Moscone makeover could draw higher-profile events to San Francisco

The SoMa landmark is slated for an ambitious expansion that will claim new space underground and possibly entice more high-profile — and high-spending — conventions to come to San Francisco.

Over the past 30 years, the city-owned Moscone Convention Center has helped turn the once-gritty South of Market neighborhood into a red-hot destination. Almost 1 million conventioneers each year visit the sprawling center.

But officials say that if the Moscone Center is to keep up, it must grow. And that growth could well occur beneath the now-abandoned tomb of a building that stands in stark contrast to its sleek, white neighbor at the corner of Third and Folsom streets.

Click on the main photo for a slideshow of the Moscone Center including renderings of the expansion and other art associated with this story.

Since a 2009 task force recommended adding 105,000 square feet beneath the former Pacific Bell facility, some form of underground expansion has emerged as the leading option for expanding the center.

On Sept. 30, TMG Partners disclosed a planned $87 million renovation of that building in which shimmering glass will replace the concrete façade. Slated for late 2013, the 505,000-square-foot project is The City’s biggest speculative development since before the recession, and hopes to attract Google-caliber technology tenants. It also includes plans to accommodate a subterranean “Moscone East.”

“The deal is still very much an if,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. “We are still in discussions with them as that being one of the options for expanding Moscone. … We’re looking at a variety of options now.”

As a simpler alternative, The City also is exploring excavating solely beneath convention center property. There is already a tunnel linking Moscone North and South, and more of that would be easiest, D’Alessandro said.

Planners envision a vast underground complex of tunnels to create more than 500,000 square feet of continuous convention space. The goal is to eventually tie the sprawling underground convention center into tunnels to the north and south, linking the space to the Central Subway to Chinatown, Union Square, AT&T Park, BART and Caltrain.

“That becomes very desirable, as long as it’s continuous,” D’Alessandro said.

The City hopes to keep the center competitive with cities such as Las Vegas that are upping the ante in terms of continuous square feet of convention space. Moscone weighs in at 1.2 million total square feet, with 250,560 square feet of continuous space underground in Moscone South. Both Chicago and San Diego’s centers provide about 2.6 million overall square feet.

Size cost the Moscone Center the Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in 2009, and puts at risk an additional $700 million in revenue, a Travel Association study said. Oracle OpenWorld and’s annual Dreamforce event both tented Howard Street this year to create enough space.

“We’re lucky they stay in town,”  D’Alessandro said. “A number of our large conventions are really under pressure because they’re growing and the space is not.”

Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Moscone South is at the end of its natural lifespan, notes center General Manager Dick Shaff. Some bathrooms lack hot water, he said, while others scald attendees.

The center is trying to do more with what it has. It’s halfway through a $56 million facelift that will include more Wi-Fi, digital signage and fiber-optic Internet.

“Its going to be a whole different building when they’re finished,” D’Alessandro said. “We hadn’t invested nearly enough to keep the facilities up.”

Shaff said some people bristle at the underground character of the center, but it fits into downtown without warping the neighborhood.

“All these public amenities in a downtown, urban environment — we definitely have a leg up on location,” he said. “That it’s underground is unique, and if you sit and think about it, in this city it was the right thing to do.”

The quasi-public Travel Association is funded by a 1 percent to 1.5 percent hotel tax in San Francisco’s Tourism Improvement District, and expansion would presumably require more funds. Opening Moscone West in 2003 cost $187 million, Shaff said. The Tourism Improvement District in 2008 planned on having up to $95 million available for expansion.

The Moscone Center is the No 1. revenue generator for San Francisco, creating about  one-third of The City’s $485 million in annual tourism-related taxes, association data indicate. And that doesn’t include ancillary expenditures in the local economy on accommodations, food and transportation. A 2007 study estimated that conventions pump $2 billion annually into the local economy.

None of the future proposals put Moscone in the U.S.’s top tier for square footage. Some groups need 5 million square feet or more of continuous space.

“We’ll never be in the top tier in pure size,” D’Alessandro said. “I think we’re No. 25 in the nation. We’re not trying to do that.”

Even after the proposed expansion, the Moscone Center at its biggest will be something of a chic boutique.

“It’s probably the most successful per-square-foot convention center in the U.S.,” D’Alessandro said. “Every time we’ve opened a new building, the growth has exceeded expectations. Moscone West was almost a decade ago; now it’s time for us to look at the next phase.”

Moscone Center at a glance

1.2 million: Total meeting space, in square feet
250,000: Continuous convention space, in square feet
7 percent: Visitors who come to S.F. for meetings or conventions
53.1 percent: Business or convention visitors who attend Moscone events
30 percent: Hotel guests who are convention delegates
$265: Average daily spending by business traveler
$240: Average daily spending by leisure visitor
$2.02 billion: Annual expenditures related to trade shows and conventions


Homelessness, panhandling are tourists’ top turn-offs tourists

Even after any planned expansion, Moscone’s rivals will have rendered the center a relative boutique. The City is adjusting for that reality by upgrading weaknesses such as Moscone’s bathrooms and wireless capabilities. But how to address panhandling?

In March, the San Francisco Travel Association announced the results of its biggest, most systematic survey of San Francisco tourists. The results showed three main sources of irritation: homelessness, with 25.4 percent complaining about that and the panhandling problem; weather, with 10.1 percent griping about the cold and windy weather; and traffic, with 10 percent saying they could have done without the transit issues.

San Francisco Travel President and CEO Joe D’Alessandro views weather and traffic as beyond his purview, but he takes homelessness and panhandling seriously.

“The aggressive panhandling continues to be the No. 1 complaint about San Francisco, not just for conventions but also for tourism,” he said. “They don’t want to be harassed when they walk down the street or feel threatened when they leave their hotel. We’re working on it. Our focus is on the street scene, making sure it’s safe and clean.”

Center General Manager Dick Shaff said his facility puts ambassadors on the street and has expanded its neighborhood cleaning program. “Everybody’s doing as much as we can,” he said. “The City is dealing with it as best they can. San Francisco is San Francisco; it’s a very accommodating city.”

Tourists tend to fret about homelessness more than convention-goers, who often skip the street view on shuttles between their hotel and the center. “The fact is, they continue to want to come here,” Shaff said. “The American College of Surgeons has been coming here for about 100 years. The appeal far outweighs the drawbacks.”

On-site, Moscone visitors’ No. 1 complaint has been infrastructure, Shaff said. They positively loathed the 30-year-old movable walls called “Air Walls,” which are being replaced. And they’ve boosted wireless Internet access beyond the public lobbies and into every corner of the center. It eliminates embarrassing coverage gaps during high-tech conventions, he said, but “It’s always a struggle to keep up with innovations in technology.” Contractors also are pushing fiber-optic, land-based Internet to all corners of Moscone by June 2012, he said.

Even with the upgrades, rates at Moscone and nearby hotels remain competitive, D’Alessandro said. “Our rates today are nowhere near where they were in 2000. We still have room to grow, though we’re pleased demand for San Francisco is very high.”

SF travel facts

– 15.92 million: Visitors in 2010
– 3.1 percent: Increase over 2009
– $8.34 billion: Tourism revenue generated in 2010
– $98,591: Average annual household income of visitors
– 6.2 percent: Increase over 2009
– 126,931: Average daily visitors in The City
– $485 million: Annual tax revenue for The City
– 4 percent: Increase over 2009
– 67,122: Tourism jobs
– $1.88 billion: Tourism-related payroll

Source: SFTA</i>

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