A major downtown redevelopment campaign in the late 1970s ultimately led to the siting of the Convention Center on 11 acres of Port of San Diego-owned land along San Diego Bay. City voters approved a proposal to build the waterfront convention center in November 1983. The Port agreed to fund the entire project at a cost of $164 million with no debt service. The City Council then created the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, which was incorporated in October 1984, to manage and operate the new facility upon completion. A nine-member board of directors was appointed to establish policy for the non-profit, public benefit corporation.

Construction of the 1.7 million square-foot building began in March 1987 and was completed in November 1989. During its first year of operation (FY90), the Convention Center accomplished its first major milestone, welcoming 1.1 million visitors to 354 events.

In 1993 the City of San Diego transferred management of the San Diego Concourse, a mid-sized meeting facility that originally opened in 1964 and the San Diego Civic Theatre to SDCCC. As of July 2012, the Civic Theatre is managed solely by San Diego Theatres Inc. and responsibility for the Concourse was transferred back to the City of San Diego in July 2005.

An expansion, which nearly doubled the building in size to 2.6 million total gross square feet, was completed in September 2001. The expansion grand opening in November 2001 coincided with the Society for Neuroscience's five-day annual meeting. Neuroscience was the expanded Center's first full-facility user attracting a record-breaking 28,600 national and international delegates just two months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

A proposed Phase 3 expansion, that would increase the capacity of the Convention Center by 33 percent, is moving forward. The City of San Diego is exploring financing options for the estimated $520 million project.

According to data presented to the Mayor's Citizen Task Force on the Convention Center Expansion, a proposed expansion could mean an additional $698 million annually in regional economic impact, $17.1 million in new tax revenue and 6,900 new jobs in addition to the 12,500 jobs already supported by the Convention Center.

The San Diego Convention Center is currently ranked 24th in size out of over 450 convention facilities in North America.