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.

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.

The Port District owns the land on which the center is built, but the port won't be operating the facility. Under agreement with the city of San Diego, the Port District will lease the center to the city for 20 years at $1 a year.

The city, through the nonprofit San Diego Convention Center Corp., will be responsible for all costs of operating, maintaining, managing and marketing the center.

The corporation also has a multimillion-dollar reserve, money that in large part comes from a special room tax levied on the two towers of the Marriott Hotel next to the center, and which, in the future, will also be applied to the Hyatt Regency that is expected to be built nearby.

According to financial projections made last year, it was believed the center would have to absorb gross operating losses during its first three years of operation. But the number of conventions and trade shows booked into the facility has outpaced those projections, and now operating losses are predicted for only the first two years the center is open.

Initially, consultants told center officials to expect 15 conventions and trade shows plus one consumer show during the first year of operation. But bookings have far outstripped those estimates.

There are 32 conventions and trade shows and 34 consumer shows booked in 1990, and, with various other activities, a total of 193 events are confirmed for the year.

The emphasis is on keeping the center busy, and that's an effort spearheaded by both the Convention Center Corp. and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, who are in charge of booking trade shows, consumer shows and conventions.

ConVis is responsible for bookings more than 18 months in advance, the kind of large conventions and trade shows that are the center's top priority because they bring thousands of out-of-town visitors.

So far, ConVis has received confirmation from 184 conventions plus tentative booking for another 209, activities stretching into the year 2000, according to ConVis spokesman Al Reese. The center's first convention--the National Spa & Pool Institute--is due in January, and Reese said it's estimated that, by the end of 1990, direct spending by the 176,000 delegates expected during the year will amount to about $85 million.

"We've got more business than any new center has ever had. In fact, we don't have a whole lot of open time left," Reese said, noting that Moscone Center in San Francisco, one of the most popular convention locations in the country, had 16 conventions its first year. "What we've had to overcome in our sales effort is some concern about San Diego getting a center completed on schedule."

"Our strong points are we have one of the most dramatic and visually appealing settings," Reese said. San Diego's main competition is expected to come not only from San Francisco but other West Coast centers in Seattle, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Phoenix.

Second on the center's priority booking list are regional-type consumer shows, which are scheduled by the Convention Center Corp. within an 18-month time frame. That kind of shows is expected to draw attendance mainly from the 3 million people living in the greater San Diego-Tijuana region. But there is already a budding problem, according to officials, because there are so many conventions booked into the center that finding an open date for a consumer show in 1991 is already very difficult and may require a reevaluation of the center's policies.

"Conventions have already gobbled (the time) up," said Tom Liegler, Convention Center Corp. executive vice president and general manager. At this point, though, the booking problems are not paramount in Liegler's mind. He had wanted three months to get the center ready, to train his people, to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the building. But construction delays changed all that, and now he is under the gun.

His staff started moving in Friday under a temporary occupancy permit. Most have never worked at a convention center and are unfamiliar with the San Diego facility. Yet the center will host its first event Tuesday, when the Port District throws a party for several hundred, followed three days later by the much-touted weekend open house for the public.

And then, a week later, the center's first revenue-producing customer comes in, the San Diego International Boat Show, which will pay the center $250,000 in rent.

"These are not the conditions we would have enjoyed," Liegler said. "On the other hand, we've put in place Plan B, and in some cases Plan C."

For example, one area that won't be finished until December is the center's huge kitchen, forcing the corporation to "jerry-rig some buffets and concessions stands . . . because we must provide food service," Liegler said. In addition, the huge tent area can't be used until probably mid-December because the floor isn't finished, which prevents the Fire Department from testing the water cannons that rim the ceiling.

"We're in a reacting mode," Liegler said, describing how he and his staff have been working seven days a week to get ready, some of them undergoing training at the old police station on Market Street.

Liegler, a veteran of the convention center business who was general manager of the Anaheim Convention Center and Anaheim Stadium and operations manager of the Astrodome in Houston, will head a full-time staff of 160 employees, augmented by 350 part-time workers. When added to employees of companies with service contracts at the center, there may be as many as 1,000 workers employed at the center for a large event.

What Liegler will manage is a massive facility.

The main exhibit floor encompasses 254,000 square feet, roughly the size of five football fields; the $6 million Teflon-tent area covers 108,000 square feet. There is another 100,000 square feet of space spread over 32 meeting rooms, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, a bayside amphitheater with room for 400 people, six rooftop tennis courts and 32 truck docks.

Although the entire structure is 1.75 million square feet, the Convention Center Corp. will control 760,000 square feet. That's because the Port District has retained authority over the potentially lucrative 2,000-car parking garage built on two underground floors. It recently picked Ace Parking to operate the garage.

