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Convention Center Expansion Plan Tallies Up $698M Annual Impact

Expanding the San Diego Convention Center could yield an economic impact of $698 million annually — accommodating the growing use of the center while attracting new users who have not held events there because of the facility’s space limitations, officials said.

“There are huge benefits both for the convention center and the City of San Diego,” said Carol Wallace, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Convention Center Corp. “It meets all of the expectations. This puts us in the best possible competitive position.”

The organization’s governing board has chosen Fentress Architects, John Portman & Associates Inc., and Civitas Inc. as the design team for the proposed phase three expansion of the convention center.

The project under consideration may include the addition of a hotel of up to 500 rooms. The proposal would add 225,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit hall space, approximately 100,000 square feet of meeting room space, and an 80,000-square-foot ballroom to the existing structure.

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The expansion would enable the center to keep large events, such as the annual Comic-Con International, which attracts thousands of fans of comic books and fantasy motion pictures to the city. An estimate of the cost of the expansion project has not yet been released. A previous expansion proposal was set at $710 million, but officials say the latest concept should cost significantly less.

The new expansion proposal will be the subject of an environmental review. Local officials hope to convince the California Coastal Commission to approve the project in 2012. Construction then would take place over two years, possibly starting in 2013.

First Among Five Finalists

The Fentress/Portman/Civitas group was one of five finalists that submitted design studies and cost proposals. Fentress Architects has design studios in Los Angeles, San Jose, Denver, and Washington, D.C. John Portman & Associates has offices in Atlanta and Shanghai, China. Civitas has offices in Denver and New York City.

The expansion design will build on the success of the existing facility “by embracing the waterfront location with a new, 5-acre rooftop park while delivering an expanded facility that will help drive our regional economy, generate jobs and build on our reputation as a world-class convention and meeting destination,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said in a prepared statement. 

The rooftop park will be used for outdoor receptions and community events, such as music festivals. Wallace called the proposed park a huge benefit to the downtown community. The lack of a large public park has long been a civic concern as the downtown area’s residential population has grown.

“Now we will have one of the largest park spaces in downtown San Diego that is totally open to the public,” Wallace said.

The center has turned away numerous events in recent years because it lacks adequate space.

An expanded convention center could help the facility keep its present clients and attract more, said Kelly Cunningham, an economist at the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Economic Engine

The convention center is one of the city’s major economic assets and a catalyst for jobs, tax revenue and other benefits. Cunningham described it as an economic engine that “impacts not just downtown but a lot of hotels that are just a trolley ride away. It has a bigger impact than just downtown.”

Marney Cox, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments, said a key benefit of the expansion project would be creating jobs for the construction and the hospitality industries.

“It provides potential construction jobs and construction is the industry that has been hurt the worst by the downturn,” Cox said.

The expansion proposal has been examined from many angles. In recent weeks, it was reviewed by a panel of planning and development professionals, regional facility design experts, a technical advisory committee, and a policy committee.

As envisioned, the expanded convention center will have more than 750,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit hall space. The increased size would move San Diego “ahead of competitors in Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.,” said a statement released by the San Diego Convention Center Corp. “In addition, the 80,000-square-foot ballroom will be the largest ballroom in a convention facility on the West Coast.”

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