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Convention Center to Open, at Last : Development: After many delays, the public will see San Diego's long-awaited downtown showpiece the day after Thanksgiving. Was it worth the wait? Supporters think so, and bookings have exceeded expectations.

November 19, 1989|ARMANDO ACUNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long journey of the San Diego Convention Center, the largest and most expensive project ever attempted by local government in San Diego County, reaches a milestone the day after Thanksgiving, when it finally opens to the public.

That doesn't mean the center is finished. It most likely will be March before the last bolt is tightened, the final nail is driven and the hard-hats are gone. But enough things are ready now, and the anxiety level of center officials has climbed sufficiently, to bring the ribbon-cutters to the christening of the eye-catching structure that sits within feet of San Diego Bay like the huge sailboat it is supposed to resemble.

Within hours after the three-day public celebration ends a week from today, rent-paying customers such as conventions and trade shows will begin moving in. After all, it was primarily built for out-of-towners with fat wallets and expense accounts and a need to sleep in hotels, eat in restaurants and be tourists.

If there was one thing the convention center people could not afford to repeat, it was yet another delay, credibility of scheduling being a prime currency in the convention center business, say officials, who for months have been hand-holding their customers and reassuring them that the facility would be ready.

What officials feared most was having to cancel the center's first round of trade shows and conventions, a lightning bolt that could have spread through the industry herd and caused a stampede away from San Diego, not to mention a public-image debacle.

It has taken years to get to this point. San Diego is the only city among the country's 10 largest without a convention center--not because the city's leaders didn't want one, but because controversy, delays and budget-busting construction estimates have marked the center's history.

So was it worth the wait?

"It took us longer than we anticipated and there was a significant amount of controversy," said Bill Rick, who for the last eight years has been involved in the key decisions affecting the center as a member of the Board of Port Commissioners, the appointed trustees overseeing the agency paying for the center's construction. "I think the community will take (the building) to heart."

The imposing structure, which covers

11 acres at the foot of 5th Avenue and Harbor Drive, is visually striking, with 25 flying buttresses rising 110 feet from the ground and Teflon-coated tents covering a 108,000-square-foot open-air patio, the distinctive signatures of the 1.75-million-square-foot center.

Although architecture was important, the goal wasn't to make an architectural statement, according to the designers.

"I think right from the beginning the attempt was not an architectural statement as much as a real embellishment for the city, something that fit the setting. That's why we picked the nautical theme, the tents as sails, the big gangways, the decks, the openness, the marvelous views," said Arthur Erickson, head of Los Angeles-based Arthur Erickson Architects, one of three architectural firms involved with the center and the one responsible for its design.

Erickson said San Diego officials were afraid at first that the sheer bulk would be so overwhelming that the center would appear inaccessible, as many others across the nation are. "We tried to design something that was very much theirs . . . trying to play down the scale and make it much more approachable," Erickson said.

Although the verdict on the architects' success will be left to the center's users and design critics, what is clear is that the structure is the most talked-about building downtown since Horton Plaza opened a little more than four years ago.

And the convention center's supporters hope it will have something else in common with the shopping center: the ability to act as a catalyst in a downtown in the throes of a fitful revitalization.

Since the early 1970s, when the idea of a convention center began to come together, the center has been a key to downtown redevelopment programs, not only to breathe life into areas such as the adjacent historic Gaslamp Quarter district but also to provide the center city with another anchor, a landmark edifice.

One of the most astounding aspects of the center is not visible to the eyes. When everything is tabulated the center's cost could reach $162 million (it's at $158.5 million now), according to Rick. Although most cities and other local government agencies would have been forced to sell bonds, take out a loan or rely on alternative funding methods to finance such an undertaking, the center will have no debt when it opens.

That's because the San Diego Unified Port District, as landlord of tidelands around the bay, property that includes prosperous tourist-oriented projects, hotels, restaurants and teeming Lindbergh Field, is flush with cash. It is paying for the convention center essentially by writing a check.

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