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SPACE RACE: Push for Convention Center Expansion Is Driven by Competition

He’s no caped crusader, but if Mayor Jerry Sanders has his way, Comic-Con’s annual crush of fanatical fans would have a lot more elbow room to march around the San Diego Convention Center in four short years.

Sanders’ hand-picked action heroes, featuring Steve Cushman and Charles Black, are pushing forward an expansion of the facility that would accommodate Comic-Con, as well as dozens of conventions that are bypassing America’s Finest City for other venues.

East County-based event organizer Comic-Con International capped attendance at 125,000 several years ago, and has been threatening to leave for Anaheim or Los Angeles to handle the growing legions of attendees who dress up as their favorite comic book and Hollywood characters.

Thus, expansion is critical.

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“The goal is to drive room nights, or stays at hotels in the region, as well as increase business for restaurants and other retailers,” said Black, who serves as the project manager.

Plans presented to council members May 24 would add more than 400,000 square feet of usable space, increasing the size to more than 750,000 square feet of meeting spaces.

It features a 5-acre waterfront park to give local residents access to San Diego Bay along the South Embarcadero.

Opening New Doors

Black said the goal is to accommodate the demands of bigger conventions, especially organizations that have never held meetings here.

“It’s not like building an office building, which is pretty much the same from one to another; this is really a one-of-a-kind project,” said Black, who served in similar roles for the construction of Petco Park and the proposed new City Hall.

He’s working on the permits required as well as helping fine-tune the final design as he confers with the design team, Fentress Architects, John Portman & Associates, both based in Atlanta, and Civitas Inc.

San Diego-based construction consultant Ron Rudolph is working with Fentress Architects and the design team to ensure a smooth path to construction.

During the last expansion of the facility a decade ago, Rudolph managed the construction for Turner Construction Co. He said he was brought in by Fentress Architects because of this experience and expertise.

Rudolph said he was helping Fentress Architects with both the logistics of such a project as well as a schedule of construction in order to incorporate their design with the existing building.

“Because of how the expansion interfaces with the design, I was in a unique position to be able to help support the design team as to what is in place and what needed to be done,” said Rudolph.

Meanwhile, Black said he’s hoping to get the required paperwork to the Port of San Diego by February and to the California Coastal Commission six months later. The goal is to have approvals and financing in place to start construction in early 2013 with completion in 2015.

“There is a great deal of information about the project that needs to be prepared and documented, and there is going to be a great deal of stakeholder outreach that has to be done,” said Black.

Fentress Architects was selected because of the simplicity of its proposal.

A Simple Plan

“Fentress came up with a very, very simple design to accommodate all elements, including the exhibit hall expansion and trucking docks on the same level of the existing exhibit hall,” he said. “So what we’ll end up with is an exhibit hall with the largest amount of contiguous exhibit hall space on the West Coast.”

He said freight, for example, could be loaded directly onto the floor without use of elevators, greatly reducing operating costs, especially to the visiting conventions.

“When you’ve got 10,000 to 20,000 delegates in the building, issues like that become very important,” he said. “It’s a building that’s less expensive to build and less expensive to operate.”

Black said inclusion of the park answers concerns about the diminishing amount of public spaces along San Diego Bay.

“This is a very, very large and usable public space,” he said. “It’s going to be accessible to the public year-round.”

He said landscape architect Civitas was brought in because it had worked with the city on the redesign of the North Embarcadero, and brings that experience to the table.

“They’re very aware of what San Diegans think about their waterfront,” he said.

Meanwhile, the add-on design allows construction to proceed while the facility continues to operate without interruption.

He also noted that the new 80,000-square-foot ballroom will have windows facing San Diego Bay, “which is something you almost never see in a grand ballroom.”

“This will be one of the most desirable ballrooms in the nation, not to mention the world,” he said.

To be sure, regulatory approvals won’t be automatic, as the project has challenges.

Construction will take place on the protected San Diego Bay, which means that much thought will have to be given to the environment.

That’s where Rudolph will come in.

He knows where all the beams are buried, so to speak.

“There is a lot of concern with the EIR (environmental impact report) process, such as demolishing portions of the building and grading along the waterfront, as well as the sensitivities in relocating the utilities,” he said.

Rudolph said he’s developed a plan to meet all of the challenges of interfacing their design with the present building.

Steve Johnson, vice president of public affairs for the Convention Center, said the expansion is critical, and would allow the building to retain Comic-Con, “who is busting at the seams,” as well as conventions that have outgrown the site and conventions that have always been too large.

‘Split Personality’

Expansion would also enable the center to book two smaller conventions at the same time, boosting the economic benefits to the tourism industry as well as the overall city economy.

“We can do move-ins and move-outs to keep the occupancy levels higher in the city,” he said. “By booking two midsized groups, you get the same impact as one of the super groups, such as Comic-Con.”

He said the San Francisco-based American Academy of Ophthalmologists, for example, which brings 24,000 attendees to its meetings, and provides a $72 million economic boost to the economy, is keen to come to San Diego.

“We brought them down to look around, and the minute the shovel hits the ground, they’re booking,” he said.

Johnson said officials at the Convention Center are very happy with the design, and they’re anxious to see it implemented.

“This design is a home run,” said Johnson. “It allows us to continue to be a premium destination for meetings well into the future.”

Tom York is a contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal.

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