The San Diego Convention Center and Harbor Drive / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Convention Center boosters are adamant that they remain focused on a long-wanted waterfront expansion of the facility but they’re also acknowledging a new hotel-tax measure would let them pursue an option they’ve long resisted – and another approach they had previously never considered.

That new approach, an expansion in the facility’s front yard, maybe up to or over Harbor Drive, also is convenient for union leaders backing the project who could end up with more union jobs as a result.

The hotel and hospitality workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 30, which also represents some Convention Center workers, has even signed an agreement that ensures it will only support an expansion if it happens on the Harbor Drive side of the current facility, rather than behind it as boosters have long envisioned.

The union supports construction of a hotel on Fifth Avenue Landing, a parcel of land necessary for the previously envisioned expansion. It is port land that a partnership has long leased. The partners sub-leased it to the city for purpose of the expansion but the city lost control of the land after failing to pay rent.

Now the partners — Art Engel and Ray Carpenter — are moving forward with a environmental review for a hotel on the plot. The port has given them preliminary approval and if they get final approval, they will get a 66-year lease.

The new measure accommodates them. Drafted with Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s failed one in mind, it tweaked the definition of the Convention Center itself to extend up to the railroad tracks along Harbor Drive rather than south of Harbor Drive. This means workers could conceivably build an expansion up to or even across Harbor Drive, replacing the current outdoor driveway and indoor lobby space with exhibit halls. Convention space could replace or transform Harbor Drive between Fifth Avenue and Park Boulevard.

Gil Cabrera, chair of the Convention Center Corp. board and a longtime proponent of a contiguous expansion, said last week that any expansion would have to extend out from this portion of the facility due to the structure of the original building. He estimated an expansion of the newer portion of the center, which debuted in 2001, could supply about 180,000 square feet of exhibit space – just short of the 220,000 sought in the waterfront expansion.
Cabrera’s estimate is based on the expansive lobby area outside Halls D-H as well as the potential to square off Hall H and to build on the property in front of the Convention Center.
Drafters also added language clarifying that the expansion need only be “physically connected to the existing Convention Center” to receive funding from a 1.25-to-3.25 percent hotel-tax hike. And they axed a mandate that cash only flow to waterfront expansion plans approved by the Coastal and Port commissions.

“The measure would fund this plan, and also has the flexibility to fund another,” spokeswoman Laura Fink wrote in a statement.

That flexibility could allow both the Convention Center expansion and the Fifth Avenue Landing hotel project that now has rights to waterfront to move forward, bringing more union jobs with it.

The hotel workers union was not part of the negotiating group of labor and business behind the November ballot measure but the union is a member of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, which is supporting it. The hotel workers are also close allies of the Building Trades Council and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which directly negotiated the deal.

Those unions certainly had hotel workers in mind. The hotel workers union in November signed an agreement with the developers of the Fifth Avenue Landing hotel project to allow for the possibility of collective bargaining.

In that agreement, the hotel workers union pledged not to support an expansion of the Convention Center if it interferes with Fifth Avenue Landing’s plans.

“(Unite Here Local 30) will not support, sponsor or provide any form of assistance to advance the expansion of the San Diego Convention Center on parcels that comprise the [Fifth Avenue Landing] project without the consent of developer,” the Nov. 17 agreement states.

Brigette Browning, president of Unite Here Local 30, said her union would also like to see the Convention Center project move forward – just not on the waterfront.

Not only would it mean more full-time Convention Center work for some of her members, but also 400 to 500 potential union jobs at the Fifth Avenue Landing hotel, she said.

It would likely mean more construction jobs for the Building Trades Council, part of the labor coalition backing the tax hike, too.

All that would require that the expansion happen in the front of the Convention Center, an approach Browning said her union has long preferred.

Now the new initiative gives Convention Center boosters an opening to do it.

Speculation about how such backup plans might look is rampant. A Union-Tribune column last week suggested boosters could pursue a sky bridge to a facility across Harbor Drive. Detractors of a contiguous expansion of the Convention Center say the campaign for the previous expansion of the Convention Center, approved by voters in 1998, promised any future ones would not do more to block access to the bay.

Last year, two separate ballot measures, one by the Chargers and another by attorney Cory Briggs and coalition of his allies including JMI Realty, advocated for separate convention facilities north of Harbor Drive. Neither of them passed.

U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, a former port commissioner, wrote in 2016 that an expansion of the current facility would be foolish. It would be better to expand it in a separate building project like the stadium he was advocating.

More than a year later, a new ballot measure has opened up another possibility.

It’s not clear how much juice this expansion option has but it could be more attractive to both the state Coastal Commission and attorney Cory Briggs, who has long fought a waterfront expansion.

After all, a front yard expansion may not curtail public access to the bay, which has been the main legal principle Briggs has leveraged.

It would, however, mean that Convention Center boosters would have to contemplate years of new planning efforts and environmental reviews.

“What they don’t like about it is it would take longer,” Browning said.

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