Santa, Please Save San Diego!

This Christmas, All America's Finest City Wants Is a Bigger Convention Center

Santa, Please Save San Diego! | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Clad in boardshorts and a Santa-inspired Hawaiian T-shirt, Surfin’ Santa visits San Diego’s Seaport Village every year to “hang-ten” with attendees of the annual holiday parade. Courtesy of Seaport Village.

Dear Kris Kringle,

This Christmas, can you save San Diego by bringing the city the one gift its civic elite obsessively wants, but doesn’t get?

I’m talking deep obsession. Yes, Captain Ahab hunted his whale beyond all reason, and Javert pursued punishment against Jean Valjean.

But, St. Nick, I’ll bet you’ve never encountered a fixation as all-consuming as San Diego’s desire to expand its convention center.

After more than a decade of failed attempts at an expansion, San Diego’s preoccupation with this has become both sad and embarrassing. America’s Finest City seems stuck on the idea, unable to move on. In March, 2020, voters will once again be asked to approve an expansion—even though the measure seems likely to fail.

So, Santa, I beg of you, please find a way to give them more than 1 million square feet of new convention space, with all the ugly carpets and loading docks that their little hearts desire. That way, civic leaders can think about something else—anything else, really—again.

I realize that, from your vantage point on the North Pole, San Diego’s obsession with its convention center might seem silly. And yes, there are cities out there that lose themselves similarly in the pursuit of foolish things—like Sacramento and its endless efforts to hand subsidies to rich pro sports team owners.

But San Diego’s quest for a larger convention center is rooted in certain realities that keep the notion from being entirely ridiculous. The city’s economy and identity are very much defined by its role as a host—for the U.S. military, for one of California’s largest refugee populations, for tourists, and for great and important gatherings of people from across California, and around the world.

In this city of fun and gracious hosts, San Diego’s Convention Center has become an anchor, connecting the pieces of California’s most fun and fabulous downtown. The convention center is on the trolley system, in front of the waterfront, and is easy walking distance to the Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park, and a dizzying array of restaurants, bars, and cultural attractions.

In our current era—when comic books and superheroes hold such entertainment sway—the convention center’s status as headquarters for the Comic-Con International convention has made it an American cultural capital.

That success, however, has put pressure on San Diego to keep expanding the convention center so it can hold onto all the Batmans and Wonder Womans who descend on the ever-expanding Comic-Con. San Diego’s failure to cope with that pressure has led it to some pretty strange places.

San Diego’s preoccupation with its convention center goes back a long way. The facility opened in November 1989, as the Berlin Wall was falling, and the Cold War was closing up shop. By 2001, the dawn of the post-9/11 era, an expansion doubled its size.

In our current era—when comic books and superheroes hold such entertainment sway—the convention center’s status as headquarters for the Comic-Con International convention has made it an American cultural capital.

Just seven years later, in 2008, another expansion was proposed to accommodate more and bigger conventions. The center acquired the property to do it. Expansion made sense to the San Diego establishment; after all, the growth would bring more visitors and dollars to the city. What’s more, it could be paid for with a hotel tax paid by those same visitors.

But here it is, the end of 2019, and the promised expansion has yet to be delivered. The reasons involve a spectacularly maddening example of misbegotten California governance.

After the Great Recession briefly slowed momentum, a $500 million expansion proposal won support in 2012 and seemed likely to happen. But in 2014, a state appeals court ruled that the hotel tax to fund the expansion was unconstitutional.

The city decided not to go forward with a ballot measure to make the tax constitutional, or with a new financing scheme that would pass muster. In 2015, the project briefly seemed dead.

Proposals kept being made—and once made, they were changed. In San Diego, a ludicrous logic spread: If the convention center couldn’t pass legal or political muster on its own, perhaps it could succeed if it were linked to other projects as a package deal.

Most infamously, San Diego attempted to build a football stadium for the Chargers, who were threatening to leave San Diego and would eventually move to L.A., that was tied to an improved convention center. The goal was to build a combination center and stadium—a “convadium”—to convince taxpayers to support the investment.

But the public perceived that idea, correctly, as strange and foolish, since a similar proposal had failed in L.A.

Still, the city didn’t give up. In 2016, with the convadium idea in trouble, a third piece was added to the project—“a diversity-focused startup incubator and accelerator.” Local wags called this “innovadium” the “turducken” of projects. And San Diegans voted down two different schemes to finance the project on the November 2016 ballot.

At this point, less sunny places would have dropped the whole idea. But by 2017, San Diego was working to expand its convention center again, even though a hotel was already planned for the land the city wanted to use.

By last year, San Diego’s leaders, in their desperation, decided to launch a new ballot measure for this expansion. And to make it palatable, they decided to tie the expansion to the homelessness crisis. The ballot measure would tax hotels to raise $3.5 billion to fund more convention space (about 400,000 additional square feet, bringing the center to 1.2 million square feet in all), more services for homeless people, and popular road improvements.

As a nickname, may I suggest “Home-Con-Road”?

This proposal appeared to die—just like so many others—when the petition campaign didn’t get enough signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. But city officials persisted. The measure then qualified for the November 2020 vote, before the city moved it to the March 2020 ballot, when the electorate might be more favorable to such spending.

It’s still likely to lose, since the measure likely requires two-thirds voter approval. (The “likely” is because California courts are fighting over standards for local taxation.)

Another defeat should be the end of the idea—except that San Diego simply can’t seem to stop itself. If we don’t devise a plan to get them a convention center with a beautiful bow on it this year, this perilous obsession could consume another decade of precious time and civic attention that San Diego could be devoting to other issues—its schools, its parks, its economic future.

The only way to end this obsession is magical intervention, and a gift of convention. Santa, please get yourself to this town.


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