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Third lawsuit looming for Convention Center expansion

Construction on the San Diego Convention Center expansion is being held up with the expected filing of a third lawsuit.

The project to expand the Convention Center cleared a major hurdle Oct. 10 when the California Coastal Commission approved an amendment to the Port of San Diego’s Master Plan. But because of this ruling, the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition will file its second lawsuit to stop the expansion, said Cory Briggs, attorney representing the Coalition.

“The Coastal Commission approved the Port’s master plan and it is inconsistent with the (California) Coastal Act,” Briggs said. “The environmental impact report found traffic and air quality issues that were inconsistent with the Coastal Act and Port’s Master Plan.”

Briggs said facilities to expand the Convention Center can be built across Harbor Drive next to Petco Park, where there are parking lots.

“They can expand across the street,” Briggs said. “The waterfront is for the public.” His clients plan to file the lawsuit in 30 to 60 days.

The $520 million expansion approved by the Coastal Commission calls for 740,000 square feet to be added to the south end and behind the facility along the waterfront. The roof would be developed into a 5-acre public park and plaza.

The plan also allows for a second hotel tower to be built at Hilton San Diego Bayfront.

Coastal Commission staff had recommended rejecting the proposed expansion, because it would limit public access to the waterfront and parks.

Commissioners said the expansion would actually improve public access, because a larger boardwalk would be built along the waterfront and the loading dock would be moved out of view under the Convention Center.

The San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition has already one ongoing lawsuit against the city and the funding mechanism for the expansion.

The San Diego City Council approved a self-imposed property tax — covered by a surcharge on room rates — that would pay out about $30 million per year until the expansion is paid for. The Coalition argues that state law requires the public to vote on all taxes, including one like this.

This lawsuit is now on its way to an appeals court after San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager ruled against the Coalition in March, stating the group of hotels — the Convention Center Financing District — that devised the tax acted like a property owners association and that its vote for the tax “conformed with all applicable constitutional provisions, statutes and ordinances.”

Briggs said he is preparing the opening brief for the appeals process and hopes for a hearing by next spring.

The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction has also brought a lawsuit against the city regarding the expansion. The group claims a project labor agreement was placed on the project illegally when San Diego voters passed Proposition A in 2010, banning the agreement and requiring the city to post public construction contracts awarded over $25,000.

Eric Christen, executive director of the coalition, said it filed the lawsuit in April and wants the city to release the labor contract.

The group is in settlement meetings with the city and Christen said he expects this matter to be resolved in a week. “Things are looking good,” he said.

Darren Greenhalgh, deputy director of project implementation and technical services for the city of San Diego, could not give details about the meetings, only that the group is suing the city.

“Construction cannot commence until lawsuits are resolved,” Greenhalgh said.

He added that another hurdle the Convention Center expansion plan must clear is getting a coastal development permit from the Port of San Diego.

After this, Greenhalgh said city staff can get the contracts and paperwork together for the financing plan to apply for the construction bonds.

Once groundbreaking occurs, Greenhalgh said he expects work to be completed in 36 to 42 months. The Convention Center will stay open during scheduled conferences and no existing exhibit space will be reduced.

Clark/Hunt, the joint venture awarded the construction contract, plans to group the work into two parts. One would be the infrastructure, underground utilities and roadwork. The other step would be the center's actual expansion.

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