On April 11, 2015, an Earthquake struck 2.5 miles north of Downtown San Jose with its epicenter at 1123 Coleman Ave. Earthquakes in Northern California are not a rare occurrence, and they hit at unexpected times, but this tremor was different. This Earthquake had been building for almost two decades and everyone in this location that night knew precisely when the quake was coming. The seismograph that caught the ground movement has the official, albeit colorless, USGS designation of J068_NC_01 and it sits at Avaya Stadium home of the San Jose Earthquakes. The movement it caught was not a shift of the San Andreas Fault but the excited jumps of 18,000 jubilant fans celebrating a Sanna Nyassi 75th-minute goal against Vancouver Whitecaps in a spring match in the South Bay.
This seemingly insignificant early season MLS match didn’t mean much in the standings, but to the supporters in the stands, this win meant that the leagues most nomadic team had finally found its home. How they eventually built that home is a story of patient millionaires, creative city zoning amendments and even more patient and devoted fanbase.
December 15, 2005, is the darkest day in San Jose Earthquakes history. That was the day the then owner AEG announced that it was putting the team on hiatus after attempts to build a stadium in Northern California fell through. This announcement came after the Earthquakes had their best season ever losing only four times and amassing 64 points en route to the teams first ever supporters shield. Several community organizations and supporters did all they could by packing city council meetings, emptying their piggy banks and reaching out to anyone that would listen but ultimately no deal was reached. The team was then shipped out to Houston, Texas where they promptly won the next two MLS Cups. Even with this success, the league had made it clear, without a new stadium MLS would not return to the Bay Area.
The country and MLS were different in 2005. The league was just under a decade old and the “American soccer experiment” still had a real chance of failing also the internet and social media were not yet aware of the power they wielded. As much as San Jose soccer lovers tried it was just not possible to mount the type of pressure on MLS that was recently put on them when they decided to ship Columbus Crew, another of the original teams, to Austin, Texas. So without a last second miracle everything moved out East overnight, but that was not the end of MLS in Northern California.
According to people I spoke with within the Earthquakes front office, some of them knew before the announcement of the team’s relocation became public there were already plans to bring the team back to the Bay Area. Even the ones that didn’t know probably had their ideas to bring the team back. A little over five months later, in May 2006, some of those intentions became public when it was announced that Lew Wolff and John Fisher, owners of the Oakland A’s, were granted a 3-year option to build a stadium and bring a soccer team back to the Bay Area.
I have never met Lew Wolff but his resume is impressive, and his business deals have been shrewd and mostly successful. Wolff earned his wealth after a successful real estate career that had him owning hotels, malls, and office buildings all over the country, but he has had a fascination with sports teams for years. Other than the aforementioned A’s at one point or another Wolff has also been part owner of the St. Louis Blues of the NHL and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors before jumping into the soccer scene with the Earthquakes. Wolff’s extensive knowledge of real estate dealings seemingly gave him an advantage when he needed real estate for his newly purchased soccer team.
In September of 2006, the Earthquakes updated their website for the first time in years which was the first sign that something was happening with the team and a potential new stadium. Behind the scenes, team officials were talking with San Jose State University about replacing the aging Spartan Stadium with a new stadium that would be shared by the university and the Earthquakes. This would solve the stadium issue, but it would still be a shared facility where the Earthquakes would not be in full control of things like parking and other sources of revenue. As quickly as MLS was maturing this was a difficult pill for the Quakes ownership to swallow. Ultimately the team decided that to achieve their goals for the future it needed to build a home on its own and negotiations with the university ended in April 2007.
Updates about the new stadium came sparingly until June 2007 when the Earthquakes approached city officials with a plan to buy property adjacent to San Jose International Airport on a piece of land called Airport West to build their new stadium. Not only would a stadium be built, but a long-neglected and expensive piece of land would transform into a mix of retail and office space. This piece of land cost the city $8 million a year to maintain mostly because the property used to house a significant manufacturing facility for a company called FMC which built military vehicles like the legendary M113 and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This heavy industrial use left a substantial amount of contamination in the soil which would be expensive to clean up.
Purchasing such a large piece of property in 2008 was a gamble for those involved. San Jose may be the largest city in Northern California and the capital of Silicon Valley but it is always in the shadow of its flashier neighbor to the north, and there was no guarantee that this massive stadium/office/retail development would work. Developers could gamble building large office buildings in San Francisco where tech companies will burn all their investments to get office space in a sexy corner of SOMA, but downtown San Jose was Adobe and the Sharks, that’s it. Wolff needed a way to assure city officials that he was serious about this development and he knew exactly what to offer.
