By Liam Dillon.
In 2001, the city of San Diego settled a lawsuit with disability rights activists by promising to make Qualcomm Stadium fully accessible to everyone by the following year.
But, despite multiple federal court orders and at least $5 million in repairs, the stadium still isn’t fixed. Every year that passes means more money the city has to pay out to make up for the stadium’s inaccessibility.
The legal settlement called for the city to provide discounted tickets and free parking for people with disabilities at Chargers games. These perks were supposed to end once the stadium was fixed.
But because the stadium repairs aren’t done, the programs have continued. Last year, taxpayers shelled out more than $600,000 in rent subsidies to the Chargers to pay for the discounted tickets and free parking at games.
This means that taxpayers likely have spent more than $10 million in facility upgrades and rent subsidies related to disabled access at Qualcomm Stadium, and the issue is still not resolved.
So the city will be paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars more annually for these perks for at least another four years, per the terms of the settlement.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer has given no indication that he wants to end the ADA subsidies at all. Mayoral spokesman Matt Awbrey sidestepped questions about Faulconer’s position on them.
“The mayor is focused on a new stadium,” Awbrey said.
The situation began with the city’s decision in 1997 to renovate Qualcomm Stadium, including adding seats so the stadium could host Super Bowls. As part of that renovation, the city was required to upgrade Qualcomm to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. It didn’t.
Disability rights advocates quickly sued. In 2001, the case settled with all sorts of provisions to make the stadium ADA compatible and to compensate people with disabilities. The discounted tickets and free parking at Chargers games were just one provision. The city was forced to add wheelchair seating and ramps and upgrade restrooms and concession stands, among other renovations.
These changes created problems with Qualcomm’s main tenant, the Chargers. The city promised to make the team whole for any ADA-related losses. Discounted tickets and free parking for disabled people would hit the Chargers’ bottom line. So in 2004,the city agreed to reduce the Chargers’ rent by those amounts each year, nullifying any losses for the team. A couple years later, an arbitrator forced the city to cut the team an additional annual check for revenue it lost because the city had to rip out seats to comply with the settlement. It’s primarily for ADA reasons that the city ends up paying the Chargers to play at Qualcomm each year, even though the team owes the city millions in rent.
Some of these taxpayer costs, such as the discounted tickets and free parking, could have ended as early as 2006, according to the settlement’s terms, had the city actually made the stadium ADA compliant.
But the city had difficulties with the fixes as soon as the settlement’s ink dried. Court filings from the case reveal a constant back-and-forth between the city’s lawyers and Amy Vandeveld, the attorney for the disability rights activists. By 2003, the city said it had made $5 million in repairs, including new elevators, accessible seating and parking lots. The remaining issues, such as the appropriate distance between grab bars and the walls in restrooms, were minor, the city said.
No matter what still needed to be done, the fight continued. The federal judge in the case ordered the city to finish all repairs by April 1, 2009, and the last filing in the court docket comes from around that time. Had the city made the fixes by then, its obligation to provide discounted tickets and free parking with people would disabilities would have ended in 2013.
Awbrey said that the city received extensions to the 2009 court order and continues to work collaboratively with Vandeveld, the attorney for the disability rights activists on ADA issues at the stadium.
“While complete ADA modifications are not yet finished, it should be noted that state ADA requirements vary from year to year and the city continues to evaluate the feasibility and timing of implementation,” Awbrey said.
Vandeveld didn’t respond to multiple phone calls, emails and a note left at her office. Her voicemail message includes instructions for how to get disabled-access tickets to events at Qualcomm.
Mark Fabiani, a Chargers attorney, said the team has nothing to do with the city’s ADA problems at the stadium because the city pledged to hold the Chargers harmless in the initial lawsuit.
“We do not have any part, as a tenant, in how the city is complying with the settlement it agreed to,” Fabiani said.
The city’s annual payouts in this case have added up. Awbrey didn’t immediately provide the total cost to the city for the discounted tickets and free parking. But the $600,000 in Chargers rent the city forgave last year is likely a good estimate for the annual bill. That means the city has probably paid out more than $5 million it could have saved had the city made all the fixes at Qualcomm right away.
Combined with the $5 million the city poured into renovations to accommodate the disabled, that could be as much as $10 million taxpayer money. And even these figures don’t include the ADA-related check the city cuts the Chargers every year, which has added an additional $10.5 million to the total since 2006.
Awbrey also didn’t provide a list of what still needs upgrading at the stadium to make it ADA compliant or what it might cost to do it. But even if the repairs were finished this year, the settlement says that the discounted tickets and free parking must continue for another four years afterward. By 2019, it’s likely a new stadium will be under construction in San Diego or the team will be playing somewhere else.