By Matt Niksa
When Levi’s Stadium opened on July 17, 2014, it signified the end of a long and controversial battle over the future home of the San Francisco 49ers. Levi’s Stadium will now become the sole home of the Niners, which played at the world-famous Candlestick Park from 1971 to 2013. Levi’s Stadium, based in Santa Clara, will be the Bay Area’s newest multi-purpose facility, versatile enough to host international and domestic soccer games, concerts, college football games and NFL regular season and playoff games. The stadium will be the location for Super Bowl 50 in 2016, and it will be sight of this year’s Thanksgiving football game between the San Francisco 49ers and their rivals from the Northwest, the Seattle Seahawks.
Although the idea for a stadium in Santa Clara had been proposed and discussed in 2007, the idea of a new stadium to replace Candlestick Park had actually been in the works since 1997. In 1997, San Francisco voters and city council members had proposed a new stadium to replace Candlestick. Although the beloved park was a fan favorite and was the scene of some magical moments like Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in 1982, its antiquated concrete structure and lack of a radiant heating system had rendered it obsolete.
Then-San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, the San Francisco City Council and the 49ers agreed to create two voter ballot measures for the stadium. Proposition D and Proposition F authorized $100 million in bonds to subsidize the creation of the new stadium and rezoned 77 acres for the stadium and a proposed mall that would be attached to the stadium project. After both propositions were approved, Mills Corporation, a San Francisco-based mall developer and operator, was hired to create a plan for stadium construction and funding.
Unfortunately for the 49ers and the city of San Francisco, the new stadium plan never got off of the ground, as then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. was forced to resign from his role as 49ers team president after pleading guilty to a charge of failing to report a felony. In the process, DeBartolo, Jr. surrendered the team’s operation to his brother-in-law Jed York and his sister Denise DeBartolo York. With the 49ers’ general management in limbo, the city began to have trepidations over whether or not the construction of a new stadium would be appropriate at the time.
To make matters worse, Mills Corporation was unsuccessful in its plan to successfully construct a new stadium; rezoning all of the land around Candlestick and constructing parking lots in the area surrounding the stadium were poised to create problems for city planners. In the end, the project was scrapped, and the 49ers continued to play at Candlestick for another 15 years.
However, the calls for a new stadium did not end after the failed 1997 proposal. In 2006, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom proposed construction of a new stadium to replace Candlestick. Newsom argued that a new stadium would improve the city’s chances of being selected by the International Olympic Committee to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
The 68,000 to 72,000-capacity stadium would cost between $600 and $800 million, and it would be located just southeast of Candlestick Park. Instead of attaching a mall to the stadium project like in the 1997 plan, the 49ers decided to partner with Lennar Corporation to construct the stadium. Lennar Corp. would build housing and office space around the stadium to further spur the economic development of the surrounding region.
The creation of the new stadium would have been a great boon not only for the city of San Francisco, but also for the San Francisco 49ers. Before this proposed stadium, the 49ers were one of the least valuable franchises in the NFL in terms of revenue. However, if the proposed stadium plan was approved and the stadium was constructed, the 49ers franchise would have gained up to $150 million in value. The 150 luxury suites, 7,500 premium club seats, large number of seats positioned closer to the field and the $300 million in advertising and concession deals would have made this new stadium one of the most valuable stadiums in all of the NFL. As the 49ers and Lennar Corporation prepared to send their proposed stadium plan to the board of supervisors, they hoped the approval of the plan would allow the 49ers to create a stadium that would open in 2012.
However, as with the 1997 proposal, the project collapsed before construction had even gotten started. San Francisco owners John York and Denise DeBartolo York had been in discussion with Newsom about a convenient location for the new stadium. 49ers ownership feared that Newsom’s proposed location — southeast of Candlestick Park — would have caused a shortage of available land in Candlestick Point. In addition, the Yorks were also worried about the possibility of exacerbating existing traffic and parking problems along the roads leading to the freeway from the new stadium. Finally, the extensive infrastructure costs associated with the project also discouraged 49ers ownership from investing in the stadium as well.
On November 10, 2006, the Yorks decided to shift their efforts and build a stadium 40 miles south of San Francisco in Santa Clara. The decision to completely scrap the proposal to build a new stadium in San Francisco caused outrage among many city council members and Niners fans.
