Feb. 21--The $500 million plan to expand the Moscone Center threatens to reignite a landmark South of Market redevelopment battle that was settled nearly 40 years ago.
The focus of the controversy is the proposed 94-foot-high, heavily glassed building that will replace the convention center's existing lobby and extend along the south side of Howard Street most of the way from Third Street to Fourth Street. Besides the lobby and entryway, it will include a second-floor ballroom and meeting rooms on its third floor.
Although the project will connect and expand the existing underground halls by digging out dirt underneath Howard Street, it won't provide enough new space for a modern convention center, said Adam Van de Water of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
"In order to meet the needs of the center ... we have to, by necessity, come out of the ground," he said. "We've used everything we can below ground."
For John Elberling, manager of the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium and head of the TODCO, a nonprofit housing development group, that argument ignores the area's often-bitter history.
A key part of the 1976 agreement that settled the long-running lawsuits that had blocked development of the Moscone Center and the surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens included a simple solution: The convention center would be underground, with open space, playgrounds and neighborhood-friendly buildings and activities above.
The new expansion plan "is double-crossing the original deal," said Elberling, who has been involved in fights over the Moscone Center for decades. "They're building an airport terminal on Howard Street."
Elberling's main concern is the effect the new building, more than twice the height of the existing structure, will have on the Children's Garden, a popular patch of greenery in a concrete-dominated urban neighborhood.
"It just overwhelms the garden," he said. "Instead of the one-story addition that was originally planned, now there's a great slab of a building."
Based on economics
Like almost every other part of the expansion plan, economics are behind the planned building. There's a growing demand for more convention space in the city, with the Moscone Center unable to handle some of the larger groups looking for a place to meet.
"The city will face the loss of $2 billion (in convention business) if we do nothing," Van de Water said.
The potential jump in business that an expanded center could bring is one reason that two-thirds of the construction cost is being paid through a self-imposed tax on downtown hotels, with the other third coming out of the city's general fund.
The expansion project will increase the size of Moscone South and Moscone North to about 1.5 million square feet, a 20 percent boost. But by redesigning much of the existing convention area, there will be about a 42 percent rise in functional space.
'New public realm'
The remake also will give the convention center a new, more pedestrian-friendly feel, the architects said. The bus-loading cutouts along Howard Street will be eliminated, with the lobbies of both buildings moved closer to the new, wider sidewalks. A truck loading ramp will be moved and the long wall of concrete along Third Street eliminated, replaced with the open look of the new building, retail space and a landscaped mid-block walkway.
"We'll see a new public realm that will rethink the way people see the convention center," said Craig Hartman, an architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who also designed the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport and the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland.
A draft environmental impact report on the project is expected to be completed in the next couple of months, with final approval now anticipated by the fall. Construction is scheduled to start by the end of the year and continue until 2018.
Opposition to plan
But opponents of the plan are preparing for a battle that could torpedo that timeline. In a Feb. 4 letter to the city's Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, which replaced the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency as the overseer of Yerba Buena development, Elberling demanded that one story be cut from the proposed new building and that construction not take away any usable recreation land from the Children's Garden.
"We will adamantly oppose any Moscone Expansion Project that does not meet this standard," he wrote.
Van de Water said that the expansion plan doesn't eliminate any recreational space and that the proposed building was designed to have the least possible impact on the play area.
"We're talking about putting a $500 million project in a tight space, so it's hard to make everyone happy," he said. "But we came up with the best possible use of the space."
What's best for the convention center, however, might not be what's best for the surrounding neighborhood, said James Chappell, former head of SPUR, a nonprofit planning and good government group.
The legal battle over Yerba Buena Gardens was only settled "when the convention center was put underground and the city agreed that Yerba Buena would be a real neighborhood, with no one use dominating," said Chappell, a veteran of those fights. "Now someone doing the planning has only one objective: more space for Moscone Center. And they're not appreciative of the other goals of the neighborhood."
John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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