The movement to expand San Diego’s Convention Center at its current site on the waterfront has never had a worse season.

Its most prominent backers are falling off, one by one. The city of San Diego no longer even controls the land it would need. (The people who do control it are rapidly advancing a plan to build a hotel on it.)

In court, the plan faces a passionate foe, who not long ago helped kill off a financing plan for the project that took years to put together. Were it to survive all this, it would need the support of two-thirds of voters. Yet two initiatives on the ballot right now would erase that hope.

The mayor is now openly promoting one of them.

Perhaps least helpful, the project’s newfound critics are starting to talk about something rarely discussed before: how expensive and disruptive construction of the expansion would be.

The idea to expand the Convention Center at its current location is as dead as the idea to move the airport to Miramar.


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

Or is it?

Remaining backers are deeply committed. They think they can get the land back — maybe just have the government seize the lease. They think the legal challenge will fizzle, as will the competing initiatives. And the mayor, well, they will note the mayor says he doesn’t really think the competing plan he supports will pass.

And getting two-thirds of voters to support? Were it to reach the ballot, it will mean something of a public affairs miracle has taken place, so they’ll cross that bridge happily when it comes.

Last week, Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi told a crowd watching a debate about the stadium plan, Measure C, that one of his main reasons for opposing that measure was it would eliminate any chance to expand the Convention Center on the waterfront.

After all, the convadium would require a major increase in hotel-room taxes. If it succeeded, there would be little room to increase hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center. Thus, it must be stopped.

I asked Terzi how, given all that it faces, he remained so optimistic the old plan could someday be implemented.

“I’m an optimistic person,” he said, before rattling off the other places that are expanding their convention centers.

He has very little to be optimistic about, however.

Start with the land. It’s Port land — public land. But the Port leases out this land and the current lease is held by a company called Fifth Avenue Landing. The city basically purchased Fifth Avenue Landing’s lease and was paying it off only to stop paying and give it back as expansion plans fizzled.

Now, the Port has given Fifth Avenue Landing approval to seek permits for a large hotel right on the plot of land Convention Center and city officials hope to use to build the expansion.

“We are now developing an outstanding hotel and marina on the property. We’re excited about this project and 100 percent committed to seeing it through,” Ray Carpenter, a partner with Fifth Avenue Landing, said in a written statement.

The hotel would be up to 850 rooms and include public plazas and a promenade with retail. It would also kill any remaining chance of expansion.

I asked Bob Nelson, a member of the Port Commission, which acts as a landlord for its valuable waterfront land, whether it was realistic to think a hotel might arise there and kill off the convention center’s push.

“Oh definitely. They brought in an excellent, highly regarded hotel developer,” Nelson said, though he cautioned that the Port’s stamp of approval was just a first step. “It does not remotely suggest we will approve the project.”

If their leaders wanted to make way for an expansion of the convention center, the Port and city would likely have to seize the lease through eminent domain or otherwise persuade Carpenter to sell after years of hardball negotiations.

Nelson said eminent domain is possible.

“The question would be ‘Can a local governmental jurisdiction acquire a leasehold interest for a public use?’ I think the lawyers would say yes to that,” he said.

That’s a thorny path to pursue. Yet it might be the easiest of the challenges to resolve to expand the Convention Center at its current site.

A harder challenge is that political will for the project is dissolving. Take Rep. Scott Peters. Go ahead, try to find someone who was a greater champion of an expansion than Peters, who served on the City Council and Port Commission. He is now a congressman.

Peters recently blasted the concept. The legal case that had thrown out an earlier financing plan had left the idea positively anachronistic, he wrote:

Now there is significant political opposition to ceding more waterfront to development. The $575 million contiguous expansion cost estimate was derived without engineering drawings, is wildly out of date and depends on a $200 million guarantee from the city’s general fund. There has been no accounting for the lost profits the convention center would incur from closing over 200,000 square feet for two years during phased construction or for the increased costs of operating a larger facility; that means that our current annual subsidy of $3.4 million from the city’s general fund will have to increase! (By the way, is it fair that the general fund pays this subsidy instead of the hotels that profit from the public’s investment in the convention center, when those hotels are assessed some of the lowest tourist taxes in the nation?)

