Not that long ago, any suggestion that the city could expand the Convention Center with a separate building across the street or farther away was met with derision from boosters and city leaders who were committed to a contiguous facility.

Now the mayor’s point man on the expansion project and the current chairman of the Convention Center Corp., Steve Cushman, is signaling he’s changing his mind. At the same time, a new study is going forward that may show an offsite campus is best for the customers the Convention Center wants to attract.

It’s a slow-motion flip of prevailing opinion of downtown boosters and city leaders that could have major implications for the future of the waterfront.

Cushman has spent six years pushing for a waterfront, contiguous expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, first as a port commissioner, then as co-chair of the mayor’s citizen task force.

Now, as chairman of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, Cushman isn’t so sure that’s the best site to expand or if an expansion is merited at all.

“It is truly is up in the air,” Cushman said at a board meeting last month, before advocating against spending more money to secure the planned site of the contiguous expansion, known as Fifth Avenue Landing. “It would be totally irresponsible, even if we had the money, to go spend $13.8 million to take over the remaining nine years of this lease because we have no project.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The words hung heavy in the air and signaled a marked change in the posture of a man who’d worked hard on the 2010 deal to secure the contiguous expansion site. That plan called for the Convention Center to spend millions to buy out a private company’s port lease that expires in 2024.

City leaders have been making the case ardently for many years that a non-contiguous facility simply would not attract conventions.

In 2013, Cushman’s predecessor as chairman of the Convention Center Corp., Phil Blair, wrote in Voice of San Diego that it was a closed case:

“While a non-contiguous expansion would likely be utilized, it won’t be from the client base that uses the current facility,” he said, citing a study.

But much has happened since then.

Last year, funding was lost for the $520 million contiguous expansion and $14 million lease purchase balloon payment when an appellate court ruled a hotelier-approved hotel tax illegal.

The Convention Center lost its rights to the land after it missed the final May 6 payment deadline, and now Fifth Avenue Landing executives plan to resurrect their plans for a standalone hotel on the property, or pursue putting a mega Ferris wheel on the four-acre site.

Another legal challenge to the project’s Coastal Commission approval is still under way, further stalling the troubled project.

And now Cory Briggs, the lawyer challenging that approval, is outright advocating a non-contiguous expansion of the facility.

Cushman explained to his colleagues, “If in fact we’ve got three to five years of legal in front of us, and we then have to go in and architecturally draw the center and get all of that through, and then we have to bid the center, then we have to build the center, you are getting pretty close to the end of that lease, quite frankly.”

Given the turn of events, the tide may be shifting toward an expansion downtown, namely Tailgate Park, located adjacent to Petco Park and six blocks away from the existing Convention Center.

Cushman has stressed the importance of a new $90,000 study by Convention, Sports & Leisure International due out in August that will tell public officials whether clients still demand a contiguous expansion, or if an offsite location will work.

“We just need to know what it is that our customer wants,” Cushman said May 28, noting that market conditions may have changed since 2009, when an expansion report by consultant firm AECOM came out.

Photo: Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson
Steve Cushman

Many who know Cushman describe him as a pragmatist, and say his openness to an offsite expansion is merely a reflection of that. Others worry a developer donation secured by Cushman to help pay for the study will produce biased results.

Cushman declined to comment for this story.

The bill for the study was to be split three ways between the city of San Diego, the Convention Center and JMI Realty, former Padres owner John Moores’ real estate company.

JMI has repeatedly sought backing from public officials for an off-site Convention Center expansion at Tailgate Park, a lot owned by the city and currently under lease to the Padres through 2034.

“The cost of the study was close to $100,000, so in order to afford the study, the corporation said they can put in a third of the amount of money and my understanding is that Steve Cushman, as the mayor’s special assistant on the expansion, worked with JMI to secure the other balance of the money,” Steven Johnson, Convention Center spokesman, told members of the city’s budget review committee May 7.

That didn’t sit well with Council President Sherri Lightner, who asked if there was a conflict of interest.

Johnson said the authors of the study were reputable and “I feel pretty strongly that they will put forward a very fair and balanced study.”

