SAN FRANCISCO — A planned $525-million waterside stadium and mall complex, sold to voters last summer as a job- and revenue-generating bonanza, is in trouble. And city officials are blaming a family feud between owners of the San Francisco 49ers football team.
Things began going wrong for the project last December, when Edward "Eddie" DeBartolo Jr., chairman of the 49ers, learned that he was the target of a federal investigation into the award of gaming licenses in Louisiana. DeBartolo resigned as chairman, saying that he was innocent but needed to devote his energies to his legal defense against an expected bribery charge in the Louisiana case. His sister, Marie Denise DeBartolo York, replaced him.
Soon after the transition, the proposed 75,000-seat stadium and 1.4-million-square-foot mall--promoted by Mayor Willie Brown as a way to create 10,000 jobs and revitalize San Francisco's poorest neighborhood, Bayview-Hunter's Point--began to go haywire.
City officials said it became clear in negotiations with the 49ers over stadium details that DeBartolo York did not share her brother's enthusiasm for the project. Last summer, San Francisco voters approved a $100-million public bond sale to help finance the stadium. But the rest of the financing was to come from the DeBartolos and their partners, the Virginia-based Mills Corp.
Two weeks ago, DeBartolo York made her reservations public. She shocked city officials by issuing a news release complaining that the projected cost of the stadium-mall was $175 million more than voters were told when they approved the bond sale. DeBartolo York said she has decided to slow the project down until the overruns can be resolved, but she offered no details on the reasons for the higher costs or how they could be cut.
Brown said he was mystified by the statement. There are no cost overruns on the project as far as he knows, the mayor said. He and his aides blamed the problems on family squabbles.
"It's a lot more about in-fighting among the DeBartolo corporation and the DeBartolo family than any thing else," said P.J. Johnston, Brown's spokesman. "Mayor Brown is confident it will be resolved."
DeBartolo York's second thoughts are a serious political embarrassment for Brown, who spearheaded the 49ers' come-from-behind campaign for the bond measure.
Brown "went out of his way and did yeoman's duty to make sure this thing would pass," said Sam Singer, a public relations consultant who worked on the 49ers' campaign. "Now he is just sort of left standing there."
Clint Reilly, a political consultant who spent $100,000 of his own money trying to defeat the stadium measure, said he is not surprised that the project is now in trouble.
"It has come out that the arithmetic of the project was highly provisional, that the ownership is at war internally and that one of the principal owners has serious questions about the wisdom of continuing," Reilly said.
Sources close to Eddie DeBartolo say there is little likelihood that he will quickly resolve either his legal problems in Louisiana or his dispute with his sister over ownership of the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., which the pair inherited from their father. DeBartolo York is said to want her brother to sign an agreement relinquishing control of the 49ers and his place on the board of directors of the corporation.
One day before DeBartolo York issued her statement from corporate headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio, 49ers President Carmen Policy acknowledged the tensions between the siblings. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Policy said that DeBartolo "is in the process of resolving business issues with his sister and the family corporation. . . . I think they both understand that it's in the best interest of the family, the corporation and the 49ers to come to terms."
Policy declined to comment for this story. His office referred calls to Steven Kay, a San Francisco attorney named to the board of directors of the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. when Eddie DeBartolo stepped aside from the board in December. Kay did not return phone calls seeking comment. DeBartolo's office also said he was unavailable for comment.
But sources close to Eddie DeBartolo say that DeBartolo York is dismayed by her brother's ventures into mostly money-losing casino and card room gambling enterprises in Oklahoma, Ohio, Louisiana and California and is fed up with his lavish lifestyle.
DeBartolo York is described by associates as a more conservative, cautious businessperson than her flamboyant brother. Chairwoman of the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., she chose to stay near the family's roots in Youngstown, while Eddie DeBartolo moved to the pricey San Francisco peninsula of Atherton, where he built a mansion a few years ago.
With her husband, John C. York II, DeBartolo York focuses on the family's portfolio of suburban malls, commercial and industrial properties and its three racetracks.