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Lawsuits, permits delay Convention Center expansion

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An artist’s rendering shows the proposed expanded convention center.

There are a few more hurdles to jump before construction can begin for the Phase 3 expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, as officials are now eyeing an early 2015 groundbreaking.

The first one is a formality: The Port of San Diego board of port commissioners needs to approve a development permit so that the city of San Diego and Clark Construction, the general contractor hired, can begin construction on the project.

No official date has been set by the port board to hear this request for a permit, but the San Diego Convention Center Corp. is hoping to get an answer as soon as the March 4 commissioners meeting.

The second hurdle is legal battles brought forth by the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition and its attorney, Cory Briggs. The coalition is challenging the legality of the funding mechanism for the expansion and the expansion’s inconsistency with the California Coastal Act.

The San Diego City Council approved a self-imposed property tax -- covered by a surcharge on hotel 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.

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 2013, stating that the group of hotels that devised the tax -- the Convention Center Financing District -- acted like a property owners association, and that its vote for the tax “conformed with all applicable constitutional provisions, statutes and ordinances.”

Briggs is predicting an appeals hearing in the next 60 to 180 days.

With the lawsuit regarding the California Coastal Act, Briggs said the Coastal Commission’s approval of the port’s master plan amendment is contradictory with the law, because “the environmental impact report found traffic and air quality issues were inconsistent with the Coastal Act and Port’s Master Plan.”

This lawsuit is in its early stages and Briggs is hoping for a trial later this year.

The largest obstacle was executed in October 2013, when the California Coastal Commission approved an amendment to the Port of San Diego’s Master Plan so that the Convention Center could be expanded.

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 five-acre public park and plaza.

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

Commissioners said at the October meeting that the expansion would improve public access to the area, 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 expansion plan also allows for a second hotel tower to be built at Hilton San Diego Bayfront.

When the expansion was passed, Carol Wallace, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corp., said she was thrilled by the approval because many of their clients have called for a larger facility so they can continue hold conventions such as Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Clark Construction and its joint venture partner Hunt Construction are the general contractors on the project, with Fentress Architects as the design firm.

Construction is expected to commence in 36 to 42 months, according to Darren Greenhalgh, deputy director of project implementation and technical services for the city of San Diego.

The joint venture group plans to divide the work into two parts, Greenhalgh said. One would be the infrastructure, underground utilities and roadwork. The other would be the center's actual expansion.

Once the development permit is approved, San Diego city staff can get the contracts and paperwork together for the financing plan to apply for construction bonds.

The Convention Center will stay open during scheduled conferences and no existing exhibit space will be reduced.

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