“I guess we’ll see with the results of the study whether there’s a conflict of interest or not… I think it would be good to have a briefing on this,” Lightner said.

Following concerns, JMI recently pulled their contribution, said JMI Realty CEO John Kratzer.

“At the end of the day, we hope they’ll do good independent research,” Kratzer said. “Someone perceived our involvement being a problem. We said fine, we will back away from it.”

Kratzer said at this point, the strongest path forward is one that replicates the plans for the waterfront expansion on Tailgate Park, avoiding overlap onto other properties, like Mission Brewery and a large MTS bus maintenance facility. Architects have told him it’s possible and can accommodate a few back-house additions, he said.

“It’s unfortunate the bayfront expansion didn’t happen, we supported that. We are saying let’s move on and identify a viable alternative that will keep our market growing,” he said. “I just think Steve is realizing the bayfront isn’t going to happen and he is looking to alternatives. … His job has been to expand the Convention Center and that’s what I think he’s trying to do.”

Kratzer declined to share his ideas for how the expansion would get funded, but said he believes there are multiple options. “I think it will be less expensive than the bayfront expansion was going to be and I think it can be financed without going to a vote of the people.”

Most detractors of the non-contiguous expansion paint an image of convention-goers walking between both sites, but Kratzer said that’s unlikely.

“If you did this noncontiguous facility, that would be a separate group that took that building and what you’d have is perhaps three conventions at the same time. … This is not going to be a situation where one convention gets split between Tailgate Park and the existing. That is not likely going to happen.”

The exception is Comic-Con.

“At the end of the day Comic-Con is not our typical tenant. Having said that, they’ve proven that they can be successful taking multiple venues,” said Kratzer, noting Comic-Con events get booked in hotels across town, including the Omni Hotel, owned by JMI.

Cushman is not the only one keeping his options open.

At a March 5 event, Mayor Kevin Faulconer quipped, “We’re just going to build it wherever (opponent) Cory Briggs promises not to sue us.”

    This article relates to: Convention Center, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at or 619.550.5669.

    wadams92101 subscriber

    If only the effort spent on the no-economic-benefit stadium and iffy-benefits convention center expansion were spent on recruiting major university research and graduate study satellite campuses to downtown - like Carlsbad is doing.  Tailgate park would be a perfect location, and maybe the last sizeable piece of land left downtown for such a campus.  The economic benefits - high paying jobs, high-tech incubators, attraction of high tech private sector - are far superior to a convention center expansion or a stadium.  The IDEA district promoters get it but our city leaders don't.  They are pandering to sports fans and low wage hotel owners.  Here are a couple of links to previous articles on this issue:

    Edward Moretti
    Edward Moretti

    Love how a non-contiguous convention center was absolutely impossible...until it was not. Politics as usual in SD.

    msginsd subscriber

    It’s a slow-motion flip of prevailing opinion of downtown boosters and city leaders that could have major implications for the future of the waterfront."

    A slow-motion flip?  Hardly.  More like an obvious desperate last-minute flip after their first choice flopped.  They'll do anything to secure the expansion, even if it's not needed.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    Was it something I said?  I had commented to bcat's post and bcat responded to mine. They have disappeared.  Neither comment consisted of vulgarities or any insults.  Wonder why they were deleted?

    Steve Peace
    Steve Peace

    The introduction to this piece is inaccurate. Several hotel owners -- including the Omni (owned by JMIR) -- were asked to financially participate in a new convention center study. JMIR did not believe such a study was necessary. Previous studies have already made the case for a nearby campus expansion of the Center such as the official expansion plan approved in 2003 which was on the tailgate property. We listened to the pitch for a new study and after careful consideration declined to participate because we still believed the study to be unnecessary and knew that self-interested parties would use our participation to discredit the report. This, of course, would be counterproductive to those preparing the report and to the Mayor's office which supports doing the report. This decision was communicated to the Mayor's office well before the City Council meeting in which Ms. Lightner is quoted in the article. 