It was jaw-dropping to see an advocate become such an eloquent foe.

Yes, there’s more.

Attorney Cory Briggs just filed his opening brief in a legal case to cut off the plan were it to somehow regain traction.

“More specifically, this lawsuit represents an attempt to uphold promises made at nearly every level of government and by the private sector going back to 1996, promises that no more of the South Embarcadero would be “walled off” to sate the appetite of a few greedy, politically connected special interests for prime waterfront real estate – the public’s real estate – to the exclusion of everyone else,” reads the brief’s introduction.

Were it to survive this attack and keep what’s left of its political supporters, the movement to build the Convention Center expansion would also need to advance it to the ballot and then get two-thirds support, most likely in 2018.

That’s very difficult to picture. For one thing, even if the Chargers’ Measure C fails, the team may still fight for hotel-room taxes to support whatever solution they propose next. After all, the mayor is now on the record as supporting that financing mechanism.

The other ballot measure on this topic, Measure D, crafted in part by Briggs, would prohibit the city from spending money on the Convention Center expansion.

If the mayor was unwilling to fight for the waterfront expansion this year, what makes it more likely in two years? The mayor also believes the Chargers won’t leave no matter what happens to Measures C or D. If he’s right, there’s a good chance the football team will stay as a major opponent to the Convention Center expansion.

One guy is keeping this alive.

It’s Steve Cushman, the onetime chairman of the Port Commission, who is on the Convention Center Corp.’s board of directors and has been the mayor’s point man on this issue for a few years.

He wrote me just one sentence when I asked why he kept pushing to expand the Convention Center where it stood in spite of all the obstacles: “After two in-depth studies of our clients we continue to do our best to carry out their overwhelming desires for a contiguous expansion of our convention center.”

Cushman once told me that making deals is what drives him.

For now, it’s hard to picture how he pulls this one off.

Clarification: To quickly summarize the city’s effort to control the land for a possible expansion of the Convention Center, I originally wrote that the city “basically subleased” it from Fifth Avenue Landing. It would have been more accurate to say the city purchased the lease and was forced to give it back after failing to make agreed payments and I changed the text. 

    This article relates to: Convention Center, Land Use

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    18 comments
    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    You and other prominent San Diegans of your generation need to ask yourselves whether the decisions taken 30-40 years ago that put tourism, and in particular conventions and related entertainment businesses, at the center of what defines downtown San Diego, should still reflect what downtown should be.

    It’s understandable that back then people saw any possibility for a downtown beyond a military waterfront, an abandoned central shopping district, and aging isolated neighborhoods as better than what existed.  But the state of the city, the issues and opportunities associated with urban living, as well as those presented by the changes and growth of various economic sectors here, statewide and across the country suggest it’s time to rethink the economic and cultural focus of downtown.

    I would challenge the Mayor’s assertion that “tourism drives our economy” -- VoSD itself has published statistics that show quite the opposite – and offer there are several cities in America that attract considerably more tourists and conventioneers than SD with worse weather and without turning over their center city or public treasury to the hotel, restaurant, amusement and entertainment industries.

    These cities attract more tourists than San Diego because they’re economic centers and interesting cities to visit, not just amusement parks.  In developer jargon “they’re place making.”  Isn’t it time downtown San Diego became a more interesting place?  A maniacal focus on its convention center (and now potential football stadium) isn’t going to get it there. 

    I would interview Doug Manchester and Bob Filner on the topic.  Ask the former why, how or why not downtown can’t become the residential and business center of the region.  Ask the latter to spill the beans on Spanos, football, the hoteliers and local politics.  Why not?  He’s got nothing to lose.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @Bob Stein Big important point here.  Many have been willing to frame this as a binary choice - Convention Tourism vs. Football.  A third path is to think about Downtown as a growing (or already arrived in many ways) residential hub.  The problem is that TOT is so important to city finances that it has a very hard time getting off that pathway.

