5 Things to Know about the Convention Center Expansion

5 Things to Know about the Convention Center Expansion

File photo

San Diego's Convention Center

A chorus of political and business leaders has recently rallied around a Convention Center expansion years in the making.

They say a $520 million investment to expand the city’s 24-year-old convention center will bring an economic boost to the city in the form of more conventions and hotel visitors. They plan to bolster the current facility on Harbor Drive with another 225,000 square feet of exhibit space and additional ballrooms and meeting spaces.

Their plans also include a five-acre park on the roof of the revamped center and an additional hotel tower.

But the expansion faces a crossroads next month. The state Coastal Commission will either approve the Convention Center project or force supporters back to the drawing board.

It’s also unclear whether the plan to fund the project will survive additional court reviews.

Here’s a look at some of the key issues.

Who wants to expand the Convention Center and why?

A broad coalition of politicians supports the expansion. Backers include a majority of the San Diego City Council, Assemblywomen Toni Atkins and Lorena Gonzalez and many more. Local business groups, including the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Economic Development Corp., are also vocal supporters.

They argue the expansion is key to securing conventions that have said the current space isn’t large enough to accommodate them.

Supporters insist the expansion is crucial to keeping Comic-Con, one of the city’s largest annual conventions.

They claim the expansion will draw millions to San Diego in coming decades and ensure the city remains a top convention destination.

Not everyone agrees. The Chargers have been the most public opponent of the project. Union leaders previously spoke out against it but former Mayor Jerry Sanders managed to corral their support in his final days in office.

Who’s paying for it?

• Hotel visitors: They’ll pay an extra 1 percent to 3 percent on top of their hotel bills. Those staying closer to the Convention Center will pay more than than visitors staying outside downtown. This tax, similar to the city’s funding formula for the Tourism Marketing District, is expected to raise more than $1 billion over the next three decades.

• The Port District: The port, which oversees tidelands including the location of the Convention Center expansion, has promised to commit $60 million over the next 20 years.

• The city’s day-to-day budget: The city pledged $105 million, or $3.5 million annually, over 30 years. This annual contribution will come from the city’s operations fund, which also supports public safety, libraries and other city services.

What’s the deal with the Coastal Commission vote?

The expansion involves development along the ocean, so the state agency charged with overseeing access and land use along California’s coastal areas must sign off.

That means a formal vote by the 12-member Coastal Commission, which is set to discuss the Convention Center expansion at its meeting in San Diego the second week of October. (The three-day meeting spans from Oct. 9 through Oct. 11 and city officials have yet to hear which day the Convention Center will be discussed.)

Coastal Commission staffers have spent recent weeks studying the city’s proposal and conferring with port and city officials on potential last-minute changes to their blueprint. Next week, they’ll submit a report with their view of whether the Convention Center expansion should go forward.

That report will likely focus on whether the expansion would allow sufficient public access to the oceanfront park behind the Convention Center and views of the coastline.

The appointed Coastal Commission will consider staffers’ recommendations before they vote on whether to allow the project to go forward.

What about the Chargers?

The Chargers have long been critical of the current blueprint to expand the Convention Center, citing issues with both the hotel tax structure and the waterfront location. Meanwhile, they’ve been on the lookout for a new facility to replace the aging Qualcomm Stadium.

The NFL team formalized its opposition to the expansion late last month by submitting an alternative plan to the Coastal Commission.

“From a development perspective, the plan before the commission fails to capitalize on San Diego’s greatest assets and literally cuts downtown off from its waterfront,” Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani wrote in an Aug. 30 letter to the Coastal Commission.

Fabiani suggested Convention Center backers could save money and avoid coastal impacts by building a multipurpose facility that, of course, includes a football stadium east of Tailgate Park in East Village. That’s about a half mile from the Convention Center.

Convention Center backers weren’t swayed. Steven Johnson, a consultant working for the Convention Center Corp., said Sanders’ citizen task force dismissed Tailgate Park as a potential expansion location in 2009.

Indeed, the group’s final report concluded the site wouldn’t work because it’s blocks away from the current Convention Center on Harbor Drive and it’s also home to an earthquake fault line. The group considered six different configurations but none was ideal.

That may not be enough to convince the Coastal Commission.

“The fact that (the Chargers are) offering an alternative that they’re suggesting has fewer coastal impacts is certainly relevant,” said Diana Lilly, a Coastal Commission planner.

Does Coastal Commission approval mean the project goes forward?

Not necessarily.

More than a year ago, the city filed a lawsuit to determine whether its plan to tax hotel guests to help fund the Convention Center expansion is legal. (Hoteliers approved the increase in a private vote conducted by the city.)

At the time, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith acknowledged he wasn’t certain the scheme would hold up in court, and attorney Cory Briggs of San Diegans for Open Government and activist Mel Shapiro joined the suit due to concerns the city approved a tax without a public vote.

In March, Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager ruled that the scheme is legal but Briggs and Shapiro have appealed.

This week, Briggs estimated the appeal process would likely continue until the end of next year. If the case moves onto the California Supreme Court, it could stretch out until 2015.

Proponents of the expansion hope to break ground on the facility at the end of next year.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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