6 Things to Know About the Big Convention Center Vote

6 Things to Know About the Big Convention Center Vote

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The San Diego Convention Center

City power brokers have long pushed a $520 million Convention Center expansion.

But on Thursday, the fate of the project is in the state Coastal Commission’s hands.

The commission, which must sign off any shoreline developments across the state, is set to vote on whether to allow the roughly 400,000 square-foot expansion.

Backers say the project is crucial to securing large conventions and that the city’s current space isn’t large enough to accommodate their needs. They project it’ll bring millions to the region but taxpayers will chip in to make it happen.

Here’s a primer on some of the key concerns likely to be raised and what you should know ahead of the Thursday vote.

Coastal Commission staffers aren’t endorsing the expansion.

In a report released last week, staffers recommended appointed commissioners vote against the expansion, calling it an unprecedented move that impact views and access to the coast.

“Specifically, constructing the 100-foot high, 1,000-foot-long expanded (San Diego Convention Center) building only 35 feet from the existing public promenade, 70 feet from the water’s edge, will significantly diminish the spacious, open feel of the existing public access way, and will contribute to the sense that the shoreline is part of the Convention Center,” staffers wrote.

They also raised concerns about the need for a pedestrian bridge linking the Convention Center and the nearby Gaslamp District. Reaching the shoreline now requires visitors to cross traffic and railways, or to walk around the Convention Center. Coastal Commission staffers argued a pedestrian bridge would make things easier and allow residents and visitors to check out the center’s five-acre rooftop park.

They also referenced concerns about blocked views and the potential narrowing of Park Boulevard, which winds behind the Convention Center and serves as the only route to a park behind the facility. They feared the expansion would also block coastal views from the Park Boulevard pedestrian bridge.

The Coastal Commission doesn’t always follow staffers’ recommendations.

The 11 appointed commissioners have the discretion to vote for or against the proposed expansion, and while they’ll likely take staffers’ recommendations into consideration they don’t always do so.

The commission voted to build the Convention Center in the late 1980s despite staffers’ objections.

I couldn’t find any broad analyses of just how often the Coastal Commission goes against staffers’ suggestions but Convention Center backers are hopeful it’ll happen again.

Hired consultants have briefed each commissioner on the proposed expansion ahead of the vote.

Expansion backers have agreed to some changes.

Expansion backers agreed to several tweaks before staffers issued their report.

The most significant involved nixing plans for two meeting rooms in the southeast corner of the expanded Convention Center

Here’s what that will look like.

Photo courtesy San Diego Convention Center Corp.

Photo courtesy San Diego Convention Center Corp.

That agreement cost the Convention Center about 15,000 square feet of space, said Steven Johnson, a spokesman for the Convention Center Corp.

There’s one thing Convention Center backers and commission staffers haven’t agreed on: that pedestrian bridge.

In 2009, former Mayor Jerry Sanders pulled together a task force on the Convention Center expansion.

The group recommended a $41.9 million bridge at 4th Avenue and Harbor Drive but Convention Center boosters ultimately decided against it.

Here’s some visual perspective on where they planned to put the bridge.

Photo courtesy California Coastal Commission

Photo courtesy of the California Coastal Commission

But Convention Center backers say they never found a way to pay for the bridge.

Coastal Commission staffers suggested that didn’t have to kill the idea.

Perhaps the Unified Port of San Diego could add the bridge to its plans and then seek cash to support it in coming years, they wrote. If the money didn’t materialize, officials could return to the Coastal Commission and propose another way to improve coastal access.

Port officials weren’t willing to commit.

Port Commissioner Bob Nelson told U-T San Diego he supports improved access but fears committing to a specific solution – the bridge – could create liabilities for the port if it can’t find the money.

“I am not prepared to risk the financial resources of the port on what could be a very costly legal battle created as a result of questionable action on our part in committing future actions by a future port board,” Nelson said.

Even an approval vote doesn’t seal the deal on the project.

A legal case that hinges on whether the city’s plan to tax hotel guests to help fund the expansion isn’t over yet.

Supporters expansion are relying on a projected $1 billion over three decades from a 1 to 3 percent charge on city hotel stays to help fund the expansion. Without it, the expansion plans crumble.

