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Santa Clara Council’s War with 49ers Started Over Soccer Fields – Part I: Promises or Perceptions, Side Effects of State Policy

The escalating conflict between the San Francisco 49ers and the Santa Clara City Council and Mayor Lisa Gillmor that has been playing out for over a year really began several years ago when the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League (SCYSL) charged 49ers owner Jed York with reneging on a promise to build soccer fields for the league’s exclusive use.

The dispute is a story of how a private group successfully erased the line between its interests and City interests, how media looking for simple good guy-bad guy narratives advanced those interests, and how that narrative gave media-savvy politician Lisa Gillmor a momentous political win without an election.

This is the first of a multi-part series that will unravel the tangled mess that brought the City to the adversarial place it is today, locked in multiple quarrels and lawsuits with its high-profile NFL business partner.

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The SCYSL is the non-profit umbrella organization of Santa Clara Sporting–a powerhouse soccer club–and other competitive youth soccer clubs. The Santa Clara Youth Soccer Park, the public park where the league plays, sits next to Levi’s Stadium on Tasman Dr.

The term sheet and the planning documents from 2007 through 2010 describe how the soccer park would be kept accessible during stadium events. But the record doesn’t show any discussion about replacing the park.

Council resolutions allowing stadium construction to go forward address disruption to the park during the stadium construction, but are mum about post-construction disruption. The Council told residents that ensuring park access would be part of the traffic management plan that was published at the end of 2013.*

The soccer league apparently wasn’t convinced by Council assurances, and in January 2012 York wrote a letter to the soccer league “proposing that the 49ers fund several regulation-sized additional soccer fields in Santa Clara. These fields would be dedicated and maintained for use of the SCYSL during NFL game days.” The plan was to refurbish Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) fields for soccer league games during stadium events in return for the soccer park’s lot for stadium parking.

Former 49ers community relations director Lisa Lang and then-SCUSD Superintendent Bobbie Plough had some discussions about the feasibility of using school district fields in 2011 and 2012, Plough told the Weekly in 2014. But the discussions never became concrete agreements or plans, and the stadium agreements and contracts that the City Council approved say nothing about building soccer fields.

The talks might have continued had it not been for Jerry Brown’s plan to reduce California’s deficit by shutting down the state’s Redevelopment Agencies and reverting their money, after paying off debts, to county agencies, the largest of which are K-12 school districts, a move that reduced the need for state subsidies. This began a struggle between municipalities and counties about what was and wasn’t a recognized debt under the law; fewer recognized debts meant more money for local agencies.

In Santa Clara, one of those debts was $30 million in RDA money for road and utility improvements for the stadium area.

In June 2012, the Santa Clara successor agency–which included SCUSD–voted to renege on the $30 million commitment. The 49ers sued, and the Sacramento Superior Court ruled that the $30 million was an obligation of the shuttered agency.

Lang left the 49ers that year, and Plough resigned from SCUSD in 2013. Plough and Lang’s absence, coupled with the school board’s legal battle with the City over RDA money, killed the district soccer fields project.

And that’s where the proposal sat for almost two years until the SCYSL President Matt Heinz wrote to York in 2014, asking about plans for alternate fields. When former 49ers CFO Larry MacNeil wrote back that there was no agreement, league members were indignant and took the issue up with the City Council.

Headlines like the Mercury News’ “Santa Clara soccer parents vs. 49ers in heated new stadium war,” ginned up public outrage that dominated a packed April 2014 Council meeting, even though the subject wasn’t on the agenda.

MacNeil’s position was that York had made no promise. “While there were good discussions with the SCUSD, the City, and the SCYSL on this concept [the alternative fields] it was never finalized,” MacNeil wrote. “The team still remains open to this concept.”

However, the SCYSL and its strongest Council advocate, then-Council Member Gillmor, insisted, and continues to insist, that the 49ers left children “in the lurch,” and that MacNeil’s letter was a public affront by the 49ers. It left her “disillusioned,” she told the Mercury. “I put my name on the line for the stadium, and the Niners didn’t keep their promise to the soccer community.” The Council voted unanimously to accelerate existing plans to build new soccer fields.

Gillmor makes no bones about being a soccer mom and avid soccer fan. Her husband is a SCYSL coach. As a former Parks and Recreation Commissioner she is widely credited, along with former Commissioner and Council Member Kevin Moore, for leading the soccer park’s development.

Next: Part II – New Three-Way Proposal for Soccer Fields, Stadium Parking DOA

*The 2013 TMOP can be found on santaclaraca.gov in the agenda packet for the Nov. 19, 2013 City Council meeting. Section 7.3 addresses soccer park accessibility.

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