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Convention Center expansion project approved by Coastal Commission

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SAN DIEGO (CNS/CBS 8) - The proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center cleared its final regulatory hurdle Thursday when it was approved by the California Coastal Commission.

The decision came during the second of three days of commission meetings in Mission Valley. Commission staff had recommended that the project be denied.

Representatives of San Diego's business community, tourism industry and labor organizations showed up in large numbers Thursday to support the proposed expansion. Supporters say the addition of 740,000 square feet to the building would give San Diego the edge to attraction convention business.

"Today's approval is the result of a strong five-year collaboration between SDCCC, the City of San Diego, the Port of San Diego, hotel developers and the community. This is a win for all San Diegans and will ensure we remain a top meeting and convention destination," SDCCC Board of Directors Chair Phil Blair said.

Coastal Commission staffers have recommended denying the $520 million project because it may limit access to San Diego Bay, reduce views of the waterfront and eliminate a park built to mitigate construction of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront.

Construction of a pedestrian bridge from the Gaslamp Quarter over Harbor Drive to the center would resolve their access concerns, but project backers say they can't afford it.

Interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the project was "incredibly important to my city's future" and will actually improve public access.

"The way that it does that is (by) helping us capture a year's worth of business that wants to be in San Diego, that wants to experience our wonderful coastline, but who are currently not able to be accommodated because of the size of our convention center," Gloria said. "Those are people who want to be here but cannot be unless this project is allowed to move forward."

Project boosters say the addition of 740,000 square feet to the building would give it the largest amount of contiguous floor space on the West Coast, prompting an addition of 25 major convention and trade shows annually -- equivalent to a year's worth of business currently.

Gloria also said the expanded center would create 7,000 permanent jobs and generate an annual economic impact of $700 million in San Diego. City coffers would expand by about $13.5 million in annual tax revenues, he said.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who represents part of the land that includes the facility, said coastal access is the least of the concerns of constituents in her working class district, who want good jobs.

Cory Briggs, a lawyer who has sued to stop the expansion, called the project "illegal."

He said a port document shows a proposed five-acre public park on the center's rooftop would actually be 3.95 acres.

"It is a significant reduction and it's typical of what the port does, it promises one thing and it does something else," Briggs said.

He also noted the staff's comment that the port did not look at a reasonable range of alternatives to the current plans.

Briggs was the primary opponent who spoke during the early portion of testimony. The project received backing from business and tourism leaders, several members of the City Council and union representatives. Representatives of the Downtown Community Planning Group and Downtown Residents Association also gave their support.

The Chargers have proposed linking a smaller expansion project with the construction of a football stadium in the East Village, which could also supply space for conventions. They said their plans could be a fallback if the commission rejects the current plan.

Coastal Commission approval is the final regulatory hurdle for the project. Legal challenges, however, have been filed over how the construction would be paid for.

The commission was formed in 1972 by a voter initiative and has the final word on land-use issues affecting the coastline.

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