By Claire Trageser of KPBS and City News Service
The proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center cleared its final regulatory hurdle today when it was approved unanimously by the California Coastal Commission.
Coastal Commission staffers had recommended denying the $520 million project because they said it blocks views of the San Diego Bay and makes it harder for people to get to the water on the other side of the building. They also said a rooftop park on top of the Convention Center expansion is not an adequate substitution for a waterfront park that will be eliminated.
Staff wanted the project to include a pedestrian bridge from the Gaslamp Quarter over Harbor Drive to the Convention Center, but project backers said they can't afford it.
Steve Cushman, the chair of the San Diego Convention Center's board of directors and assistant to Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, said the city of San Diego could divert $500,000 from the $520 million construction bond to pay for "additional access features" that direct pedestrians to the rooftop park.
Calls seeking clarification about this money were not immediately returned, but Gloria's spokesman Alex Roth posted on Twitter that the funding is "part of the existing $520 million already set aside for this project."
Hundreds from business groups, unions and downtown resident committees signed up to speak in support of the project. They said it will bring jobs and encourage San Diego's tourism.
State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who used to head the San Diego Labor Council, said the project must move forward because of the good jobs it will provide.
"We have a construction phase that's going to have local hire, that's going to have health care for the workers, training opportunities, Helmets to Hardhats, living wages," she said. "We have an expansion of a hotel that pays the best of any hotel downtown."
Labor groups agreed to drop out of lawsuits against the Convention Center expansion last year after reaching an agreement that included these benefits.
Gloria told commissioners the project is "incredibly important" for the city, and that labor and business are united behind it.
"This project is the product of blood, sweat and tears over many, many years," he said. "We have brought together a united front, a coalition of San Diegans who want to see this project happen. It's something that I frankly haven't seen in a great deal of time in my time in office, but it's something that we've been able to achieve today."
Downtown resident Janet Bourgeois said she doesn't think the expansion will change her view of the bay.
"I live in the area, I don't represent anybody other than me, but I would definitely like to see the expansion go forward," she said.
Commissioner Greg Cox, who also is a San Diego County supervisor, noted "near-unanimous'' support of the project by public speakers when making the motion for approval.
"It is incredibly important to the entire San Diego County region that this project be allowed to move forward,'' he said Cox.
Project boosters say the addition of 740,000 square feet to the building would give it the largest amount of contiguous floor space on the West Coast, prompting an addition of 25 major convention and trade shows annually--equivalent to a year's worth of business currently.
Gloria also said the expanded center would create 7,000 permanent jobs and generate an annual economic impact of $700 million in San Diego. City coffers would expand by about $13.5 million in annual tax revenues, he said.
But Cory Briggs, a lawyer who has sued to stop the expansion, called the project "illegal.''
He said a Port document shows a proposed five-acre public park on the center's rooftop would actually be 3.95 acres.
"It is a significant reduction and it's typical of what the Port does, it promises one thing and it does something else,'' Briggs said.
He also noted the staff's comment that the Port did not look at a reasonable range of alternative sites for the expansion.
Other opponents said the building would wall-off views of the bay.
But the expansion isn't out of the woods yet. Briggs is taking his legal battle over its financingto an appeals court, and said he'll bring it to the California Supreme Court if necessary.
Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, said that lawsuit has to be resolved before the project breaks ground.
Earlier today, Gloria told reporters that approval meant that final plans and documents could be completed, "to allow us to break ground in the near future and, hopefully, finish this project in the 2017, 2018 time frame. That would allow us to keep Comic-Con.''
Approval of the center leaves the future of the Chargers' stadium proposal for the East Village an open question. The team had floated a proposal to allow a new playing facility be used for added convention space -- a fall-back position for the city if the Coastal Commission had denied the center.
Gloria said he believes an NFL stadium could be built separately.
The commission was formed in 1972 by a voter initiative and has the final word on land-use issues affecting the coastline.