The Morning Report
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Here we are again.
Comic-Con attendees are about to descend on downtown, packing streets and crowding the Convention Center. And this week, Mayor Kevin Faulconer put immediate fears to rest and announced the massive entertainment fest would stick in San Diego through 2018.
But the city’s still far from that expansion Comic-Con organizers and many fans have long said is necessary to keep the event in the long term.
For now, a legal challenge has halted the $520 million waterfront expansion and there’s talk of adding convention space elsewhere.
With all the stop-and-go when it comes to expansion efforts, it’s hard to keep up, so we decided to tackle some of the most common questions about the expansion – with the help of this handy map.
Where’s the current Convention Center and where are they talking about expanding it?
Map by Tristan Loper
The existing Convention Center is located south of Seaport Village, west of Petco Park and north of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge at 111 West Harbor Dr. The site of the planned expansion since 2010 has been a four-acre parcel next to the center, on the water, that’s currently home to a parking lot and lawn area. The dubious legality of using that site has prompted focus to shift toward a possible Plan B location a half-mile away in downtown’s East Village known as Tailgate Park. That site today is also a parking lot, used often by Padres game attendees.
What was the initial Convention Center expansion plan and what’s the holdup?
A new 406,000 square-foot, $520 million expansion to the center was to be contiguous – built next to the existing center on San Diego Bay. Convention officials have paid a pretty penny to private leaseholders of the public property since 2008 to secure that site – known as Fifth Avenue Landing.
The project was going to be funded by a hotel tax, but that plan was struck down last year because it was approved only by a group of hoteliers, not the general public.
Now another piece of the puzzle, approval from the Coastal Commission, is facing a legal challenge that will likely continue for four to five years. The project is now money-less and still legally troubled.
So are local boosters still pushing to expand the Convention Center on Harbor Drive?
After years planning the contiguous waterfront expansion, some top officials say they are now keeping their options open and are waiting on the results of yet another study to gauge the appetite of convention-goers, and whether they’d tolerate an expansion that was farther away from the main Convention Center.
Steve Cushman, chairman of the Convention Center Corp. and liaison to the mayor’s office, has signaled his opinion is evolving and said the mayor is also waiting on the new study, due in August, before deciding next steps.
Didn’t convention folks – including Comic-Con – say they wanted the expansion to be connected to the current facility?
Downtown boosters (and yes, Comic-Con organizers) have long said they’d prefer an expansion next door rather than one that requires attendees to walk a few blocks away. And they’ve pointed to surveys they said showed a contiguous expansion was a necessity.
Comic-Con hasn’t said whether it considers a non-contiguous expansion a sticking point in any long-term decision to stay in San Diego. They did just commit to sticking around for 2017 and 2018.
To make that work, Comic-Con’s started hosting many events outside the Convention Center, including the Central Library, located past Tailgate Park.
Tailgate, again, is the alternate expansion location being pushed by the ballpark district developer and now some public officials are eying it after all the trouble on the waterfront idea.
What’s the likelihood the Tailgate Park idea could go forward? Are there any potential issues?
Yup, Tailgate Park has its own obstacles.
Fault lines exist on the property and have to be navigated. Toxins have to be removed. It’s farther from the existing center and 1,100 Padres parking spaces currently on the property would need to be replaced if the site is chosen for the expansion project.
Officials with JMI Realty, the master developer of Petco Park and the ballpark district where Tailgate is located, say all those issues can be accommodated and some may even be a draw rather than a liability.
Most conventions don’t pack the entire existing center and end up sharing the space with another group. A third convention could be held at Tailgate and have free reign of the new space without the overlap of other groups. The new building would also be a draw for its updated technology and amenities that outshine the current center and its $30 million maintenance backlog.
As for the distance, only those attending San Diego’s largest conventions would travel the half-mile between the sites, and they’ve already shown they can occupy multiple spaces in downtown for their events. (And really, is a 10-minute walk in beautiful San Diego so bad?)
An aerial footbridge connection would also be built for convention attendees traveling between sites under the plans put out by JMI. A hotel in the middle of the two Convention Center sites would also be built at the foot of the Harbor Drive pedestrian bridge and offer even more meeting space and desperately needed hotel rooms.
Clearly attorney Cory Briggs is watching. Would he be cool with this?
For those who aren’t familiar, attorney Cory Briggs is public enemy No. 1 to local boosters.
He’s one of the guys who successfully challenged the hotel tax in court, causing the expansion funding to fall through. Now the city’s most infamous attorney is suing over the project’s Coastal Commission approval in an effort to get the expansion off the bayfront.
“They shouldn’t be building anything on the water. It’s all for the public. It’s not for conventions. Conventions should go across the street, somewhere outside the coastal zone,” Briggs said in a recent interview. To fund it, Briggs said, “The most obvious chunk of money for doing an expansion and/or stadium is a (Transient Occupancy Tax) increase and that needs a public vote.”
The TOT is a 10.5 percent tax imposed on city hotel and motel room bills and those for vacation and short-term rentals. Briggs said an increase to 15.5 percent would be comparable to rates paid in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Where is the money going to come from for any future expansion?
The price of a waterfront expansion has been pegged at $520 million for a while, but two recent estimates obtained by the mayor put it higher – at $549 million, or lower at $410 million if a scaled-back design that removes a level is chosen.
An estimate obtained by JMI Realty from cost-consulting firm Cumming Corp. puts the price of a waterfront expansion closer to $680 million, and the price of a Tailgate Park expansion at $565 million.
Either way, that’s a lot of dough. Two or more options may exist for generating expansion money.
The city’s 10.5 percent Transient Occupancy Tax brings in $195 million a year to city coffers. A 1 percent increase would bring in $18.5 million more, according to city officials. Raising the TOT requires a two-thirds public vote when used for a specific purpose, like a Convention Center expansion. Money not dedicated to a specific use requires only 50 percent approval.
Officials could also try to resurrect the failed hotel tax and target only the hotels nearest to the Convention Center project, recognizing other similar efforts have succeeded elsewhere. Whether hoteliers downtown would again agree to a new charge and whether the plan would sustain a legal challenge is unclear.
What’s the timeline for figuring all this out?
We don’t know, and some agencies are still figuring out how to handle the collapse of the waterfront plan. The Port of San Diego had approved a new 500-room Hilton Bayfront hotel tower when it approved the waterfront Convention Center expansion. We asked Port officials whether the stalled waterfront Convention Center expansion could negatively impact the Hilton’s chances of getting the final permits and approvals it still needs from the Port of San Diego, and were told, “We just don’t know.”
We are sort of in uncharted territory. Officials were banking on a single plan on the water and committed a great deal of effort and resources to that one plan. Now the project and its location have been thrown back into question.