A new study released last week bolstered the case for a waterfront expansion to the San Diego Convention Center and even persuaded Mayor Kevin Faulconer to support a tax hike to fund the project. But the same study might undermine the project in court.

California’s environmental laws require officials peddling big projects to seek out ways to remove or lessen the negative effects. Projects on the coast are extra sensitive, but special exceptions are made when no viable alternatives exist.

It was under this premise that the board of the California Coastal Commission approved the waterfront Convention Center expansion in October 2013 over the objections of its own staff, who noted, “There are feasible alternatives to the proposed expansion that have not been incorporated into the project, or even fully examined.”

Commission staff advised the project would harm public views and access, and “result in the building towering over and dominating the narrow public corridor, making the shoreline feel like the private backyard of the SDCC.”

A lawsuit challenging the commission’s approval seizes on those same concerns, and alleges the board abused its discretion. It also takes issue with the project “not being located, designed and constructed to minimize substantial adverse environmental impact.”

Now, consultant Conventions, Sports & Leisure International has provided a head-to-head comparison of the planned coastal expansion and an alternate city-owned location a half-mile away known as Tailgate Park. Though the study’s authors concluded the contiguous expansion along the coast was preferred and could attract more events, they showed Tailgate could work too and would also increase the number of meetings held in San Diego, though to a lesser degree.

That means that while officials are defending the waterfront expansion as the only feasible option in court – the new study seems to show the city would benefit from a split expansion, too.

Tailgate Park was considered and dismissed by a citizen task force in 2009 primarily for not meeting large convention needs in one spot. The site was deemed infeasible and not thoroughly studied in the project’s Environmental Impact Report – a key document required by the state and cited in the lawsuit.

With the new study in hand, attorney Cory Briggs is feeling good about his case on behalf of the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition.

“The city and the Port were lying to the public and most importantly, lied to the Coastal Commission by saying the only viable option was a contiguous expansion. … Their mantra was ‘contiguous is the only viable option. The clientele won’t go across the street.’ You now have a report that says you can go across the street.”

“It disproves the premise in their argument,” Briggs said. “Now we have a report that can get you 22 out of 28 events you want to get.”

The $90,000 CSL analysis estimated a Tailgate campus expansion would attract 11 more small conventions, three less than a contiguous expansion; seven more mid-size conventions, or one less than a contiguous expansion; one less large event, compared with one more large event gained with a contiguous expansion; and four more corporate events at either location.

Summary of Past and Potential SDCC Event Activity

What’s unclear is whether the judge in the case will allow the report into evidence this late in the game.

“The city attorney’s office is going to wage World War III to try to keep us from showing this document to the judge because of the lies in the position they took, the Port took to the Coastal Commission,” Briggs said. “The judge won’t look too kindly to public agencies committing fraud on the public.”

“We will evaluate whether there is any potential relevance and address it in court if need be,” said Gerry Braun, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office.

Officials with the Port of San Diego – the lead agency for the project’s environmental approvals – did not respond to requests for comment.

California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz declined to comment on the legal case, but said in a statement: “The commission approved the amendment to the Port Master Plan providing for the Convention Center expansion finding that the expansion was consistent with the visual, public access and recreational policies of the Coastal Act.” She said staff hasn’t read the study, “but would certainly consider its findings if the Port were to come forward with a future amendment to revise the current Port Master Plan.”

In its press release announcing the report’s findings Aug. 31, Convention Center officials said the court case may be resolved in the next six months, an estimate that doesn’t include subsequent appeals.

Other officials, including Convention Center Chairman Steve Cushman, have previously estimated the case could take five more years to resolve.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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