A Convention Center Expansion Is Still Years and Several Court Battles Away

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A Convention Center Expansion Is Still Years and Several Court Battles Away

Boosters still see a chance to expand the Convention Center – possibly a clearer path than ever. But that’s not saying much.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Many American cities – despite their unique geography and circumstances – share the same serious, complex problems: things like homelessness, housing affordability, disaster preparedness and inequality. When we talk about San Diego Specials – a unique brand of problems – we’re not talking about those. Rather, the term refers to solvable, long-running issues that have festered here as a result of a lack of leadership and vision. They’re often challenges other cities (or even other San Diego communities) took action on long ago, with far less headaches. In this weeklong series, we are examining five San Diego Specials and the factors that have kept solutions out of reach.

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By January 2009, then-San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders had been running a city overwhelmed with debt and scandal for a few years and he had survived a re-election campaign. The city, though, like everywhere else, was teetering on economic depression.

Sanders launched a task force – often a key feature of any San Diego Special – to analyze how best to expand the Convention Center.

“If we want to make an impact during this economy right now, if we want to build for the next explosion of visitors coming in, we’re going to have to move through this fairly quickly,” he said at a press conference.

In the 12 years since, the economy has had to make do without an expansion. Some of the people gathered with Sanders to announce the task force maybe could have predicted the project would not happen. But nobody could have foreseen all the twists and turns it took. And they never could have imagined that, by 2020, the region would see another unprecedented economic collapse and the Convention Center would remain both the same size and not hosting conventions at all.

Instead, the mighty Convention Center became a homeless shelter.

The city of San Diego temporarily housed homeless residents at the Convention Center in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Boosters still see a chance to expand the Convention Center – possibly a clearer path than ever. But that’s not saying much. Any certainty they can even start construction is likely two years and several unpredictable court battles away.

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The last parties many of us went to before the pandemic were on Election Night, in March 2020. That night, we were supposed to see whether San Diego voters had approved an increase to the city’s hotel-room tax. It would pay for homeless services, road repairs and, finally, a Convention Center expansion.

Measure C, as it was called, got admirable results – 65.24 percent of voters supported it. But it wasn’t two-thirds.

People were clearly into the package, if not the Convention Center alone. That expansion, though, is one of the few projects that completely unites labor and business leaders. Brigette Browning, the leader of the local hotel and restaurant workers union, put it in perspective a few months ago upon taking the job to lead most labor unions in the local movement.

“We anticipate a good summer for leisure and hospitality as people start to travel more, but we really need big conventions and events to come back. Eight thousand-person dinners — that’s where the money is,” Browning said.

Gil Cabrera, now the incoming chairman of the Airport Authority, once led the Convention Center Corp. He said the Convention Center is destined to come back roaring.

“People are dying to travel and when it’s on someone else’s dime, it’s an easy call,” he said. The fundraising business model for many nonprofit associations and trade groups, he pointed out, depends on conventions. The registration fees, the dinners, the booth rentals, they can make or break these groups and they will be back to book them.

The Convention Center needed to be bigger, the argument went for so long, not necessarily because mega conventions had gotten so big. Though there was some of that. Comic-Con again is often put in that category of outgrowing our waterfront facility. But the main hope was that the city could more often accommodate multiple gatherings filling up more hotel rooms and those 8,000-person dinners they hosted.

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Soon after Sanders’ task force announced its plan, boosters fanned out and began making the case and putting together the financing.

There were always two main obstacles: the money and the location.

On the money side, Sanders had predicted the project would need $1 billion but experts quickly tried to pare that down to about $750 million. Everyone agreed that had to come from new money. The city could barely make ends meet.

But one thing dogs projects like this in California: the statewide constitutional requirement that new taxes for specific purposes must get approval from two-thirds of voters. The obvious tax to increase for the Convention Center project was the hotel-room tax. But the city had tried to increase that before for specific purposes and with giant, diverse coalitions of supporters and it had never gotten to two-thirds support.

Two-thirds isn’t impossible but it’s close. Many supporters of the Convention Center expansion concluded, rather stubbornly, that they would never try to increase the taxes straight up. It would never work.

So began many years of machinations. The city concocted a plan to raise the hotels’ property taxes in a way they could pass along to their customers, like the hotel room tax. The hotels would vote on it, thus they would be the voters that approved it. But the city attorney was so uncomfortable with it he demanded it be validated in court first and courts threw it out.

