The decision came during the second of three days of commission meetings in Mission Valley. Commission staff had recommended that the project be denied.
Commissioner Greg Cox, who also is a San Diego County supervisor, noted “near-unanimous” support of the project by public speakers, who represented the region’s business community, tourism industry and labor organizations.
“It is incredibly important to the entire San Diego County region that this project be allowed to move forward,” said Cox, who made the motion for approval.
He and other commissioners noted their task was not to weigh the project’s economic benefits, but rather the impact on views and access of the downtown waterfront.
Coastal Commission staffers have recommended denying the $520 million project because it may limit access to San Diego Bay, reduce the waterfront views 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 said 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.
Other opponents said the building would wall-off views of the bay.
Earlier today, Gloria told reporters that approval meant that final plans and documents could be completed, “to allow us to break ground in the near-future and, hopefully, finish this project in the 2017, 2018 time-frame. That would allow us to keep Comic-Con.”
Approval of the center leaves the future of the Chargers’ stadium proposal for the East Village an open question. The team had floated a proposal to allow a new playing facility be used for added convention space — a fall- back position for the city if the Coastal Commission had denied the center.
Gloria said he believes an NFL stadium could be built separately.
The commission was formed in 1972 by a voter initiative and has the final word on land-use issues affecting the coastline.