The city filed a lawsuit to determine whether the scheme was legal last year and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith acknowledged he wasn’t certain it would hold up in court. Attorney Cory Briggs and activist Mel Shapiro joined the suit, alleging that the city should have held a public vote before allowing the tax.

A judge ruled that the city’s plan is legal earlier this year but Briggs and Shapiro continue to pursue this case.

Briggs estimates the appeal process could continue until the end of 2014, and stretch until 2015 if it goes to the state Supreme Court.

Regardless, expansion supporters don’t think they need a backup plan … yet.

Interim Mayor Todd Gloria was confident  that a fallback plan wasn’t necessary in a recent  interview with U-T San Diego.

“I don’t think we need Plan B because I’m feeling pretty confident that we’re going to be able to break ground on this thing very soon,” he said.

Johnson, the Convention Center Corp. spokesman, seems to feel the same.

“You regroup and deal with it when the situation arises,” Johnson said. “Right now we’re totally focused on getting it through the Coastal Commission.”

One of the renderings in this post has been updated.

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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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18 comments
David Crossley
David Crossley

So, based on previous experience with a pedestrian bridge over Harbor Dr., will this one (if it is built) also double in price by the time it is finished?

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

So, based on previous experience with a pedestrian bridge over Harbor Dr., will this one (if it is built) also double in price by the time it is finished?

Carol Simpson
Carol Simpson

The building is too large with too big a footprint on the Bay.

Carol Simpson
Carol Simpson subscribermember

The building is too large with too big a footprint on the Bay.

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot

"But Convention Center backers say they never found a way to pay for the bridge." It certainly looks like the bridge was cut in order to save costs. If they want to pay for it, it's not complicated: they build it into the project costs and have a new (old, really) financing target. Lisa, you ever get an explanation for why the estimate for the expansion went from $1B in 2009 to $750M to $700M to $550M to $520M by the end of 2011?

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot subscriber

"But Convention Center backers say they never found a way to pay for the bridge." It certainly looks like the bridge was cut in order to save costs. If they want to pay for it, it's not complicated: they build it into the project costs and have a new (old, really) financing target. Lisa, you ever get an explanation for why the estimate for the expansion went from $1B in 2009 to $750M to $700M to $550M to $520M by the end of 2011?

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt author

Thank you for making me aware, Steven. I just updated the image to better reflect the new plan.

sandiegosteven
sandiegosteven

Lisa, the graphic with the red drawing on the proposed expansion overstates the pull back of the building significantly. The reduction does not include the elimination of the outdoor terrace as it is represented in your image. Just wanted your readers to know it isn't a drawing that we provided but that you "illustrated on" after we provided the image.

Don Wood
Don Wood

San Diego has traditionally been a predatory port town. Since the 1800s, Navy ships pulled into a pier at the foot of Fifth Avenue and sailors on leave spilled out into the Stingaree neighborhood. There they were sold liquor, prostitutes, rolled or killed for the money in their pockets. The money from those illicit activities went into the pockets of wealthy local property owners who ran the bars and brothels there. Those parties used the money they got to buy local politicians and control the local police force. Local San Diegans never went down there for fear of being mugged. Today, not much has changed. The Navy sailors have been replaced by wealthy Midwest tourists on holiday. They still buy booze and prostitutes, and sometimes get mugged or killed for their money. When the Stingaree district began gentrifying into today's Gaslamp District, the predators moved closer to the downtown waterfront. They bought up the votes of local and state politicians, Port Commissioners, and even some state coastal commissioners, and built a monstrous concrete convention center complex and giant hotel complexes that walled and fenced the bayfront off from downtown and only lets in paying tourists. Local San Diegan's can visit their waterfront only if they're willing to spend several hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, restaurants and drinks. That makes our downtown waterfront off limits for most local residents and their families. Now those same predators are demanding that this Coastal Commission bend over one more time, and let them put the last brick in the almost solid concrete waterfront wall they’ve built along the South Embarcadero. If they get away with this illegal proposal, they will turn their attention to walling off the North Embarcadero next. The coastal commissioners were appointed to uphold and enforce the California Coastal Act. The commission's own staff and the California State Attorney General’s office have carefully examined this proposal and found that it violates both the coastal act and the California Environmental Quality Act (since the project EIR did not assess viable alternatives that could have expanded the facility off public tidelands). The Coastal Act is very clear. Legally the commission must deny a coastal development permit for this proposed project, it and cannot try to modify it or add new conditions to a coastal development permit after the project was formally submitted. Based on the recommendations of it's own staff and the state AG's office, it has no option but to reject this project. The Port can come back if it develops a new proposal that complies with the law.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

