San Diego's plans to enlarge its bayfront convention center sailed through the City Council's approval process Friday afternoon in a series of 7-1 votes, with Councilman David Alvarez dissenting.
But a voyage through the courts and state permit process may be more troublesome.
While the project's price tag is $520 million, its backers say it'll return many times that investment by accommodating the kind of big-ticket, high-attendance conventions that San Diego has been missing out on.
"Realistic metrics show that this Convention Center expansion project will more than pay for itself by generating tax revenues, creating jobs and spurring private development by attracting more conventions and more tourism into the local economy," Council President Tony Young said at a news conference before the hearing.
Convention Center Expansion Gets Council's Blessing
But lawsuits targeting its financing scheme could be its undoing.
"Everyone has told them this thing is not going to survive a legal challenge,” says attorney Cory Briggs, who represents plaintiffs comprising the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, a citizens group that monitors downtown and waterfront development issues.
“And yet, for political reasons that do not benefit the voters -- that only benefit the special interests downtown -- they continue to spend millions of dollars on consultants and experts and architects and lawyers trying to score a touchdown on a field that doesn't have an end zone."
This would be the second expansion of the Convention Center since it opened in 1989, and realistically, there's no further room to grow.
The cost largely would be bankrolled by the city's hotels, which voted in a controversial private election last spring to charge their guests a room surtax of up to 3 cents on the dollar on their lodging bills.
The Port and City would contribute close to $180 million.
But the project is now before the courts, and opposition attorneys say the hoteliers’ vote violates state constitutional law.
"They came up with a creating way of calling it part of a Mello-Roos district, which has never been done before,” Briggs says. “Even the lawyers who've been hired from outside to work on it have never done something like this. It's an exotic hybrid. It's just like those exotic hybrid mortgages that we have a few years ago. Those things were bogus, too."
Because of the legal clouds over the projects and regulatory hoops such as the state Coastal Commission, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith warned the Council that the project’s planned 2017 completion date is just "a goal".
That could be a real problem with Comic-Con, because its contract with the city expires in 2015.
And, meeting industry observers say it may be a reach to expect Comic-Con to sign another three-year extension to remain in the current convention space, as it did in advance of the prior contract’s 2012 expiration date.