Crucial Vote Coming Up On San Diego Convention Center Expansion Plan
October 9, 2013 1:40 p.m.
Cory Briggs, Attorney representing Navy Broadway Complex Coalition and San Diegans for Open Government.
Steven Johnson, Vice President of Public Affairs, San Diego Convention Center Corp.
CAVANAUGH:. Our top story on Midday Edition, the plan to expand the San Diego convention center faces a crucial vote tomorrow. The coastal commission will decide if the project moves forward toward a projected start date next year. Last week we learned that the coastal commission staff has recommended against the expansion plan. And now an attorney representing two San Diego civic organizations says the price tag for the center will be higher than the $520 million figure that's usually given for the project. And he warns that San Diego taxpayers may be obligated to pay a higher yearly fee for the expansion. Cory Briggs represents the Navy Broadway coalition, and San Diegans for open government. Welcome.
BRIGGS: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Steven Johnson is vice president of public affairs at the San Diego convention center.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You said the convention center's projected costs are not accurate. What costs do you claim the projections don't take into account?
BRIGGS: Well, there are several costs that have been left out. For example, the cost to purchase the parking lot where the expansion will take place. $13.five million was not included until the final vote on October 1st. So that was left out. You have 82,000 square feet of space that is supposed to be built. When you compare the port's documents on size to the city's solicitation for the construction manager at risk, they're 82,000 square feet off for what's supposed to be built. You're looking at $4 0.5 million. Then the port says there could be an additional 18,000 and change of visitor serving retail that is not included in the port's number or the city's number. That's another $9.25 million. In addition, if you look at the risk solicitation they did last year, they don't mention any demolition. The port's plan says there will be substantial demolition. So there's no cost in there for demolition. So you're looking at $63.25 million that's been underbudgeted. The independent budget analyst issued a report and said if they're not adequate, the general fund will be on the hook. So just using the city's and port's own numbers and figures, we're higher than $63 million off.
CAVANAUGH: Steven, there are numbers there, projections there that Cory just gave us. I would imagine that you don't agree with them. Tell us what you have to say.
JOHNSON: Well, I guess I'll start with the land. The land was acquired by the convention center corporation. And if wasn't in October of 2012. It was in November of 2012 that the city passed a budget preliminary for the bonds, and it includes $12.5 million for the land. So I'm not sure howly can include that in not being in the budget when the City Council has already acted to include it in the funding for the budget. I have a coup of the preliminary budget, and the preliminary costs are included in that. I'm not sure where he's getting his numbers from.
CAVANAUGH: So apparently you're not getting your numbers from the same source? Cory where are you getting your numbers from?
BRIGGS: Before today, I e-mailed to your staff the documents, the source documents that I'm using today. One of them I called it exhibit 3, hopefully you guys will post it for your audience to see. This is the city's February 2012 solicitation for the construction manager at risk. If you look at the proposed budget table, it says right at the top excluding the cost to acquire what's known as the 5th avenue landing. So the budget comes to $520 million, and it explicitly says it excludes the 13.5. Another memo says this obligation was assumed by the city on October 1st of 2012. So prior budgets, before October 1st of 2012 couldn't have included this. And you even have the city putting out a proposal to construction managers.
JOHNSON: I'm not looking at a budget prior to October. So I'm not sure what he's speaking to. Let me go back to the demolition costs. I'm holding a copy of the budget, and it has over $7 million incorporated in demolition costs in the budget. I'm not sure where specifically he's getting his numbers, but they're not accurate.
CAVANAUGH: Cory, what you've just told us comes from numbers that apparently have been -- you were able to access for quite sometime because they come from October 2012, and so forth. Why bring this up now on the eve of a coastal commission vote?