San Diego has traditionally been a predatory port town. Since the 1800s, Navy ships pulled into a pier at the foot of Fifth Avenue and sailors on leave spilled out into the Stingaree neighborhood. There they were sold liquor, prostitutes, rolled or killed for the money in their pockets. The money from those illicit activities went into the pockets of wealthy local property owners who ran the bars and brothels there. Those parties used the money they got to buy local politicians and control the local police force. Local San Diegans never went down there for fear of being mugged. Today, not much has changed. The Navy sailors have been replaced by wealthy Midwest tourists on holiday. They still buy booze and prostitutes, and sometimes get mugged or killed for their money. When the Stingaree district began gentrifying into today's Gaslamp District, the predators moved closer to the downtown waterfront. They bought up the votes of local and state politicians, Port Commissioners, and even some state coastal commissioners, and built a monstrous concrete convention center complex and giant hotel complexes that walled and fenced the bayfront off from downtown and only lets in paying tourists. Local San Diegan's can visit their waterfront only if they're willing to spend several hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, restaurants and drinks. That makes our downtown waterfront off limits for most local residents and their families. Now those same predators are demanding that this Coastal Commission bend over one more time, and let them put the last brick in the almost solid concrete waterfront wall they’ve built along the South Embarcadero. If they get away with this illegal proposal, they will turn their attention to walling off the North Embarcadero next. The coastal commissioners were appointed to uphold and enforce the California Coastal Act. The commission's own staff and the California State Attorney General’s office have carefully examined this proposal and found that it violates both the coastal act and the California Environmental Quality Act (since the project EIR did not assess viable alternatives that could have expanded the facility off public tidelands). The Coastal Act is very clear. Legally the commission must deny a coastal development permit for this proposed project, it and cannot try to modify it or add new conditions to a coastal development permit after the project was formally submitted. Based on the recommendations of it's own staff and the state AG's office, it has no option but to reject this project. The Port can come back if it develops a new proposal that complies with the law.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt

Good question. I did delve into this a bit but I'd like to spend more time researching before I write anything.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt author

Good question. I did delve into this a bit but I'd like to spend more time researching before I write anything.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt

Thank you for making me aware, Steven. I just updated the image to better reflect the new plan.

