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Coastal panel approves SD Convention Center expansion

The California Coastal Commission unanimously gave its final approval Wednesday to a contiguous expansion of the San Diego Convention Center.

The commission did so by approving a Port of San Diego port master plan amendment that allows for a 700,000-plus-square-foot growth of the facility on the bay front.

It cast the vote as a procedural step it was required to take, not an indicator of the revival of the $520 million expansion plan that has been slowed after the proposed financing mechanism was ruled illegal.

The commission’s approval came despite a representative of an entity that hopes to potentially build a hotel on port property urging it to delay action.

Attorney Cory Briggs, who had sued over the Coastal Commission's initial approval of the expansion plan, also requested the commissioners not take final action because they had yet to address the plan’s alleged violations of the law.

The expansion endorsed Wednesday -- which also includes allowing a five-acre rooftop park/plaza atop the Convention Center and a 500-room hotel tower at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront site -- was initially approved by the commission in October 2013.

In March 2014, the Port of San Diego's board adopted the commission's certification of the port master plan amendment that called for the Convention Center's growth.

For the amendment to be effective, the Coastal Commission had to accept the port's action last year, which it did Wednesday in Newport Beach on the recommendation of staff.

The Port of San Diego also requested the commission finalize its support of the master plan amendment.

Coastal Commissioner Greg Cox, also a San Diego County supervisor, called the vote for final approval “perfunctory.”

Cox said he spoke to a representative of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s staff who said the mayor supported the commission giving final approval to the expansion plan.

Cox also said the staff member told him that Faulconer hoped to resolve the issues around financing an expansion within six to 12 months. In August 2014, an appeals court ruled that a proposed special hotel tax to finance the contiguous expansion was illegal.

A spokesman for Faulconer did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The Convention Center Corp. is in the midst of having an outside group conduct a $90,000 study to evaluate two expansion options in light of the appeals court ruling: a scaled-back contiguous expansion or a campus-style expansion.

The results are expected later this summer.

In addition to the court ruling on the financing, there have been more recent setbacks to a potential contiguous expansion.

Last month, the Convention Center began the process of giving up its leasehold on bay front property considered essential for the contiguous growth of the facility, including by defaulting on a $13.8 million balloon payment due to the entity holding the lease.

Fifth Avenue Landing LLC, the company leasing the property from the port, urged the Coastal Commission not to give final approval to the planned expansion.

Ralph Hicks, a representative of the company, highlighted to the panel the reasons why a contiguous expansion is not viable at this time.

He also said a delay of action by the commission would provide Fifth Avenue Landing the opportunity to move forward with building a hotel on the property it leases from the Port.

Under the previous port master plan, the company could build a 250-room hotel on the property. It could now seek to build a 400-room hotel because of the Convention Center Corp.'s default.

“What you would do with your action today is leave a 720,000-square-foot black hole in the port master plan amendment,” Hicks said at the commission's meeting.

Ray Carpenter, a partner at Fifth Avenue Landing, told The Daily Transcript that the commission’s action Wednesday means his company would now have to restart the process if it decides to build a hotel on the property it leases.

He said Fifth Avenue Landing is also considering other development options for the land and will finalize a plan in the next 60 days.

A group called the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition previously sued the Coastal Commission and Port of San Diego to overturn the commission's approvals of the Convention Center expansion.

The environmental nonprofit, represented by Briggs, alleged both the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act were violated.

Briggs told The Daily Transcript on Monday that he planned to file another suit if the commission gave final approval to the Convention Center expansion.

He declined to comment Wednesday.

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San Diego Convention Center

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111 West Harbor Dr.
San Diego, CA 92101

San Diego Convention Center Executive(s):

Carol Wallace

  • Chief Executive Officer, President

Tom Mazzocco

  • Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President

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