Nov. 17 2010 10:33 AM

Expanded Convention Center could be sweet if someone figures out how to pay for it

A rendering of an initial design for an expanded Convention Center

One of San Diego’s most disastrous, lasting decisions was made in the late 1980s, when the Convention Center was approved. Oriented parallel to the South Embarcadero shoreline, it walled off a significant chunk of San Diego Bay. The decision was wholly consistent with the city’s history of regarding one of the region’s unique features as an opportunity for private profit rather than public pride.

Now, Mayor Jerry Sanders wants to make the damned thing more than 30 percent bigger, extending it southeast along the shore. The expansion wouldn’t undo that catastrophic mistake; done right, however, it could make the effects of the decision a lot less terrible. But it won’t be easy.

This week, there will be two chances for the public to weigh in on the expansion plans—from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, and again from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 20. At those meetings, officials will detail the preliminary design created by the chosen firm, Denver-based Fentress Architects.

The project would make much progress toward opening up a part of the bay that’s been long forgotten by local residents. It would include a scenic promenade fronting new retail in the back of the expanded Convention Center. That represents a net gain for the public over the status quo.

More intriguing, though, is the five-acre rooftop park. Plans call for a large rectangular swath of grass atop the expanded structure, with parts of it sloped, presumably to both facilitate views of concerts at one end and to incorporate ramped access from the ground. That idea is OK, but it lacks creativity.

We’d prefer to see something more along the lines of High Line Park in New York City, which transformed a long-abandoned elevated railroad line into a scenic, linear park that uses native vegetation—in lieu of boring green grass—and imaginative public art to create a world-class attraction in what had recently been a blight-ridden part of Manhattan. Someone ought to bring up High Line Park at this week’s meetings—hint, hint.

Of course, someone has to pay for all this. The city is broke, and Sanders just got through telling us, during the campaign for the failed Prop. D sales-tax measure, how he and the City Council will likely have to cut deep into public safety in order to balance the budget. That’s why Sanders, appropriately, has ruled out using general-purpose money to fund the expansion.

The question is: Can the expansion be done without raiding the general fund? We won’t know until at least early next spring, when a financing plan is unveiled. That plan will likely require upwards of $50 million annually to pay down the loan that will have to be secured, in addition to ongoing operation costs. For us, dipping into the general fund for any of it is a nonstarter. So is imposing a surcharge on things like taxi rides from the airport and food and drink at Downtown bars and restaurants; the thinking there is that those are tourist activities, but they’re also resident activities. You want to raise hotel and rental-car taxes? Be our guest.

We’re also not sold on using revenue resulting from the recent legislation prolonging the life of Downtown redevelopment efforts.

Such dollars are supposed to be spent beautifying and stimulating rundown neighborhoods. Perhaps one could make the case that enhancing public access to the waterfront is an appropriate use of redevelopment money, but the area around the Convention Center hardly fits anyone’s definition of “blight.”

Maybe our worry about someday losing the gigantic Comic-Con—as well as all the ancillary local creativity that accompanies it in art galleries around town, not to mention the money it pumps into the economy and city coffers—is blinding us a little bit here. But the case for expansion, albeit made by hotel and tourism interests who would profit, is compelling.

If this is our chance for better public space on the waterfront, we should grab it, but only if expansion proponents can find the money by shaking down the local tourism industry. Let the dash for cash begin!

What do you think? Write to