    Does that mean to be anthetical to the tourism industry?  Absolutely not.  But it does ask about whether we need to invest in EITHER the convention center or the convadium.  Raising TOT by 6 cents generates a TON of money which could go into quality of life things - which might frankly drive economic development and local incomes higher than either of the existing two choices presented.

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    All this reads very differently if a downtown-side expansion option is recognized. It's a much better solution for everyone if the city and CC are willing to study it.


    Milton Lawson
    Milton Lawson

    @Jeffrey Davis I'm a big proponent of proximity and would love to see this idea considered, but the obvious question - what happens with the street and the train? Are you proposing an entirely-underground expansion? Or would you put the train and street underground?

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    @Scott Lewis@Milton Lawson There's a few ways to approach it and I'd look forward to seeing what talented folks come up with. The roadway is the relatively easy part. Possibilities: put it below grade (some already is), reduce the lanes, eliminate it and run through traffic to the rear roadway and/or downtown, run two lanes *over* a saddle in the expansion... there's options. The rail is harder. Underground would be great. Or leave it but compress out excess shoulder and greenway and add the latest in multiple crossing points. It's a challenge. But a more realistic approach at this point than any other.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    At this point my head is spinning.  If the big objection to the convention center expansion is “walling off” public access, how does a hotel and marina not do that?


    Cory Briggs claims this real estate is “the public’s real estate”.  Since it’s owned and managed by the Port District, how does that follow.  The port isn’t accountable to the public, is it?  It sure doesn't behave that way (See, e.g., current plan for Seaport Village), 

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw Bill, the Port should be accountable to the public but it isn't, to some extent because the Commissioners are appointed and not elected.

    Pat Flannery
    Pat Flannery subscriber

    @Judith Swink @Bill Bradshaw How then do "We the People" prevent the "walling off"? It seems the only recourse is the courts. But Briggs and the SDNBCC are very selective in who they sue, which begs the question why is it only they who sue? That apparent monopoly gives them a lot of power, which we provide by leaving it up to them! That is the real problem here.

    Diane Coombs
    Diane Coombs

    Without compromising any of SDNBCC legal rights/claims when the final product for the Fifth Avenue Landing hotel proposal is rolled out for approval: 

    The public should read SDNBCC's legal brief (linked above) in the current lawsuit to have the contiguous expansion proposal invalidated.  It provides a good overview of the history of the South Embarcadero from the late 1980s to the present.

    The city, the port, and the coastal commission, as well as the Hilton and FAL hotel developers, all promised that there would eventually be 5.5 acres of public park/plaza on the waterfront between the convention center, the Hilton Hotel, the FAL hotel, and the waterfront; the Hilton would provide about 80% of that space, and the FAL hotel would provide about 20%.  The FAL hotel would also provide other public-access enhancements.  The 5.5-acre public park/plaza and enhancements were written into the final approvals and are legally binding.  SDNBCC has not seen anything so far to indicate that the final product for the proposed FAL hotel will reduce or eliminate the promised additional public park/plaza space or the other promised enhancements.

    All things being equal, and if the only two choices are (1) the already approved and legally binding FAL hotel with its additions to the existing public park/plaza and additional public-access enhancements versus (2) the illegal big-box expansion of the convention center that (as you can see in the drawing above) leaves no room for the public park/plaza, SDNBCC will take the FAL hotel.

    Pat Flannery
    Pat Flannery subscriber

    Thank you for answering my question Diane. It is now clear that Briggs and the SDNBCC have been working with Carpenter and Engel all along. You are now cheerleaders for the FAL 850-room hotel complex on the waterfront as you became cheerleaders for the massive Lane Field hotel project after you signed the infamous Lane Field MOU. So much for being the guardians of the waterfront.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Deals or Gifts?  Cushman's deal with Fifth Avenue Landing LLC (FAL) for GIFTS of public funds should be investigated by local media. 


    The fact that the Port let 5th Avenue Landing LLC (FAL) start a new CEQA process for a new hotel development on the waterfront means nothing.  The current approved Master Plan Amendment  deleted the proposed FAL Spinnaker Hotel as part of the Coastal Development Permit (CDP) Approval Agreement. 