A Deal is Proposed
From the announcement of the project Wolff was adamant that they would build the stadium with as little public money as possible, Wolff did not want the plan to go to a city-wide vote; he felt he could build it with his own money, “but.” With big money projects that get built with private funds, there is always a “but,” and Avaya was no exception. It all centered around a property 9 miles to the south of Airport West owned by a company called iStar, a 76-acre triangle of land creatively known as the “iStar parcel.”
This was a mostly undeveloped piece of land in South San Jose that was supposed to be home to a bustling community of tech manufacturers, but those plans never worked out. Now it was a neglected property in a city where large pieces of land were becoming increasingly scarce. Wolff and Co had their eyes set on redeveloping this site into a mix of housing, retail, and offices but they needed an amendment to the city zoning rules to make their dream a reality. Their plan called for over 700 homes, 154,000 square feet of retail space and 260,000 square feet of office space which would dramatically increase the value of the land. This increased value, projected at over $80 million, would give Wolff enough extra cash to build the stadium at the Airport West site without any public money. This plan would develop one of the most significant pieces of underutilized land in San Jose relieving the city of its financial burden on the Airport West property and finally build a permanent stadium for the Earthquakes.
On May 21, 2008, the San Jose city council approved a deal to sell 65 acres of the Airport West property to Wolff and his partners for $89 million, 18 of those acres would be used to build the soccer stadium. The sale of the property closed in April 2009 one year after the Quakes returned to the league and in September the team released their first renderings of the new stadium.
The supporters were excited that the team was finally going to have a home, but officials with the city of San Jose were less excited with the renderings. According to city documents, some officials thought the stadium “as approved is comparable to a scaled-down version of publicly-funded stadiums.” That is about as harsh of a critique a government agency can hand down. The original plan also called for the team to bring over the scoreboard from Buck Shaw Stadium where the team was currently playing and didn’t have nearly as many concession stands as the version of Avaya that was eventually built.
The most controversial aspect of the stadium design was the “outside skin.” The original renderings did not include any covering on the outside of the stadium revealing all the steelwork that holds the stadium up. The city wanted the team to wrap the stadium in terra cotta or similar material to cover up that steel and further renderings released by the team included different skins for the stadium. Ultimately the stadium was built with the no skin leaving the steel bones exposed. Recently the team has asked the city to leave the stadium without any skin which had re-ignited the debate. Whether the stadium remains naked or covered by some skin is a question for the future.
Ultimately Wolff ended up moving forward with his stadium plans. He didn’t need the iStar property deal to go through first. He felt the stadium plan was strong enough to stand on its own. The first piece that was built on the property was the teams training ground which opened in April of 2010 and is still in use. The groundbreaking for the stadium occurred on October 21, 2012, when 6,256 people wielding golden shovels broke a Guinness world record to mark to beginning of construction. Originally the opening was scheduled for the 2014 season, but the property’s history decided it would factor into that date. Almost as soon as construction workers started digging to build the foundation a series of underground bunkers were found, apparently a relic from the war machine building days. First, the team moved the opening to the middle of the 2014 season then as the bunkers continued to slow construction the team announced that the stadium would not be ready until the 2015 season.
Avaya Stadium finally made its debut on February 28, 2015, when the Quakes beat their heated rival LA Galaxy 3-2 under rainy skies in San Jose.
Fortunately for Quakes fans the team made some alterations to the original design before the first one walked through the gate and added more permanent concessions and left the old scoreboard at Buck Shaw. The rapid development of MLS has many Earthquakes supporters feeling like their home stadium is inadequate. They see video’s of Minnesota United’s new stadium lighting up the night sky or 70,000 people at Mercedes-Benz in Atlanta and somehow feel like they got the short end of the stick, but those are new franchises trying to prove themselves in their markets.
The Earthquakes are MLS originals, and their objectives are different from other teams. The trophy case already has MLS titles, and Supporters Shields and some of the most legendary players in league history have worn black-and-blue. What was missing all these years was a permanent home to show off all that history. The land around Avaya is still an active construction zone, and in the future, the stadium will have a different name and a new look, but the story of how this stadium came to be built will remain. And it will always be a fantastic story worthy of MLS originals.