Newsom and the San Francisco Olympic bid group were forced to cancel their bid for the 2016 Olympics, citing the lack of warning in relocating the 49ers on the part of the Yorks. Former Niners players and Super Bowl winners Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana were among those who also felt betrayed, as they had invested time and money in promoting the Olympic bid. The plans cost the city $350,000 in funds and bonds, leading many to feel that money had been wasted. As the York family moved its franchise to Santa Clara and prepared its own stadium proposal, the family left in its wake a city that felt betrayed by the franchise it had loved.
In 2007, the 49ers and the Santa Clara City Council were in tense negotiations over the construction of the stadium. Between 2007 and 2009, the two parties hashed out a term sheet. The term sheet called for no new or increased city taxes, stipulated that the 49ers would be responsible for construction and operation costs and allowed the city to collect rent payments from the 49ers that would go toward the stadium’s general fund.
The 49ers also created a stadium proposal on April 24, 2007. After the proposal, two studies were presented to the Santa Clara City Council: a presentation that detailed the economic and fiscal impact of the new stadium and an environmental impact report.
After these four documents and presentations were presented, the Santa Clara City Council voted on whether or not to accept or reject the proposal. By a five-to-two margin, Santa Clara mayor Patricia Mahan and the council agreed to the terms of the stadium proposal deal, as stipulated in the aforementioned term sheet. The term sheet allowed the 49ers to keep their name (San Francisco 49ers), even though the team would now play in Santa Clara.
On December 15, 2009, the Santa Clara City Council decided to create a ballot initiative, Measure J, to gauge the public’s opinion regarding the new stadium. The initiative was passed on June 8, 2010, with 58 percent of Santa Clara voters supporting the initiative.
Ordinance 17.20 was also created with the passing of Measure J, allowing for the lease of city property toward a professional football stadium and other events. The ordinance called for no new taxes for Santa Clara residents, with private parties paying for all costs associated with the stadium’s operations. The 49ers would be responsible for stadium maintenance and operations, and the franchise or a private party would have to pay rent back to the city. With the passage of Measure J, the 49ers franchise only needed to receive funds for the stadium before it could start construction on its new home.
In December 2011, the final piece of the stadium proposal was completed. The Santa Clara City Council formally supported the franchise’s proposal to borrow $850 million from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and U.S. Bank. In addition to the $850 million, the NFL agreed to loan the 49ers and the city of Santa Clara $200 million through a “G-4” stadium loan on February 2, 2012. With over $1 billion in funds to build the stadium, the 49ers commenced construction on the stadium in early 2012, breaking ground on April 19, 2012. After over two years of construction, the stadium was opened to the public on July 17, 2014, as Levi’s Stadium served as the backdrop to a San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders.
Levi’s Stadium differs not only from its predecessor Candlestick Park, but also from many stadiums in the NFL. The stadium is twice the size of Candlestick Park in terms of area, although its stadium capacity is slightly smaller (1,000 fewer seats) than Candlestick Park. According to a Forbes 2013 report, the San Francisco 49ers only made $10 million in premium seating revenue, one of the lowest totals in the NFL. With the 165 luxury suites built into Levi’s Stadium, that premium seating revenue will certainly increase.
One of the most impressive aspects of the new stadium is the 27,000-foot-long “living roof” placed on top of the stadium’s suite tower. Home to more than 40 types of local vegetation, the living roof is just one facet of the many eco-friendly measures in place at Levi’s Stadium.
Some of the other eco-friendly measures include the use of reclaimed water for the irrigation of the playing field, self-consumption of photovoltaic electricity harnessed through three solar bridges connecting the parking lot to the stadium and the placement of accessible bike paths and public transportation routes to the stadium to lower carbon emissions. All of these environmental aspects aside, the stadium’s versatility is another nice feature; it will be the site of concerts, motocross events, soccer games, and most importantly, football games every Saturday and Sunday.
Levi’s Stadium is the product of almost two decades of stadium proposals, and although the 49ers will not be playing in San Francisco for the foreseeable future, the stadium is something that every Bay Area resident should visit and enjoy. The possibilities for the stadium’s uses are endless; it can be the place for a soccer fixture on one day, then the location of a Green Day concert the next.
The eco-friendly aspects of the stadium may be criticized as gimmicky by critics, but make no mistake, they will undoubtedly make the stadium one of the greenest stadiums in all of the NFL. Although parking prices have increased from $30 at Candlestick Park to an average price of $40 around Levi’s Stadium, coupled with the fact that the stadium will not be able to host Monday or Thursday night games, I believe that the stadium’s advantages will well outnumber the shortcomings of the project, making this stadium a great new home for the Bay Area’s beloved franchise.
Contact Matt Niksa at mattniksa80 ‘at’ gmail.com.