The California Coastal Commission has approved plans for a $520 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. The decision essentially paves the way for the project to move forward, with an expected 2016 completion, provided it clears challenges in two private lawsuits related to its funding mechanism. Groundbreaking is expected in late 2014.

Meeting in Mission Valley, the coastal panel chose to set aside a recommendation by its staff to reject a proposed amendment to the Port of San Diego’s general plan for the land where the convention center sits.

Staff had raised concerns in a recent report that the proposed expansion blocked views of the waterfront and did not sufficiently provide for general public access to open spaces on the outskirts of the facility.

The unanimous approval came after port and city officials assured the Coastal Commission that operators would take steps to make a planned rooftop park and other open spaces adjacent to the expanded facility – as well as stairways and access points – inviting and usable for visitors not involved with conventions being held there.

Steve Cushman, special assistant to San Diego interim Mayor Todd Gloria on the convention center project, said officials have worked out arrangements for the city to allocate up to $500,000 to maintain public spaces around the center. Signs and other amenities will be installed to ensure the public has access at all times.

The Coastal Commission has final say on waterfront projects in California. Several members reiterated past concerns that the center has become isolated from the rest of the downtown area, and called on officials to consider a pedestrian bridge directly connecting the Gaslamp Quarter with the convention center.

The panel’s decision allows for the planned addition of 740,000 square feet of new indoor and outdoor spaces to the convention center, including a five-acre rooftop park. The next-door Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel is planning its own $200 million expansion, which would add 500 rooms.

—Lou Hirsh