The new mayor, Bob Filner, never much liked the plan and couldn’t be bothered to help it with its other problem: its location. The state requires that the public have access to the waterfront all along California’s coastline. To handle this, designers had put grass on top of the Convention Center renderings so it could be considered a public park with access to the waterfront.

The California Coastal Commission is the agency that most often enforces this right to access the coast and city leaders began to groan when Filner, the first Democrat elected mayor in 20 years, seemed reluctant to go to the Coastal Commission to help them win approval.

Later, the Chargers football team revealed that Filner was in talks with them about their idea that the city spike the entire project and instead, build a stadium closer to Petco Park – a stadium that could double as a place for some of these overflow conventions.

Filner was into it and right as the moment approached where he could make such a significant shift in vision and direction for the city, he found himself overwhelmed by scandal. Multiple women, former employees and acquaintances accused him of sexual assault and harassment. As the accusations mounted, a recall campaign began and his allies, one by one, abandoned him.

But for a few weeks, it wasn’t clear how it would go for him and if he could salvage his career. To shore up support from the city’s establishment, he abruptly endorsed the older Convention Center plan.

It did not save his career. But it was yet another resurrection of the plan.

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The city, as decided by the City Council, believes that Measure C passed last year even though it got less than two-thirds of the vote in March 2020. The measure was a citizens’ initiative, proponents say. And thus, it only needs a simple majority to pass.

Measures C supporters hold a press conference in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A court ruling several years ago made this possible. Other cities have implemented taxes that were put on the ballot by citizens initiatives but only passed by a simple majority of voters. The city has essentially invited people to sue it so that a court could decide that it was legally enacted and allow it to start collecting the hotel-room tax increase and, yes, actually, definitely this time, probably, build an expanded Convention Center.

But several opponents did take the city up on its offer to sue. First, Alliance San Diego and its lawyers argue that the city told voters – twice – in its official ballot descriptions that the measure cannot pass without two-thirds of the vote. It can’t change the rules afterward. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed suit and made a similar argument.

Donna Frye, a former city councilwoman and now an open government advocate, has also joined. Her allies and lawyers argue something different: that this was not actually a citizens’ initiative after all. It may have gotten on the ballot because of signatures from citizens but the city, led by the mayor, was so deeply involved in it, it should be considered a government initiative. And that would mean that the court rulings don’t matter: It needs two-thirds of the vote, and it didn’t get it.

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What happened? Why has this been such a mess for so many years?

There are a lot of answers.

One is that besides the workers and businesses that serve the industry, there’s a certain ambivalence among residents about the Convention Center and the tourism sector as a whole. Boosters promote Comic-Con because it is a uniquely identifying symbol of pride for the community: an extremely popular homegrown enterprise that made it big and draws love to the area. The call to support Comic-Con is more clear to locals than the need to make sure the proctologists have a nice place to party and trade tips every year.

Meanwhile, parks look terrible. The streets are pocked and the cost of living is soaring.

Why does the visitor industry get the attention and not, say, our technology companies and their needs (which are often just what all of us need: good housing, good parks, good transportation)?

But the other issue is probably more accurate: There are fundamental laws and policies in place in California that make it hard to build projects like this. Two-thirds of the vote is an extremely difficult threshold for a campaign to reach.

To persuade people to raise the hotel room tax, then, they decided they could not get two thirds. For years, this led boosters down creative but intensely flawed paths that would somehow both allow them to raise the taxes but not have to ask voters to do it with two thirds support.

Later, they also decided it would be weird to raise a tax for anything right now that doesn’t deal with the most pressing of San Diego’s crises: homelessness. So they threw that in as well. They never just said “do you want to expand the convention center? It will cost this much and we’ll raise taxes this much.”

So in crafting the ballot initiative this last time, they put a lot more benefits on it and created a way for it to pass without two thirds if it should fall short. Which it did.

“I would say this is and has been an exercise in shortcuts and shenanigans. Never in the 20-year history of the attempts to expand the Convention Center has the question been presented squarely before the voters,” said Andrea Guerrero, the executive director of Alliance San Diego.

I asked Cabrera, among the boostiest of boosters of the Convention Center, if it will ever get expanded. He said that “ever” is a loaded word.

“Yes, it will be expanded,” Cabrera said. “Will we take every circuitous route to get there? Yes, that’s San Diego.”

But part of the reason this has remained an unresolved San Diego Special is probably because of what Guerrero said. They have never straight up asked San Diegans whether they want more hotel room tax money to fund an expansion alone.

And they never have because they’ve been afraid what the answer may be.

What do you think?
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