CenterLine Report: What a long way we've come
Activity at the property where the San Jose Earthquakes’ new stadium will rise has resumed this week as contractors begin preparing the site for construction to begin. Already, those that have ventured along Coleman Avenue just southwest of Mineta San José International Airport will have noticed a pair of excavators, one Earthquakes blue and the other traditional yellow (how perfect would it be for it to be black), picking through the rubble that sits piled high at the fringes of the site.
Following this critical preparation process, and after foundational work is complete, the first visible steel infrastructure will be installed. The entire project is planned to take a year, which is approximately the same amount of time until the next MLS season is expected to begin. In a wonderful, almost serendipitous, symmetry, as the Earthquakes on the field at nearby Buck Shaw Stadium attempt to construct another championship-caliber season, fans can cast an eye eastward and watch workers construction the club’s future home.
So what did it take to get to this point? And why does it seem that every year at this time something new-stadium related takes center stage? The first question is easy to chronicle, while the second likely comes down less to a metaphor of the first signs of spring and more to happenstance. Still, altogether, the path to an Earthquakes new stadium opening date of March 2014 is one worth savoring and celebrating.
As the story goes, the original San Jose MLS franchise, once mockingly known as “The Clash,” always felt that their future lie not at Spartan Stadium but in a dedicated facility of their own. Even going back to the ‘70s, when the NASL Earthquakes owned these parts, the idea of a soccer stadium was merely a dream, but one that brought a wistful sheen to one’s eyes. In the MLS years when Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear ruled the touchline and the club enjoyed a bevy of silverware, the push for a stadium really took hold, though sadly to no effect, and the franchise left for greener (oranger?) pastures.
In 2007, when MLS announced that top-tier professional soccer was returning to the Bay Area, the hopes for a new stadium returned as well. After all, the league had entered its second era, MLS version 2.0 if you like, which was marked by new franchises and old constructing and moving into soccer-specific-stadiums. Could the new Earthquakes be too far behind?
The team announced it would be look to nearby Buck Shaw Stadium, more a converted football field than soccer pitch, as its temporary home while a location was secured for its own soccer-specific-stadium. By 2009, a promising site had been indentified and the first renderings of a proposed facility were presented to a hungry public (literally hungry, as the images were first introduced during the keynote speech of the club’s annual dinner celebration).
The simple yet elegant European-styled design was slow to catch on, but supporters soon recognized how the intimate dimensions of “The Epicenter” would provide an imposing backdrop for the teams on the field. Video flyovers only heightened the anticipation for the new stadium’s arrival, and the constant chant of “Build it now!” could be heard at ersatz Buck Shaw. At last it seemed these Earthquakes were finally going to take root in San Jose.
But the process stalled as city officials and the Quakes’ organization embarked on the convoluted trail of planning meetings and permit applications. Throughout 2010, very little activity seemed apparent to those on the outside, but within city offices, insiders were methodically navigating the system. Is financing and building a stadium in the lovely state of California a walk on the beach? Not even close, and the process dragged on – predictably.
However, with the calendar moving ahead to 2011 and supporters still entranced by the team’s MLS Cup playoff run to the Eastern Conference Championship game (stupid seeing-eye free kick!) full of vim and vigor, good news came with the announcement of “Demolition Day” at the proposed new stadium site. What for years had been an unsightly array of abandoned manufacturing buildings would soon be leveled to make way for the Earthquakes future home.
So on March 3, 2011, two years to the day to the upcoming Earthquakes’ 2013 regular season opener – how’s that for a coincidence! – a cadre of local dignitaries, team officials and players, and countless patient but enthusiastic supporters gathered to witness the first excavator get to work on tearing down the warehouse walls. The ceremony even included a Bradley fighting vehicle, one of the items produced by the former building tenants, piloted by hard-hat wearing Quakes players; team leader Chris Wondolowski even took a turn at operating the excavator.
As the grand event faded into the rearview mirror, the busy work of dealing with the permitting process returned to the grind. Concerned local citizens predictably opposed aspects of the new stadium project, and Earthquakes officials responded with concessions and negotiations. By early 2012, the stage was set for the club to clear the last procedural hurdle to initiating construction of the new stadium.
On Feb. 22, 2012, San Jose’s city hall council chamber was overflowing with blue and black clad supporters of the stadium project. A semicircle of planning commissioners listened intently to a long line of people both in support and against the last appeal of the project. And, after what seemed to be an indeterminate length of time, the commission voted overwhelming to deny the appeal and let the Earthquakes go about their business. Eschewing decorum, the crowd roared their approval and dispersed into downtown San Jose to celebrate the night.
All systems were “go” for the new stadium, and team officials and contractors sped up their efforts to design the entire structure and surrounding grounds. Luxury suites and club seating were already being snapped up by loyal fans, and season ticket holders were lining up for their chance to secure seats. By the summer, city officials had also approved a project to install four new soccer fields adjacent to the stadium site, helping create a true center for soccer in San Jose. In all, six full soccer fields will be concentrated at the location, providing recreation opportunities to the public and a facility worthy of hosting any of a number of prestigious tournaments and events.
By the fall, with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a franchise that on the field was well on their way to capturing the Supporters’ Shield, the team held a Guinness World Record setting groundbreaking ceremony. Over 6,000 commemorative blue shovels were enthusiastically thrust into the very same soil that would one day support a lush grass playing surface inside the new stadium. By virtue of the dust in the air, supporters could actually taste the progress.
Which leads to this week and the start of the next phase in the new stadium saga, as rubble is removed and contractors and builders begin to move in en masse. Good things seem to happen at this time of year regarding the new stadium, which portends the grandest of grand opening ceremonies in March 2014. “Build it now!” is actually now, and for the city, the club, the players, and the fans, it couldn’t have come soon enough.