Bids for Convention Center Top Budget by $20 Million

Times Staff Writer

Construction bids for San Diego's waterfront convention center came in more than $20 million over budget Wednesday, pushing the cost of the much-touted center--originally set at $95 million--to more than $150 million.

The high bids surprised officials of the San Diego Unified Port District, which is building the facility, and some of them expressed shock.

If anything, port officials were expecting construction bids to come in lower than budgeted. That expectation was based on the prediction by Port District architects, who said that because of a general softening in the construction business, especially for large projects, there would be enough competition to bring in bids 2% to 3% under budget.

Wednesday's bid opening, however, brought a new set of problems to the Port District. As word of the magnitude of the overbidding spread among community leaders, the main concern, even with critics of the center's burgeoning budget, is that San Diego must go forward with a convention center project.

But the question is: What kind of center?

"There's going to be some soul-searching," said Port District Director Don Nay. "We can go to a smaller convention center or abandon the project . . . or I guess we would cut the size of the meeting rooms."

Abandonment of the project is probably far-fetched. The Port District is paying a contractor $5.4 million to excavate the 11-acre site at the foot of 5th Avenue, near the Hotel Inter-Continental and Seaport Village.

The prospect of paying so much for a big hole that can't be used is politically unpalatable for members of the Port Commission, which must decide what to do next.

"We've got a prayer session to go through," said Port Commissioner William Rick, who heads the Port District's convention center subcommittee.

"I'm somewhat dumbfounded by the bids. We either have to do a major redesign or take the lowest bids."

Asked what process the commission will use to make its decision, Rick said: "We'll be taking the temperature around town."

"It's sort of like, what is the community flexibility, the elasticity, on this?" Rick said. But he said he didn't think the Port District was ready to "jump in now" and immediately accept one of the bids.

Critics of the convention center's escalating costs said the Port Commission made the mistake of selling a center based on an unrealistic budget.

"At this point it doesn't surprise me," said former port commissioner Maureen O'Connor, who is running for mayor. "Experts throughout the country said it couldn't be done at the cost the architect told the commission. The mistake was in the beginning when the architect (Ward Deems of San Diego) was not held accountable for the price."

Originally, the price of the center was placed at $95 million, the amount touted to the public during a 1983 advisory vote to approve the project. Then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock used the estimate while spearheading a successful ballot campaign, which in his words was supposed to reflect "the new San Diego."

Later the estimated cost jumped to $125 million because the original design was criticized as too boxy and mundane for the waterfront. That higher estimate included construction, contingencies, architectural fees, furniture, fixtures, equipment and excavation.

Port commissioners established the revised budget for actual construction of the 1.4-million-square-foot structure at $101.5 million. In early February, the Port Commission solicited bids for construction, and it delayed the deadline twice to give contractors adequate time to analyze the more than 2,200 pages of specifications and more than 825 pages of construction drawings--120 pounds of documents.

In addition to that base bid, the Port District asked for bids on 11 "extra" alternative items aimed at upgrading the basic structure. Included in this was about $6 million for a tent over the center's patio area and other items such as a windscreen, additional elevators and restrooms, and moveable wall panels.

So it was with much anticipation that Port District officials looked forward to Wednesday's deadline for construction bids.

That anticipation soon turned to consternation, however, as bids from six large construction firms were read to an audience packed into the Port Commission's chambers.

The lowest base bid was submitted by Continental Heller Corp. of Sacramento, which bid $123.9 million, or about $22.4 million more than the $101.5 million budgeted for construction.

The other bidders were as follows: Bechtel Construction Inc. of San Francisco, $124.9 million, ($23.4 million over budget); Blake Construction Co. of Washington, D.C., $125.6 million ($24 million over); Blount Brothers Corp. of Montgomery, Ala., $126.4 million ($25 million over); Robert E. McKee Inc. of Los Angeles, $131.5 million ($30 million over), and Paschen Contractors of Chicago, $133.7 million ($32 million over).

The secondary portion of the bidding, dealing with the extra items, for the most part fell within the range the Port District expected.

Because four of the six bids were relatively close to each other, Port District officials said it is highly unlikely that the high bids were caused by the firms' misreading the specifications.

"I think the industry is telling us something," Rick said.

Nay said his staff will carefully analyze the bids before making a recommendation to commissioners, probably on April 1.

Ron Roberts, vice president of SGPA Architects of San Diego, one of the firms that lost the convention center design contract, criticized the Port Commission for "doing a very unprofessional job throughout the whole process."

On Oct. 31, 1984, when the Port Commission moved ahead with the convention center project, Roberts told the commissioners: "I don't think you have a chance in the world" of meeting the $125-million construction estimate.

"I was hoping I was wrong," Roberts said Wednesday. "San Diego needs a convention center. I'm disappointed that they're making me a prophet."

Roberts said the Port District's mistakes included relying on an overly optimistic Ward Deems, going ahead with an excavation contract before having bids in hand for the construction of the center, and deciding to put in more costly underground parking at the site.

"They've dug themselves a hole," he said. "It would have been wiser to hold it (excavation) up and see where you are" with the construction bid and "find out if you have something buildable."

"I can't see how they have much choice but to pull up their pants and tighten the belt and move forward," Roberts said.

Deems was unavailable for comment Wednesday. He attended the bid opening but declined to take a reporter's telephone calls at his office.

Deems was also severely criticized by O'Connor.

"Mr. Deems has a history of going over budget. He did the same thing when he was involved with the trolley," O'Connor said. "I would think the architect has to redesign the building at no cost."

Acting Mayor Ed Struiksma said that if the Port District gets involved in a "significant redesign . . . I would suggest the City Council would want to be in a position to take a more active role."

Struiksma said that while the Port District will have to "reevaluate where the money is coming from" to pay for a higher-priced project, "maybe this is the price we have to pay to become a world-class city."

Port Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer said Wednesday night that the district's ad hoc convention center committee will meet to discuss the bids in the next three to four days.

Before the Port District makes a decision, it will present the issue to the City Council for comment, he said.

Bidders and Their Bids

Blount Bros. Corp.,Montgomery, Ala. $126.4 million

Continental Heller Corp.,Sacramento $123.9 million

Paschen Contractors,Chicago $133.7 million

Robert E. McKee Inc.,Los Angeles $131.5 million

Bechtel Construction Inc.,San Francisco $124.9 million

Blake Construction Co.,Washington, D.C. $125.6 million

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