    Ashly McGlone
    Ashly McGlone

    @Steve Peace Hi Steve. Not only did the Convention Center agenda approving the study list JMI as a contributor (see bottom of page 1 here, but the convention spokesman confirmed this fact to both the council cmte and myself. What's more, the CEO of JMI Realty confirmed it when we spoke and then notified me the donation was recently pulled. What's clear is there was a financial contribution by JMI to the CSL study and now there isn't one.

    Spencer Mosher
    Spencer Mosher

    The main issue with the non-contiguous proposal is the walking distance between the two facilities. It takes roughly 15minutes to get from the North end of the Convention Center to the east village location. Say you want to host a big convention such as CES or E3. You would not be able to do so since they require large exhibit halls. Logisticaly it is easier to have one big facility than two separate. Also with Comic Con, no one wants to walk 15 minutes to get to their next panel. It's easier to have everything in one facility. Granted if it's just walking to Petco, that's fine. Anything that requires walking close to a mile or more is no go for the people I've talked to about this issue.

    Steve Peace
    Steve Peace

    @Ashly McGlone @Steve Peace Ashley, the doing of the Report was always promoted by persons other than JMI.  The report was/is unnecessary because the analysis was contained in a separate earlier report that confirmed that non-contiguous can work.  JMI considered contributing to this latest report because it was asked to do so, but always was concerned that support would be used adversely by those with private agendas to degrade the report and embarrass the Mayor.

    The decision to not contribute was timely communicated to the Mayor's office before the Council meeting referenced in your article but was not also communicated to the Convention Center or Council staff because JMI was not in direct communications with those persons.

    But, the fact remains, JMI considered helping but decided not to for the very reasons that your article reflects.

    bcat subscriber

    Why do I favor an expansion of a convention center over a stadium?  I'm not really sure...

    An expanded convention center is filled with xxx,xxx of people every year coming to San Diego to spend money.  They have to at least get a hotel and some food.  Seems like a good idea...  Expanding it helps us compete with larger convention centers.  Seems like a good idea...  Our convention center is very close to the airport, train, hotels, restaurants... it is as convenient as Moscone Center in SFO or even more so.

    I'm sure that there are some rich people that make a lot of money off of convention goers, so I doubt it trickles down much to the average San Diegan.  Although I hope each of those restaurants is owned by a local.

    I have many friends that come to visit San Diego at our convention center.  Candidly, none of them visit a ballgame.  They all go to the zoo with their kids, go sailing, or take a walk and eat.

    So, why favor this over a stadium for the Chargers (or Padres for that matter).  A stadium just doesn't seem very civic.  Surely it is holds a sports team and our city is in the newspaper, on TV, on the internet as people watch games.  But, what has it done for me?

    Petco Park is expensive for a family.  Tickets, hot dogs, drinks all drain my wallet!  I could BBQ at the bay for a lot less and not have my children exposed to foul language.  Between travel, parking, and the time of a game it is a 4 - 7 hour commitment.  At least the have a few civic events (Science Expo).  That's attended (free) by xx,xxx locals.

    If my kids were allowed to play baseball or football in OUR stadium, that might be a different story.  Then again, I have a local high school and park for that activity.  Why invest millions in a public stadium?

    On the other hand, why expand the convention center (without another stadium).  The commercial reasons are clear - there's a lot more money to be made.  It is an "export", making money off of travelers rather than residents.  But likely, it still lines the pockets of rich people with more money (convention organizers, construction contractors, concessionaires).  None the less, merely expanding the convention center gets my vote while adding a new stadium does not.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    @bcat Agreed. I have mixed feelings about a convention center, but if had to make a choice between that and a stadium, I think the convention center is a better idea.  They are more versatile and they can be more of a "community" center as well.  The down side is that they are big, hulky buildings that close off streets.  They are money losers and expensive to maintain.  Plus there always seems to be a need to "expand" them.  When one city builds or expands its center then other cities treat it like an act of war and the arms race continues.  "If only we had more square footage we can compete with Vegas!"  Then to attract conventions cities discount the rates because they feel if you can bring bodies to town, they will spend and circulate money and the economy can boom.   No, convention centers do not boom the economy.  They may help nearby hotels, restaurants and some tourist attractions, but overall it most likely doesn't add much to the overall economy. 

