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Storm Winds Rip Convention Center Canopy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego’s signature architectural statement looked more like a bedsheet flapping in the wind Thursday after a rainstorm tore the canopy off the San Diego Convention Center’s $6-million rooftop and sent tatters of debris flying.

No one was injured by the airborne shreds of Teflon-coated fabric, but a main tent panel was sliced open when 27-to-35-m.p.h. winds ripped an aluminum strut from the canopy off its mooring, according to Donna Alm, a Convention Center spokeswoman. Without the canopy, which is fastened above the main tenting, rain poured onto the 108,000-square-foot outdoor exhibition space on the center’s roof through existing gaps in the distinctive tents.

Officials with the San Diego Unified Port District, which owns the building, said a representative from the New York-based manufacturer was en route to San Diego Thursday night to assess the damage to the 15-month-old tents, which are guaranteed for 10 years. They said that, before the tents were installed, officials had been assured they could withstand gusts up to 90 m.p.h.

“Something obviously is wrong . . . because this is not a major storm,” said Adm. Ray Burk, one of three members of the Port District’s advisory committee for the Convention Center. “This will certainly have to be looked at in a very technical way. Meanwhile, we’ve got laundry on the line.”

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Mel Portwood, the port commissioner who chairs the advisory committee, said he specifically remembered being told the fabric was wind-tested up to 90 m.p.h.

“Something was wrong somewhere in either the engineering, the design or with the contractor that put it in,” he concluded. “Somewhere along the line there was a defect. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Stretched taut in graceful curves, the “sails” had been credited with adding a dramatic, seafaring touch to the huge, $158.5-million Convention Center, which opened in November, 1989. The stark, buttressed Convention Center had been heralded as downtown’s first major piece of contemporary architecture. But, on Thursday, as the wet, torn remains of the canopy continued their noisy flapping, the tents were cause for some embarrassment.

“The area that tore is a covering over the main sail itself, which keeps the rain from coming in. It’s obviously not working today,” said Alm, spokeswoman for the San Diego Convention Center Corp., with a sigh.

Former Port Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer noted that he and San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor had opposed the tents both for their $6-million price tag and their seemingly precarious design.

“We were very concerned about the strength of the tents, (and) we were assured everything was hunky-dory,” he said. “I’m devastated to see the damn thing just blowing in the breeze there.”

Paul Downey, O’Connor’s spokesman, said the mayor’s main worry Thursday was that the center could lose business because of the accident.

“Her concern is that the Convention Center investigate it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Especially now, with the economy being the way it is, we can’t afford to lose a single convention.”

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Alm said she had checked the calendar for the next three weeks and found nothing scheduled in the outdoor exhibition area, which was closed to the public Thursday pending repairs.

“There is no major activity scheduled for that area in the next few weeks, so there is time to fix it,” she said, adding that a representative from OC Birdair, the tent’s Buffalo-based manufacturer, would be evaluating the damage today.

“This is not something that was anticipated, so we’re all looking forward to his assessment of what happened,” she said.

Alm said food-service workers first heard the tents tearing about 1 p.m., as they prepared to serve an outdoor lunch to about 700 law students who were taking the bar exam inside. The first tear appeared to be along a seam, she said. “As the wind picked up, it caused the tear to increase significantly,” Alm added. A few hours later, a piece flew off and punctured the main tent. And, by late in the day, she said, the canopy was “mostly shredded. Several pieces have fallen off the roof.”

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A businessman who was staying on the 21st floor of the Marriott Hotel and Marina next door described the sight from his window this way: “It is all in tatters, blowing in the wind, like somebody’s old undershirts on the line. It’s hard to miss.”

Late Thursday, as rain continued to fall, no one could estimate how much it would cost to repair the canopy. But current and former Port District officials stressed that the bill should not be sent to them.

Portwood said he was sure the cost of repairs would be covered by the insurance policies of the engineering firm, the designer or the contractor--whoever is found to be at fault.

Wolfsheimer agreed.

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“It’s not the port’s fault,” he said. “One should look to the architect, the tent-maker and those folks.”

Burk was philosophical, but just as firm.

“There’s an explanation for this, and it will be found. There’s no reason to panic or to point fingers,” he said. “I think it’s a natural act of God, and whoever’s responsible is going to pay for it.”

Burk added that the Port District is definitely not responsible.

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“I’m sure they’ll be looking into the installation--whether the tensions on the cables were appropriate,” he said. “It will certainly be reviewed right down the line.”

Architect Arthur Erickson, who designed the center, has offices in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. Susan Oakley, a partner in the Los Angeles office, said Erickson was out of town and the firm would make no comment on the tent damage.

The tents, although manufactured by Birdair, were engineered by New York fabric-roof specialist Horst Berger, who also did fabric roofs for the Sea World Pavilion in San Diego. Berger could not be reached Thursday.


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