Convention Center Cost Dips Sharply in New Set of Bids

Times Staff Writer

San Diego's controversial decision to delay construction of the waterfront convention center apparently paid off Wednesday when the Port District opened a new set of construction bids significantly lower than those rejected 10 months ago.

The lowest bid came in at $110.9 million--10% lower than the $123.9-million low bid that the San Diego Unified Port District had rejected. All four bids received Wednesday fell substantially below five of the six bids submitted last March.

"We are so happy," an exultant Port Commissioner Bill Rick said after the bids were opened in a tense ceremony at Port District offices. "I tell you, this is the greatest day in the history of the Port District. We're going to have a convention center."

Rick and others attributed the reduced amount of the new bids to the port's efforts to improve and clarify the plans and specifications for the center. They said the plans had been rushed and incomplete the first time around, causing excessive caution and overbidding by contractors.

Savings were also achieved through some design changes--more than 100 relatively small modifications in such things as the electrical system, officials said. Finally, some said the lower bids reflected the state of the construction industry and steel prices worldwide.

"I think it really gets down to the economic conditions in the building industry today, the really hardball analysis of the design and the bringing together of the bid documents," said Ward Deems, a principal designer of the center.

The new bids represented something of a victory for Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who as a mayoral candidate argued early on that the project should be rebid. Hotel and tourism officials had opposed rebidding, saying the delay would cost them $60 million in lost business.

"She is very happy with the numbers," said O'Connor aide Paul Downey, speaking for the mayor, who was in New York City Wednesday. "She said it was obvious that it was the right thing to rebid the project."

Even hotel and tourism officials seemed encouraged.

"I think from the standpoint of the port achieving its purpose, which was to reduce costs, I think they were very successful," said Jim Durbin, president of the Hotel and Motel Assn. "And I think that we can look forward to having a convention center and trying to recapture some of the business lost in the delay."

The four bids must now be verified by the Port District staff, a process that Rick said will take several weeks. The staff will then make a recommendation and the commissioners will vote on which contractor will receive the job.

Under the law, the port must award the contract to the "lowest responsible bidder." That appeared to be Perini Corp. of Framingham, Mass., in a joint venture with Tutor-Saliba Corp. of Sylmar, Calif., which built the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

Billy Crockett of Fluor Constructors, the firm hired by the Port District last year to serve as construction manager on the job, said he would like to have the construction contractor begin work "four weeks from now, not later than six weeks."

He predicted construction will take 26 months, with a completion date of May, 1989.

The bids came in Wednesday within seconds of the 2 p.m. deadline. Breaking off last-minute negotiations with subcontractors conducted outside on a bank of pay phones, company representatives rushed into the crowded meeting room and dropped their thick manila envelopes in a locked bid box.

The lowest bid was $110,957,000 from Tutor-Saliba and Perini. The other three bids were $113,927,000 from Blake Construction Co. of Washington, D.C.; $113,982,000 from Continental Heller Corp. of Long Beach in a joint venture with Stolte Inc. of Los Angeles, and $124,000,000 from Walsh Construction Co. of Trumbull, Conn.

The bidding process included separate, additional bids for several options that the port commissioners must consider. Those are the price of installing a natural gas air-conditioning system and the cost of a controversial rooftop "fabric structure," commonly called "the tents."

Most of the bidders put the added cost of installing a gas system at approximately $1 million. The bids on the tents, offering both Teflon and silicone, ranged from an additional $5.8 million to $6.8 million.

Deems characterized those bids as well below the anticipated $7-million figure.

Deems described the "fabric structure" as "magnificent structural elements," saying the term tent "has a connotation of camouflage and out-in-the-field." But O'Connor has suggested that the structures be put on hold and the money be spent to expand the main exhibit floor.

After the bids were opened, Commissioners Louis Wolfsheimer and Rick, both of whom toured the country with O'Connor last year looking at other convention centers, claimed the delay and rebidding had resulted in savings of as much as $30 million in public money. That figure includes the $15-million difference between the two low bids, and another $15 million they say might have been incurred because of delays and change orders resulting from the Port District's haste in rushing into construction.

"We didn't have the site ready," Rick said, referring to the 11 acres at the foot of 5th Avenue near the Hotel Inter-Continental. Excavation of the site had been seriously delayed by drainage problems last year, and the land was not ready when the bids came in.

"We went out too early. The plans and specifications were not ready," said Rick, who added that the winning contractor "would have extra'd us to death" as a result. This time, the job is ready to proceed, he said: "We have a working hole in the ground."

Rick traced the apparent cost savings to clearer plans. "The contractors had better working drawings to work from," he said. "The more experienced someone is with plans, the less caution there is in taking a competitive figure."

Tutor-Saliba is the 28th-largest construction company in the country, said Jake Stonich, the firm's director of business development. Its past work includes hotels, hospitals, office buildings, reclamation facilities, dams, pipelines and airport terminals.

The convention center is to be a 1.75-million-square-foot structure with six levels. Construction is the second phase of the project, which has already entailed a $5.1-million excavation of the site.

The original price tag was touted as $95 million during the 1983 campaign that persuaded San Diego voters to endorse the project. Since that time, the estimated cost has crept upward.

On Wednesday, Al Reese, a spokesman for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, estimated that the delay caused by the rebidding process had deprived the city of as much as $100 million in convention and tourist business.

But Reese said: "We're very happy that the bids appear to have come in within the parameters that everyone wanted. . . . Our job is to book the center and bring conventions to San Diego. So, obviously, we want a convention center as soon as possible."

CONVENTION CENTER BIDS BLAKE CONSTRUCTION COMPANY $113,927,000 CONTINENTAL HELLER/STOLTE INC. $113,982,000 TUTOR--SALIBA / PERINI CORP. $110,957,000 WALSH CONSTRUCTION CO. $124,000,000

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