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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.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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