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It's Time for the City to Get Over the Waterfront Convention Center Obsession

Right now, city leaders are trying to make a decision about whether to pay off a couple guys who hold the land needed for a bayfront Convention Center expansion. If city leaders stiffs them, they’d better be ready to abandon that long-held vision in favor of something that would expand the Convention Center in the opposite direction and connect it better with downtown.

After last week’s spectacular fumbling of the measure they had hoped would resolve the decade-long Convention Center quest, elders at City Hall and their pals are struggling with a tough decision.

They’re trying to decide whether the city should pay the guys who hold the lease at Fifth Avenue Landing a $5.3 million deposit on a $33 million payment that may not ever happen. The land sits behind the Convention Center and is needed for the expansion they’ve always wanted.

The expansion that looks like this.

Proposed Convention Center expansion / Image courtesy of San Diego Convention Center Corporation

City leaders making the call probably won’t, but they should take this opportunity to radically realign their dreams for the property to one that is not held hostage by the lease on the land behind it.

Let’s review the background first.

This summer, the city made a deal with the owners of the Fifth Avenue Landing lease — Art Engel and Ray Carpenter, and their partners. The city and the Port of San Diego agreed to pay them $5.3 million as a deposit and $33 million if the measure to raise hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center was successful.

That measure is now dead. And we don’t know what the city is going to do about this deal.

Not paying would start another standoff with Engel and Carpenter. The city has tried that before. Years ago, the city walked away from a deal that would have delivered this lease for half of the $33 million for which taxpayers were on the hook in this latest agreement.

Not paying would mean the partners would again be free to sue the city (technically, the deal is a legal settlement) and they will be free to pursue developing a hotel on the land behind the Convention Center. They would also be free to spend money trying to defeat the Convention Center ballot measure. And if they are successful in building their hotel, the expanded Convention Center downtown boosters have dreamed of for a decade would be dead.

But paying them is a bad option too. The city would pay $5.3 million now and get only one thing in return: intangible rapport with the partners to facilitate another deal if a Convention Center expansion seems viable again someday.

It’s a bet on an uncertain future. We don’t even know if the ballot measure will make the ballot in 2020.

Before deciding whether to send the check, the city needs to make bigger decisions.

What does it want? We clearly are not going to shake the obsession with a larger convention hall. We are on track for another decade of trying to get it.

But if there is any thought at all to not paying these guys their money — again — then we need to, once and for all, abandon all hope of expanding the Convention Center along the waterfront. If the waterfront land is a hostage, make your peace with killing the hostage.

Guess what? It isn’t a bad option. Opponents of the waterfront plan have made the case for years that expanding north, not south, made the most sense and was the original vision of the people who made the last deal to expand the Convention Center.

You can jump across the street or somehow onto the front porch of the existing facility. The Convention Center and hotels around it are on their own urban island. It’s an area almost completely set aside for visitors to the benefit of the businesses who have leases on it. They’re cut off from city life by railroad tracks and the way-too-wide Harbor Drive. The pedestrian bridge leads to a depressing parking structure.

All our events, from Comic-Con to the proctology convention would be more alive and interesting were they more integrated with our greater city.

If city leaders are determined to pursue the waterfront expansion for another two years, they must pay the Fifth Avenue Landing guys what they are owed. The consequences of once again stiffing them and then trying to make it right next year would be painful. But if they’re considering not paying off Fifth Avenue Landing, they should cut them loose. The idea has already cost us tens of millions of dollars and we have nothing to show for it. Stop the bleeding.

Once you come to terms with the idea that the waterfront expansion may be dead, a new world of possibility opens. You can start to design something new with the money you would have paid — something that takes advantage of our outdoor lifestyle to connect Visitor Island with the rest of our developing downtown.

And here’s another benefit: By cutting Fifth Avenue Landing loose, you call their bluff. Go ahead, build the hotel and hostel you’re planning. Good luck!

If they succeed, great. If they don’t, well, their lease will run out and all options are back on the table.

But to get there the city would have to finally, really, truly, be comfortable with the idea that the big box they wanted along San Diego Bay may not come and that there could be something more exciting the other direction.

It’s not that hard to picture.

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