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Building Bugs Delay Opening of New Theaters : No Klieg Lights for Horton Plaza's Premiere

April 20, 1985|MATT DAMSKER | San Diego County Arts Writer

The job has turned out to be as complex as building "a ship inside a bottle" and the problems have raised the cost and delayed the construction of the two below-ground theaters in downtown's Horton Plaza retail complex.

So the shopping center will have to have its grand opening, slated for August, without the theatrical attractions that had been counted on to add night life and cultural depth to the event.

According to David Allsbrook, projects director for the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the 550-seat main theater and the 250-seat "black box" experimental theater won't open before the end of the year, while the multiscreen movie complex also slated for the plaza won't be in place until 1986.

"We would like to have had the theaters opening in August," Allsbrook acknowledged, "but (plaza developer) Ernest Hahn is well aware of the problems involved, and he's willing to live with that."

On Friday, the CCDC board of directors approved a $1.4-million additional expenditure for the two theaters, raising the theater project's total cost to $6.6 million. The board also awarded the contract for general construction, dry wall and steel work to the J.A. Stewart Construction Co. Stewart's bid had come in $1 million over budget and costs had increased by $400,000 by the time the bid arrived in March. Proceeds from the sale of $15 million in government notes will be used to fund the theaters.

The main reason for the delay and increased costs, according to a CCDC memorandum, has to do with getting steel into the below-ground shell of the theater complex--a problem that project architect Gene Weston has likened to building a ship inside a bottle. Conventional methods such as loading the steel by crane cannot be used, so the steel must be handled by block and tackle, with scissor-lifts to put it in place--a much more time-consuming method.

Also adding to the cost is a modified design and engineering of the theaters' ceiling system to isolate the sound from above the theater, which rests directly below a plaza area where traffic will be heavy.

CCDC Vice President Howard A. Busby was the lone dissenting voice in the board's approval of the increase. He complained that there was no excuse for failing to anticipate the construction problems.

"We knew the center, we knew the physical constraints two years ago," he said. "But if we didn't know the details of the difficulties involved, we should have been much more conservative in estimating the cost. We should have known that it might need another $1.5 million; otherwise we might not have gone ahead with it at all."

"The project is much more complex than anybody ever imagined," countered Rick Froese, project manager for Horton Plaza. "On top of that, the (construction) market has been really tough. We're having difficulty getting firms to bid on our contracts, so you can imagine the gyrations you go through getting them to bid on a city contract like this one."

CCDC Executive Vice President Gerald Trimble said that there would be no point in risking a further delay by calling for a re-bid on the construction work, since there was no reason to expect that a better bid would be received, given the "well-publicized" nature of the theater project.

The theater space is being leased from Ernest W. Hahn Inc. for $1 a year by the city's redevelopment agency, which will in turn sublease it to the Horton Plaza Theaters Foundation, which plans to sublease it to the San Diego Repertory Theatre. It will most likely be named the New Lyceum Theater in honor of the historic theater that was razed to help clear the site for the $141-million Horton Plaza center.

In other redevelopment news, the CCDC board approved a joint public hearing to discuss its disposition and development agreement with the San Diego Art Center, the modern art museum and retail complex proposed for the Balboa Theater on the eastern edge of Horton Plaza. Upon acquiring the Balboa property, CCDC plans to lease it for $1 a year to the Art Center and will make a $1-million loan to Art Center developer Chris Mortenson to assist with renovations. The public hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in City Council chambers.

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