Rising Costs Pressure Arts Center

October 15, 1985|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

The rising cost of constructing the Orange County Performing Arts Center--scheduled to open a year from now--is but the latest example of mounting fiscal pressures on one of the largest such projects in the country.

Today the Center board is expected to approve the latest construction cost increase for the project's main-theater phase--a figure the board had set at $57.3 million shortly before construction started in July, 1983.

The cost increase, the second in nearly 2 1/2 years to be adopted by the board, could amount to as much as $8 million to $10 million, according to unofficial sources close to the Center.

Whatever the new officially approved figure, the construction cost issue comes at a fiscally sensitive time for the Center. Already, the board is faced with higher-than-expected operating and programming expenses, which may require additional private donations of $3 million to $4 million a year.

And some local arts organizers contend that the Center's current fund-raising drive--a widely praised effort that has raised about $49 million in private money for constructing the complex--may be losing momentum at a time of greater competition from other major Southern California arts fund campaigns.

Center officials have declined to discuss the revised figures to be presented at today's 4 p.m. meeting in Costa Mesa, except to say that the increase is to be a "substantial one." The projected increase affects only the October, 1986, opening phase: a 3,000-seat multipurpose theater and a 500-seat studio-type facility.

Not included in current discussions is the cost of a 1,000-seat theater, still to be designed and built in a later phase. The last estimate for this facility, $8.2 million, was set in May, 1983.

Both Timothy Strader, Center board president, and Thomas Kendrick, the Center's new executive director, have attributed the construction cost increase to "normal, anticipated costs" resulting from design and technical changes, inflation and other "updating" factors.

"There are no (cost) surprises here. Our (fiscal) goal is still that of quality and economy and to present the most realistic figures possible to the community," said Kendrick, former director of operations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Kendrick and other specialists in the field argue that such big construction cost increases are to be expected.

"There's no question the costs (of arts complexes) are rapidly increasing," said Nick Winslow, president of Harrison Price Co., the Los Angeles firm that has done economic studies on the Orange County project and the Los Angeles Music Center's proposed expansion. "This is the nationwide pattern for projects of this scale, more so in just the past few years. This (Orange County) Center is no exception."

Also, some local arts organizers contend, the Orange County project suffered key delays while the Center was searching for a new executive director. That search began in June, 1984, when Len Bedsow announced that he was retiring. Bedsow officially vacated the post in February, but Kendrick, hired in May, did not assume the post full time until last month.

"There was a (decision-making) vacuum for a year or so at a very vital time," said one local arts organizer, who asked not to be named. "A lot of matters, including bookings, were put on hold so the new team could have their chance at them."

The Orange County Center is one of two large performing arts complexes now under construction in the United States. The $52-million, city-owned Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa, Fla., is also scheduled to open in October, 1986. According to David Midland, the executive director, the Tampa project has not had any "mid-construction overruns."

The overriding reason for the Orange County Center's added construction costs, board officials say, is the highly innovative main-theater plan. Center officials claim the design by Caudill Rowlett Scott of Houston and Blurock Partnership of Newport Beach is one of the most advanced yet: a three-tiered asymmetrical design that they say will offer superior acoustics and sightlines.

"There's nothing quite like it (the asymmetrical design) in this country or of that magnitude in the world. But advances like these cost a great deal. It's not like building, say, a high school auditorium," said William Severns, former longtime Los Angeles Music Center chief administrator and a consultant to the Orange County Center.

Ray Watson, the Orange County Center's facilities vice president and former board chairman of Walt Disney Productions, put it this way: "This building is so complex, so visionary. It's a once-in-a-lifetime project here, like an EPCOT. You have to consider the costs in that context."

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