    Convention centers as well as stadiums are legacy projects for politicians who can stand up and say that they are working to improve the quality of life in our town.  If these folks really want to improve the quality of life, I would like to see the street lights in my neighborhood actually be turned on at night.  But I guess street lights don't add jobs and no plaque will be put next to the lights with a list of city council members and mayor who approved that they should be lit.

    bcat subscriber

    @Robert Cohen @bcat 

    Is this to say that each of us prefers a benefit to our local neighborhood over "civic pride"?

    For me, I think that is true.  A downtown skyline, a modern mall in Mission Valley, a sculpture at the waterfront... these are "nice", but do they really affect my quality of life - not very much.

    Please don't spend my money trying to improve their skyline, game experience, or political legacy.  Is this selfish?  Yes, to some degree.  To another degree, don't tax me "heavily" for a benefit I don't value or use.

    I feel like I benefit more from many "average" people improving their life rather than a few "above average" people improving their life.  To that end, I'd rather have a convention center support concession jobs, hotel jobs, and restaurant jobs rather a stadium support people that can pay $100 - $200 / ticket to an NFL game and a series of NFL players and concession jobs that happen (x14) per year.

    Give me a bay that we can all fish / sail / boat on... give me a park we can all play in... give me roads I can travel on... give me police / fire I can rely upon... rather than a beautiful downtown skyline, a train to Sacramento, or a stadium millions will rarely use.  Remember, we are a county of over 3 million and a city of over 1 million.  Everyone can make it to San Diego or Mission Bay.  Not everyone can attend an NFL game (there aren't even enough seats, let alone the price!).

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    Are they planning on building this on Tailgate Park?  The Padres control that for quite a few more years.  All they need to do is say no, and then what?

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    The city is obligated to provide X number of parking spaces and uses Tailgate Park for that purpose. My guess is the city could figure out how to do that, for example, through engineering (maybe go underground) and/or more transit options (possible with city and county support at SANDAG).

    Too soon to know for sure but not too soon to be looking seriously at the options.

    Ashly McGlone
    Ashly McGlone

    @David Crossley According to Kratzer, the parking would need to be replaced under the terms of the lease, but it's not an insurmountable hurdle. 

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Ashly McGlone @David Crossley  --It would be interesting to see where they could find a piece of property in that area to replace parking lost by taking the current Tailgate Park.

    Dan McLellan
    Dan McLellan

    How about save two birds with one stone? 

    The quickest solution is to act quickly on the Chargers/JMI plan that combines the stadium and convention center downtown. Going in this direction would both save the Chargers and Comic-Con. It would also save a tax payers a ton on money in not duplicating construction costs. 

    Parking structures cost 15-17 thousand per spot and that is just for construction, entitlement, architecture and legal battles and to the cost. There is no reason to wastefully spend that time of money twice by expanding the convention center in Downtown and building a stadium in Mission Valley.  

    We only need to look at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis for proof that a stadium and convention center can work together. 

    The time for action is now!

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Dan McLellan  --Sure, they will work.  After they are built, you just keep raising taxes like they did in Indianapolis to pay for it.

    bcat subscriber

    @Dan McLellan 

    Sorry... not so interested.  Just can't figure out why I should spend ANY of my money on a stadium.  I feel no civic pride for the Chargers.  The players and owner(s) have no love for me.  I can't afford to take my family to a game and I don't want to expose my kids to the (foul) language and drunken behavior that I've seen at Aztec games.

    I buy a new convention center... especially if I can buy the bonds!  Remember when Petco was built and they offered 8.5% return on construction bonds when they raised the money?  I would've bought them for half that return!  Yet they were only made available to institutional investors.

    Want to see what people will do for a stadium?  Total up the cost, tell them how much per year, then see if they'll also purchase the bonds (again for a modest return).  In this case, voting with your wallet would be the most fair way to create the stadium.  Let those that want it both finance it and vote to increase their own taxes.