    Mayor Faulconer, the City Council, the Port of San Diego, and the San Diego Convention Center Corporation (SDCCC) previously GIFTED millions to  5th Avenue Landing LLC (FAL). Then tried to sucker  another -$13.8 million of public funds for the Option to Lease.  Allowing the CEQA process for a new Hotel to start was also irresponsible, because the Port is the setting FAL up for a lawsuit. 


    Thus trying to create controversy without acknowledging the public's rights to our public State Tideland Trust. Great news that after ten 10+years of complaining that Port lawyers, Cushman, and Congressman Scott Peters, City Attorney Goldsmith, Mayor Faulconer, and the City Council misunderstood the power of Eminent Domain and the terms of the FAL Port Master Lease, everyone including the Port Board finally understands their financial responsibilities and powers.  This is very big news. Thanks. But the public has already been played. 


    Instead of another +$13.8 million GIFT, the Port could have use the Power of Eminent Domain for our Public State Tideland, and as allowed by every Port Master Lease including the FAL Lease. The easy solution is no longer being ignored. 


    Please investigate how much $ millions in Cash has already been GIFTED  by the City Council, Port, and Convention Center for the 5th Avenue Landing LLC Lease at inflated rates from 2006 to 2016.  To not be a gift, the payments to FAL had to be based on actual financial information.  


    With Eminent Domain FAL would be made Whole and Relocated.  By fraud laws, at most using Eminent Domain FAL would receive a new waterfront relocation and compensation for the amount of money they used to develop the beautiful public park, Embarcadero, public restrooms, and the Yacht Harbor, plus buying out the remainder of the Lease at the same low cost rate, not the excessive inflated price. 


    The Port of San Diego needs to be investigated for their GIFTs of Public Funds to FAL, LLC, A Delaware Limited Liability Corporation.  The fair solution would be to take off the top any money already GIFTED to FAL for the Eminent Domain Relocation. 

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    Mr. Terzi serves at the pleasure of the hotel lobby, so consider his comments accordingly. And Don Quixote Cushman never lacked for chutzpah. The guy you listen to here is Peters, who soured on the concept for all the very valid reasons listed in the article. Measure C opponents using the fantasy of a "contiguous" convention center as reason to reject it might as well argue that money earmarked for solar energy would be better spent building a perpetual motion machine.

    art engel
    art engel

    Your article is factually inaccurate. The city  did not sublease anything, they purchased the lease and then after 5 years defaulted on the purchase requiring 5th Ave Landing to take a deed in lieu of foreclosure and complete it's obligation to the Port required in it's lease

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @art engel I was trying to summarize it quickly. I'm aware of distinction. I wish you all would have considered speaking with me.  

    Pat Flannery
    Pat Flannery subscriber


    Will Corry Briggs’ “… no more of the South Embarcadero would be “walled off” to sate the appetite of a few greedy, politically connected special interests for prime waterfront real estate …” extend to Ray Carpenter and Art Engel's Fifth Avenue Landing LLC plans for an 850 room hotel “with public plazas and a promenade with retail”? Will he also sue to stop this Fifth Avenue Landing project for the same reason he has sued the Coastal Commission and the Port? Both projects would “wall off” the South Embarcadero, using the same waterfront land.


    The Port has already given a green light to Carpenter and Engel isn’t it time for Briggs and his client the San Diego Navy Broadway Coalition to put the Port on notice that they intend to sue in order to be consistent in their defense of the waterfront? The trial date for the Coastal Commission lawsuit is set for December 15, 2016. It would be a tragedy for the waterfront if Briggs won against the Coastal Commission only to clear the way for Carpenter and Engel.


    Thomas Powell
    Thomas Powell

    City testifed under oath that they have np plans whatsoever to expand the conv center cause it  is going to be tied up in the courts for 5 years. It's all a big hoax to use a scare tactic as a tool to achieve their pwn political gain. What would the polling be when asked " If the Chargers plan was the ONLY way to expand the convention center would you support it? Wonder how the numbers would change