego Union-Tribune

The city designated the 58-year-old sports arena as a historic resource, officially recognizing the arena’s role in remaking the Midway District, its ties to a local sports legend and its New Formalism architectural style.

San Diego International Sports Arena, the imposing concrete venue in the Midway District and the longtime home of the San Diego Gulls, is worthy of special recognition ahead of its expected demolition.

On Thursday, San Diego’s Historical Resources Board voted unanimously, with Chair Tim Hutter recused, to designate the 58-year-old sports arena as a historic resource.

The action, which does not prohibit demolition, officially recognizes the arena in three areas: its role in remaking the Midway District into a commercial hub after World War II, its association with a local sports legend and its New Formalism architectural style. The property will be added to the local register of designated historical resources.

The Historical Resources Board, a volunteer board with members appointed by the mayor, has authority over historical resources within the city.

The body considered the venue’s historic value as one step in a broader analysis of the potential environmental impacts associated with the Midway Rising Specific Plan, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act.

“The designation does not preclude redevelopment of the site or demolition of the sports arena; it simply triggers a process to evaluate whether or not any feasible alternatives exist that could reduce impacts to the historic resource,” a city spokesperson said. “The (Historical Resources Board) will review the project as part of that review process and provide a recommendation to the decision maker.”

Under the state law, future demolition of the existing arena, as is planned, would constitute a substantial adverse change with the loss of a historical resource.

“We look forward to begin collaborating with the city to explore a variety of ways we can honor and preserve the arena and site’s history within the largest affordable housing development in California’s history,” Shelby Jordan, Midway Rising project lead and an executive with sports-and-entertainment venue operator Legends, said in a statement.

The designation is the latest in a series of actions associated with the city’s years long quest, beginning in February 2020, to lease and redo its real estate at 3220, 3240, 3250 and 3500 Sports Arena Blvd. in San Diego’s Midway District.

The effort was cemented with the September 2022 selection of the Midway Rising development team, which is composed of market-rate housing developer Zephyr, affordable housing builder Chelsea Investment Corp., and Legends. The Kroenke Group, a subsidiary of billionaire Stan Kroenke’s real estate firm, is the entity’s lead investor and limited partner.

The city and the development team are currently in the process of negotiating a development deal that is expected to be presented to San Diego City Council members before the end of the year. Currently, the Midway Rising project calls for 4,250 residential units, a 16,000-seat replacement arena, 130,000 square feet of commercial space, and an unspecified number of acres of parks, plazas and public space. Proposed ground lease terms have not been publicly disclosed.

Before the parties can reach an agreement, the city must first identify the environmental impacts of the project and development contemplated on three privately owned parcels connected to the site. It must also outline mitigation to lessen impacts.

The city initiated the environmental review process in December and a draft report is expected in the coming months.

As part of the process, cultural resource management firm ASM Affiliates evaluated the existing sports arena, currently known as Pechanga Arena, to determine its eligibility for national, state and local registers of historic assets. The 114-page Historical Resources Technical Report, as it’s called, determined that the arena is eligible for all three registries based on its connection to a notable development theme, its ties to a significant person and its association with an important architectural style.

San Diego International Sports Arena, which opened in November 1966, was built on city-owned land acquired from the federal government at the end of 1954. The arena replaced a portion of the Frontier Housing Project, which included thousands of temporary public housing units built for World War II workers.

The flat-roofed venue with concrete walls is emblematic of the New Formalism architectural style, a sub-style of Modern architecture, according to the historians who prepared the technical report. The arena’s design was inspired by the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, and its monumental scale, symmetry and formality, smooth exterior surfaces, repeating full-height pillars, ornamental concrete, raised platform, and on-grade open plazas are characteristic of New Formalism, the report states.

The sports arena is also a symbol of post-war recreation and entertainment development, with its construction marking the greatest change to the Midway-Pacific Highway community in the decades after the war, according to the report. The sports arena is said to have been the catalyst for commercial and industrial growth in the region.

It was one of San Diego’s first modern sporting event venues, and one of the city’s major entertainment venues in the second half of the 20th century. The arena’s entertainment legacy dates to its first concert — James Brown on Feb. 18, 1967 — and extends to many performances by big-ticket acts including The Doors, Diana Ross & The Supremes, the Rolling Stones and Nirvana.

The venue continues to routinely book major tours and events. Not including sports, the venue pulled in $22.8 million in gross sales with 55 shows and a total attendance of 236,000 people in 2023, ranking 16th among venues of similar size, according to Billboard. Legends is set to take over management, through an interim lease agreement with the city, when the city’s current contract with ASM Global expires this summer.

The arena’s ties to local businessman and sports maven Robert Breitbard are also part of its historical significance, according to historians and city planners.

Breitbard, who owned the Gulls hockey team from 1966 to 1974, is credited with making the arena possible. Breitbard and partners leased 80 acres of land from the city and privately financed construction of the $6.5 million venue with bond proceeds.

Breitbard also started San Diego’s first National Basketball Association team, the San Diego Rockets. In 1971, he sold the franchise to buyers in Houston because of mounting property tax obligations, according to news accounts.

Breitbard, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, also opened the San Diego Hall of Champions sports museum in Balboa Park, which closed in 2017.

The Historical Resources Board designated the arena as historic based on the criteria outlined in the staff report prepared by the city’s planning department. The board considered the item as part of the consent agenda, meaning they voted without receiving a presentation from staff or the consultant firm that prepared the technical report. Board member discussion was also limited.

Former state Assembly member Lori Saldaña, who spoke during public comment, objected to the brief treatment of the Frontier Housing Project in the technical report and the staff report. The reports, she said, do not acknowledge that families were pushed out of the area. Saldaña is also opposed to the Midway Rising project because she believes the project site is going to be soon underwater given sea level changes.

“So that’s why I oppose this, both on a lack of full consideration of the true history of this area and the city’s history of housing discrimination, quite frankly, and also because I don’t think that Midway Rising — I refer to it as Midway sinking. I just don’t think it’s the right project in the right place.”

With the arena’s historic designation, the Midway Rising development team will be required to address the loss of the arena in the environmental impact report for the project’s specific plan.

The proposed mitigation, as recommended by ASM Affiliates, would require the developer to thoroughly document the property, following established standards. Midway Rising would also need to create a publicly accessible interpretive exhibit, designed with the help of a historian, at the new arena.

The environmental impact report requires certification by the City Council.

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