In a first for Comic-Con, Harbor Drive will be shut down next month to motorists, a move expected to relieve the inevitable congestion created by thousands of attendees funneling into the convention center for the sold-out pop culture gathering.
The net effect of the planned street closure between First Avenue and Park Boulevard is to significantly widen the pedestrian-only area fronting the center while also eliminating vehicular traffic — except for emergency vehicles and shuttle buses. The closure also extends to bikes, scooters and skateboards.
Specifically, Harbor Drive will be closed for much of the day and night during the four-day convention starting July 19. The normally heavily trafficked thoroughfare will also be shut down on preview night, which is Wednesday, July 18. There will, however, be limited parking garage access on Harbor for those motorists with special permits.
A joint effort by the city, Convention Center Corp., the Port of San Diego and Comic-Con International, the closure is the latest evolution of the city’s single largest convention, which has morphed beyond the bayfront center, spreading to locations on surrounding streets and in nearby hotels to accommodate the 135,000 attendees.
“The idea had been broached five years ago by traffic control and has been a matter of discussion off and on for the past few years but last August we decided it was necessary to bring up the conversation again,” said Clifford "Rip" Rippetoe, CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corp, who joined the agency in 2016. “All of these kinds of decisions take time and across our industry, we’ve been doing a lot more education on how to deal with traffic and crowd control.
“I’ve run state fairs and major marathons and festivals where streets have been closed and from my point of view it was a prudent thing to take a look at this, so that was part of the catalyst.”
One of the most noticeable changes once Comic-Con starts is the front drive area of the convention center, formerly used by shuttle buses, will be open to all attendees with badges or those picking up their badges. Unlike years past, those who are not attending Comic-Con will be not be allowed access.
The result will be a much more open pedestrian area that will add as much as 34 feet in additional width beyond the sidewalk, which ranges in width from 21 feet to 24 feet, according to the Convention Center Corp.
Shuttle buses, which largely pick up attendees staying in area hotels, will in turn be relocated to Harbor Drive.
Comic-Con International spokesman David Glanzer was not available Monday to discuss the new initiative but offered a written statement: “We hope this initiative will contribute to enhancing the safety and security of those in and around the Convention Center,” he said.
In addition to easing access for attendees heading to the center on foot, the Harbor Drive closure is being characterized as a security initiative.
Lt. Brent Williams, spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, noted that shutting off Harbor Drive and controlling pedestrian access to the center could potentially deter terrorist attacks.
“From a homeland security standpoint and with the amount of attendees, if someone planned an attack, this could be a perfect place if this wasn’t shut down,” Williams said. “Because of what we’ve seen around the country, this is a way to protect attendees. Also, in the event of an evacuation, we could get our first responders there more quickly.”
San Diego police and city officials say they don’t necessarily expect traffic congestion to worsen as motorists are rerouted to surrounding streets. But a possible backlash from the change was anticipated during the planning process, acknowledged Carolyn Wormser, the city’s director of special events.
“We hope the reaction is quite favorable,” Wormser said. “Our traffic controllers have noticed that most of the vehicles that come in that direction (on Harbor) are those who have bought parking for under the convention center, so most people already take the detours we will have in place this year. Everyone put a lot of thought into this and we will implement a plan that works for the majority of folks.”
While discussions started five years ago about the possibility of closing Harbor Drive, the focus in recent years has been to first find ways to better accommodate the thousands of people who want to experience Comic-Con in the absence of a larger venue, Wormser said.
“We spent a lot of time working on the outdoor experiences, and Comic-Con started having panels in different facilities on the waterfront, so the Comic-Con campus has grown and looking at a Harbor Drive closure seemed to make sense,” she explained. “It’s been a challenge the last few years with the number of pedestrians crossing through the shuttle area, and it all mixes in a very small space.”