As part of an agreement with the owners of the Marriott hotel--also built on Port District property--700 garage spaces are earmarked for the hotel, as are the center's rooftop tennis courts.

Aside from work at the convention center itself, the city, Port District and other government agencies are pouring in millions of dollars to upgrade the surroundings, projects that, in most cases, are still in construction.

Harbor Drive, which runs in front of the center, is being realigned; planning is under way on a linear parkway next to the street, and crews are nearly finished on cutting through 1st and Front streets across the railroad tracks and linking them to Harbor Drive.

The most expensive project of all, though, is the expansion of the trolley system's $40-million Bay Side line, with two stops in the vicinity of the center. Originally, the line was supposed to be ready for major conventions early next year, but officials now say the line won't be open until June.

Part of the delay was caused by complex negotiations over purchase of the right of way from Santa Fe, as well as the discovery of topsoil contaminated with toxics such as creosote. The area has long had railroad tracks and, in the 1800s, was a dump site.

Officials from the Metropolitan Transit Development Board hope to have a segment of the line, running from the the convention center to MTDB headquarters at 12th and Imperial avenues, open in spring to accommodate special events at the center.

The Port District is paying $10 million for the 2-mile Bay Side line, with the city picking up the remaining cost.

Controversial from the outset, the convention center proposal was rejected by San Diego voters in 1981. It was approved two years later when the site was moved from the city's center to the harbor front and the Port District agreed to build it. The estimated cost: $95 million.

Excavation of the site began in 1985, but problems began almost immediately, eventually leading to a lawsuit between the Port District and the contractor, HuntCor Inc. of Phoenix. The Port District recently won an arbitration of the lawsuit. (Because part of the building is underground, a permanent dewatering system is in place, and is currently discharging about 500,000 gallons a day.)

In 1986, the project was delayed for another year when the lowest of six bids came in $22 million higher than the center's then $101.5-million budget. Port Commissioners, under heavy pressure from the region's hotel and tourist industry, as well as a City Council ad hoc committee, nonetheless rejected it, igniting further anxiety in the convention industry. ConVis estimated that the delay would cost the city more than $60 million in lost convention business.

Rick, the port commissioner, says the Port District let itself get pressured into going out to bid too early, and that construction plans were in such disarray and so incomplete that it would have led to more delays and added millions of dollars to the cost.

"I think we did the right thing," Rick said recently. "The plans were in such a chaotic state that, had we gone ahead, it would have led to pure, unaltered chaos."

"It was very painful at the time."

The Port District called for new bids and hired a professional construction manager, Fluor Constructors, to oversee the project and keep expenses and timetable in line. In February, 1987, the Port District awarded the construction contract to the joint venture of Tutor-Saliba Corp. of Sylmar and Perini Corp. of Framingham, Mass., which made a low bid of $110.9 million.

Subsequent construction problems, including labor woes in Korea that postponed steel shipments, pushed back the completion date from last spring, to mid-summer to the fall. And recently there was a minor spat over unexpected cracking in surface concrete of bayfront terraces that also added to the delay.

Compounding the problems have been disputes between the contractor and the Port District involving changes in the plans and an extension of construction time. "There are a lot of points yet to be resolved," Rick said. It's likely that some of those disputes will be resolved through another round of lawsuits after the center is built.

For the last month, construction crews have worked weekends and overtime to ready the center for the opening, according to Billy Crockett, Fluor's on-site project manager.

The center's problems, however, weren't confined to concrete and steel. Early this year, the center was the focus of debate over whether it should be named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At its worst, the debate descended into charges of bigotry and racism, with blacks and whites evoking stereotypes to make their points.

The City Council voted to rename the convention center for King, but the decision rested with the seven-member Board of Port Commissioners, who turned down the request on a 4-3 vote, when one of three commissioners appointed by the city, Dan Larsen, reneged on an earlier promise and sided with the opposition.

A group called the King Committee for Justice has called for a boycott of the center and plans to picket the center's opening ceremonies Friday morning.

"The reason we're picketing is because of the amount of racism in San Diego shown the last three years," contended the Rev. George Stevens, a leader of the committee. "We want to address the issue of racism in San Diego." Stevens said that, although his group continues to want the center named for King, it also is pushing to have a woman or minority member appointed to the Board of Port Commissioners.

CONVENTION CENTER BUDGET

The San Diego Unified Port District's budget for the San Diego Convention Center:

$125.6 million--construction of the building.

$5.5 million--excavation of the site.

$11.2 million--payments to architects, other design costs, structural testing.

$4 million--payments to Fluor Constructors Inc., for construction management.

$7.5 million--for furniture, fixtures and equipment for the center.

$3 million--for inspectors, soils and laboratory testing.

$1.7 million--miscellaneous expenses.

Total: $158.5 million.

Source: San Diego Unified Port District.

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