Sandiego72h
Sandiego72h

Mr. Wood, you obviously have never been behind the convention center and hotels that apparently only allow hotel guests to use and that's the problem with a growing amount of people in San Diego. They latch on to a person or groups convictions of a topic and even add a touch of their own inaccuracies to shoot down something that doesn't directly benefit themselves. I would love to address the so called, "monstrous concrete convention center complex and giant hotel complexes that walled and fenced the bayfront off from downtown." That is a out right lie. First of all the impressive pedestrian bridge that can be entered right across from Petco Park which by the way is pretty darned close not only to downtown but the Gaslamp District itself. Once you cross that award wining bridge it's a short walk to the bay at the south side of the convention center. You can also cross the street and go around the hotels. A pedestrian bridge at that location would be nice too but that's a conversation for another day. Now if you viewed the video that showed all the great improvements to the convention center, the back of the convention center at ground level that faces the bay will have lease space for shops and restaurants that will span the second part of the convention center (The phase 2 expansion and proposed addition at south end) as well as wide walkways for beautiful views of the bay. Please watch the video. That's what it's there for, you will be impressed as I was. As for the "Monstrous concrete convention center complex" you are making it out to be something that starts at the container ship terminal and ends at the Coast Guard Station across from the airport. I am sure we can all agree that's not the case. After you get past the hotels north of the convention center that on the bay side have a grass park and boat terminal accessible in and around the hotels for the general public as well as those guests who stay at the hotels. After that it's more shopping (expansion of the shopping center with the remodel of the old police station and surrounding area). with walkways that show the bay, then some more open space and restaurants and the impressive Midway Aircraft Carrier. All that are is open space that can be reached from downtown, Then their is the Navy Complex that just ruins the flow of places to see and visit. It's not even in use, but that's another story. Then you reach giant sail ships, tour boats, boat museums and they are all accessible from downtown. Right along Harbor Blvd that has parking and is downtown, so there is even more access to the bay. Go for yourself and look I am not lying. Getting back to the convention center I have been to many conventions there and raising the height of it for the expansion is not going to make it look like a 3 or 4 block cement wall. It is actually quiet impressive and has been the background for a number of Hollywood films because of it's architecture. Ok, Ok, maybe the films that were made might not be what you or I call Oscar winners but guess what? The convention center just got itself free advertising thanks to that movie. All it takes is that one booking executive to see it and our city and say, "I want our companies convention there." It's a fact that expanding the convention center is going to bring even bigger conventions our way. Also when you watch the video of the proposed convention center expansion you are going to be amazed at the beautiful park that's on top of it. Another place for festivals, music venues, farmers markets, picnics and people like myself walking my dog looking out over the bay and on to Coronado bridge and community. This expansion will allow the whole city to enjoy it many aspects. The architects got this right and many believe the convention center will be one of the many things that rest of society will see when the countless news stations will show when they are doing the story of the Medical convention, the Automotive convention, Arts convention and of course Comic Con that bring Millions (10's of millions) of tax dollars to our economy as well as the exposure San Diego gets from the worldwide news coverage. Remember the bigger the convention the more area hotels/ motels away from the convention center as well as businesses gain to profit from the attendees. It's a fact, see for yourself when one of the many large conventions come to San Diego. It benefits everyone not just downtown. It's not how it's funded that's bringing out the lawsuits it's that they don't want the expansion done in it's current form. They want a stadium/ convention center that is three blocks from the current convention center and if they believe that will actually work I have some land in Florida they might be interested in. The people filling the lawsuit want the money spent elseware and it's their way or the highway mentality. Basically saying if it doesn't benefit us directly were not interested. It's been talked about in this city and a lot of projects for decades and it's wrong. San Diego needs to keep moving forward to stay with cities that are enticing visitors and businesses and most of all are dying to steal San Diego's current big name conventions. What you wrote about the city in the beginning of your post is outright fiction. This is not Cleveland. Downtown before the late 80's was not a place to have fun. No restaurants, bars, shops and even street lights in most places. but let me quote you once again, "The Navy sailors have been replaced by wealthy Midwest tourists on holiday. They still buy booze and prostitutes, and sometimes get mugged or killed for their money. When the Stingaree district began gentrifying into today's Gaslamp District, the predators moved closer to the downtown waterfront." That is an attack at the men and women of our Armed Forces that live in our city. Without them San Diego wouldn't be what it is today. To say sailors buy booze and prostitutes is a slap in the face of these brave men and women, most of whom have families and live here. What information do you have that wealthy Midwest tourists buy booze and prostitutes? Where are you hearing about all of these servicemen and tourists getting killed downtown? That is another of your statements I find troubling Mr. Wood.

David Hall
David Hall

" Local San Diegan's can visit their waterfront only if they're willing to spend several hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, restaurants and drinks. " Patently absurd. As a local, I can walk pretty much unimpeded from pt loma to the Coronado bridge, hardly more than a stone's throw away from the water. Day after day after day, without spending a penny.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

" Local San Diegan's can visit their waterfront only if they're willing to spend several hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, restaurants and drinks. " Patently absurd. As a local, I can walk pretty much unimpeded from pt loma to the Coronado bridge, hardly more than a stone's throw away from the water. Day after day after day, without spending a penny.

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage

The original $1 Billion price tag including taxpayers funding the private 500 room Hilton Tower and Banquet Hall. After complaints, the cost for the proposed Hilton Hotel addition was taken out of future cost estimates. Also if construction costs exceed the $520 million, the remaining Incremental Tax from the existing 10.5% TOT is already pledge by the City Council for project overruns. If the construction costs exceed all the Incremental TOT, the General Fund is ultimately responsible.

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage subscribermember

The original $1 Billion price tag including taxpayers funding the private 500 room Hilton Tower and Banquet Hall. After complaints, the cost for the proposed Hilton Hotel addition was taken out of future cost estimates. Also if construction costs exceed the $520 million, the remaining Incremental Tax from the existing 10.5% TOT is already pledge by the City Council for project overruns. If the construction costs exceed all the Incremental TOT, the General Fund is ultimately responsible.