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Search Begins for Convention Center Overseer

April 23, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to head off potential problems with San Diego's waterfront convention center, the San Diego Unified Port District on Tuesday took the first step toward hiring an expert to oversee construction of the troubled project.

By a unanimous vote, the port commissioners instructed their staff to begin screening construction management firms, with an eye toward hiring one by mid-May to monitor the convention center's costs and construction timetable.

Although several dozen firms already have approached the port about the potentially lucrative consultant contract, which Port Director Don Nay estimated could be worth $2 million, port officials have whittled the contenders down to what Port Engineer John Wilbur called a "short list" of nine companies. Five of the nine firms are based in San Diego.

As a result of the commissioners' action Tuesday, port staff members will select and interview five or six finalists from among those firms. The port commissioners are expected to make the final choice and negotiate a contract by May 13, Nay said.

That date is three days before the commissioners must decide whether to accept or reject six bids that came in last month more than 20% above the $101.5-million budget for construction of the 1.4-million-square-foot facility on Navy Field, adjacent to Seaport Village and the Hotel Inter-Continental. Port officials have estimated that excavation costs, furnishings and other expenses will push the convention center's final price tag to nearly $160 million.

On Monday, the San Diego City Council recommended that the port rebid the project, overriding complaints that doing so could cause a six-month delay and cost more than $30 million in lost convention business. While cognizant of those problems, the council members argued that rebidding could cut construction costs by about $10 million and help restore public confidence in a project that was billed at $95 million when San Diegans approved it in an advisory vote in November, 1983.

Regardless of whether the Port District awards a construction contract by next month's deadline or solicits a second round of bids, the immediate hiring of a firm to oversee the project is a good idea, Port Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer said Tuesday.

"It could help us clean up what we've got already, or clean up the bid (specifications) so that when it goes out again it's a better bid," Wolfsheimer said.

Because of numerous design changes during the final stages of last month's bidding process--bids were solicited when the design specifications were only 60% complete--some officials have speculated that the firms that bid may have inflated their figures as a safeguard against unexpected expenses or construction problems.

Construction experts who served on a task force appointed by acting San Diego Mayor Ed Struiksma to review the projected cost overruns have argued that "cleaning up" the bids could save several million dollars if the project is rebid.

The firm ultimately selected to oversee the project probably will employ 4 to 12 field inspectors to study ways to cut costs without hurting the center's architectural design, review minor design changes, and monitor progress during the expected 26-month construction period, Wilbur said.

"This project is too big for any one person to check it," Wilbur said.

One caveat is that the firm selected will be barred from bidding on the project if the port commissioners should decide to seek new bids, the engineer added.

Although the field of contenders will not be officially closed until Monday, Wilbur said he doubts that any firms other than those whose names are already before the port will be considered for the construction management contract.

However, jokingly alluding to the various problems that have beset the convention center project, Wilbur added, "If someone walks across the bay and doesn't get his feet wet, we'd probably look at him."

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