BRIGGS: Well, No. 1, I wasn't brought in to evaluate the numbers. I'm normally a land use and environmental lawyer. But in getting ready for this proposal, we've been trying to figure out why the city and the port have been telling this lie that it has to be contiguous. It doesn't have to be contiguous. And it turns out as you go through the process, you realize that their numbers don't add up. So I'm not an economics expert. But the seven documents that I sent to your staff earlier today, hopefully you guys will post them, just compare the numbers and the amount of space that has to be built, and the price tag they put on. All I can do is read and do basic arithmetic, are and the numbers don't add up. I don't know what Steven is talking about from the budget because it's not what the city was given, and not what the public was told.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a more general question, Steven. Would it be fair to say that considering this expansion project is still being, you know, figured out, there are costs that may overrun that $520 million projected fee for the convention center expansion?
JOHNSON: Well, this is a preliminary budget, and if may come in under that budget. Construction costs change. And right now, we don't know where the costs are going to be based on the economy. But I will say that the budget changes on a regular basis. And the coastal commission, our work with them, we're removing part of the end of the building point at back. That's going to save in the budget millions of dollars that aren't reflected in the October 12 will numbers that Mr. Briggs is speaking to. I think it takes a lot more than basic math to understand this project. And it's important for us to talk about the facts and not make things up as we go forward on this project.
CAVANAUGH: As San Diego taxpayers are listening if this exceeds the bottom, what does that mean to taxpayers?
BRIGGS: It comes out of the general fund and the tax papers pay for it.
JOHNSON: Even with the money coming from the general fund to pay for the expansion, net is another $10 million that's going to fund the general fund from the expansion. So the reason the city is pursuing this is since the convention center opened, it's generated over $500 million to the city covers to help fund police, fire, libraries, parks. So is this not done without a well thought out process. We have had over 100 public meetings on this project. So I think we'll have success tomorrow at the coastal commission.
CAVANAUGH: Even so, the coastal commission's staff itself has not recommended that the coastal commission go forward with an approval on the convention center expansion. What do you understand their objection to be, Steven?
JOHNSON: A bridge. A bridge that was pricedous during the mayor citizens' task force at $29.9 million. It lands in a public park. The downtown residents group has opposed another bridge downtown that is elevated. So there is a dispute over the need for a bridge and the value of the bridge. So we resolved 10 of the 11 issues that the staff raised. I think we're in a strong position to make the case why this project should move forward.
CAVANAUGH: The organizations you represent, Cory, oppose the convention center expansion,; isn't that right?
BRIGGS: That's correct. One of them opposed it because the revenue generating device is a special tax that was not voted on by the electorate in the City of San Diego. They concocted this scheme for getting just the hotels to vote on it. That's the problem with the financing mechanism. The problem with the coastal issues are that public access was decimated by the last expansion. If you read the staff's report, they do a very good job of explaining how the convention center and the port did nothing to fix the problems that were identified the last time around. And in fact, they've gotten worse. And they don't have any plan for fixing the last problem, much less dealing with the current issues. So the public's access to the waterfront is going to be practically nil when this project is done. The coastal access's job is to protect coastal access for the public. And it doesn't do that.
JOHNSON: I'd just say Cory needs to go and read the staff report that was released in the addendum last night. It clearly shows that the port and the City of San Diego have been very responsive to the coastal commission's staff, and they've addressed all of those concerns. Otherwise you wouldn't have seen the addendum saying that ten of 11 issues that they were raising will be addressed. And I want to just say that this project is going to have a 5 acre rooftop park open to the public year-round. It's going to improve the waterfront by putting trucks that are currently along and compete with pedestrians on the boardwalk into the convention center. It's going to open up and remove the burms that block it right now. I think you have to look at the overall project and see the benefits it brings, not only in terms of creating a destination for downtown residents and visitors alike, but providing enhanced access and spectacular views on the waterfront.
CAVANAUGH: Let me talk to you, Cory, about the lawsuit, are the litigation against the deal that allowed the hoteliers to raise the fees for tourists to partially pay for this expansion. The tax, it's claimed, should have been put before San Diego voters. Where does that legal challenge stand now?
