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Convention Center Bids Worth the Wait

February 15, 1987

The opening of the newest set of bids for construction of the convention center last week proved to be the first good thing that has happened to the troubled project since the San Diego Unified Port District originally solicited bids in November, 1985.

The convention center's escalating costs and other problems have been well-documented and by now are familiar themes. The first time the port commissioners put the construction of the 1.75-million-square-foot, six-level center out for bid, the low bidder came in $22 million higher than anticipated, and the controversial decision was made to have the job rebid. When the bids were opened this time, the lowest one was $111 million, $13 million less than last time.

Exuberant Port District officials say part of the reason for the lower bids was the improved precision of the specifications this time around. A softer world steel market also helped. One indication of how the better specifications aided contractors is that the only two companies to enter both competitions came in with bids $10 million and $11.6 million lower the second time. Officials also believe as much as $15 million more in expenses for cost overruns and delays was saved by the second bid-letting.

The port commissioners, who by last week probably would have been happy just to have the bids come in at about the same figure as before, had a right to celebrate the apparent savings. But there is still work to be done before the convention center becomes a reality and the county can begin to reap the benefits from the infusion of new tourism dollars.

Once scheduled for completion in mid-1987--in time to play host to the Super Bowl gala next January--the new due date is May, 1989. Some of the difficulties of building such a large structure right on the waterfront already have been encountered by the contractors excavating and preparing the site. It can only be hoped that the new construction schedule can be met, and the center, which was originally endorsed by voters in 1983, will actually open in this decade.

At least one other significant decision remains to be made by the port commissioners. That concerns the option of including large tents to cover a rooftop exhibit area. Mayor Maureen O'Connor, a former port commissioner and a longtime critic of the convention center plans, opposes adding the tents, arguing that the money should instead be spent to expand the center's main exhibition floor.

But the tents add an interesting architectural element that makes the convention center more distinctive in appearance. Given the savings of the new, lower construction bids, the Port District should spend the $6 million to $7 million for the tents so that the center looks attractive to visitors and residents, and makes enough of a splash in the convention market that some of the business lost during the delay can be recaptured.

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