BRIGGS: We lost in the trial court. We're now with the Court of Appeal. That will probably be resolved sometime next spring or summer. After that, it could go to the Supreme Court. That could take as little as a couple months or a year to get resolved. So just on the special tax issue, we're looking at problem over a year before we have that resolved. Any litigation over the coastal commission's decision will probably take 2-3 years.
CAVANAUGH: If indeed construction has already started on the convention center expansion while this makes its way through the Courts, is it a moot question at that point?
>> No, construction will not begin until this is resolved. And I just might add that phase 2 went all wait to the Supreme Court on its funding and we won all the way into the state Supreme Court, and it just delayed the project and made it cost more to build. And Cory's lawsuit is costing taxpayers in terms of jobs and revenues to the city every single month. So there's a way to move this forward. They lost in the initial round Fhe loses in the appeal court, I think it's time for us to move forward and put a shovel in the ground.
CAVANAUGH: What happens if the coastal commission doesn't approve the expansion tomorrow?
JOHNSON: That won't happen. I think we're going to have strong support from the commission tomorrow.
CAVANAUGH: Cory, what happens if the coastal commission does not approve tomorrow?
BRIGGS: It's dead.
CAVANAUGH: And what if anything replaces it?
BRIGGS: Nothing. As you've heard Steven say today, as you know from the interview that was in the UT over the weekend, the leaders in this town don't have a plan B. And that's part of what makes this problem at the coastal commission. They're required to look at alternatives. They didn't look at any noncontiguous or what we call across the street alternatives. They looked at them previously, they deny that they exist today, they didn't take a hard look, they concocted the numbers and surveys that say it has to be contiguous. But that's simply not the case.
CAVANAUGH: Before I get a response from Steven, I just want to ask you you, Cory, do you or the organizations you represent supporting the Chargers multiuse stadium plan?
BRIGGS: Not enough details to take a position on at this point.
JOHNSON: I just have to take objection to the words scheme and concocted. We did a study by an independent research group, surveyed our clients, 98% said it is required or critical to have a contiguous expansion under one roof. So these are not made up numbers. They're not something that we created on our own. We went out and talked to our clients like anybody marketing a building would do.
BRIGGS: What study makes that claim?
JOHNSON: It's on our website. It's posted today. And the other thing I want to say is that with respect to the survey of other sites, 11 sites were studied. And that was part of the mayor's task force process that went through in 2009. We looked at the site the Chargers stadium may be on, it has an active earthquake fault going through it. Our clients said they wouldn't book it. It's too far away from the current building.
CAVANAUGH: I'm going to have to give you a wrapping up minute, two of you. Steven, there's a lot of things against this plan, apparently. The coastal commission's staff report, they've come out with new numbers now from people who oppose this plan. What makes you sure the coastal commission is going to give its approval?
JOHNSON: I would disagree with the characterization there is so much opposition. There are over 2,000 letters the coastal commission has received in support. This has labor, conservatives, liberals, all of our elected officials are supporting. 18 cities in the region have sent letters supporting this, including the city of Coronado. It has strong bipartisan support, and we've gone through over 100 meetings. And that's why this project is going to succeed.
CAVANAUGH: And Cory you're going to be speaking before the coastal commission. What are you going to be telling them about why they should not approve this?
BRIGGS: They can't approve it. Of it's illegal. The port has already concluded in its own documents that it would be illegal under the coastal act to go forward with this project. They made their findings. As you can tell from the argument here today, they're going to tell the coastal commission is that jobs and economics outweigh protecting the coastal act. It's not the commission's job to do that balance tomorrow. It's the commission's job to enforce the coastal act. And with findings that it's illegal already made by the port, as well as the staff report that says this thing is a serious problem, it's difficult to imagine this going through without having the best lobbyists in the world working on their side.
CAVANAUGH: Well, are I want to tell our listeners that we will have the papers and video renderings and a lot of information posted for you to take a look at on our website at KPBS.org.