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Busy Schedule Makes Convention Center Upgrades a Challenge

The work on the Sails Pavilion, bottom right, has also been a major undertaking. The concrete floor has been replaced, and the million replacement of the fabric roof structure is next on the agenda. A possible expansion of the center, above right, is still being debated. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Convention Center Corp.

The San Diego Convention Center is a hardworking building. Many sets of feet have trampled its carpets since it first opened in 1989.

With its ship-inspired design and its hard-to-beat site, it’s another example of an iconic San Diego building that has reached an age when major systems and components need replacing.

Almost 30 years into the building’s life, the San Diego Convention Center Corp. has had to spend a good chunk of money to keep the place up. Over the last two years (fiscal 2016 and 2017), the center spent $18 million for capital improvements, operations and maintenance, said Gil Cabrera, a local attorney who serves as vice chairman of the center board.

Cabrera led a tour of the center on a recent Friday. Three conventions were going on at the time and there was no apparent overlap. Cabrera called it an example of the building’s flexibility.

2001 Expansion

A 2001 expansion made the center four-tenths of a mile long, with 2 million square feet of space — and that excludes parking. The center might be expanded again, though the civic discussion of that topic is far from over.

One big capital project has been rebuilding the Sails Pavilion, a signature element of the original center.

The center spent $3.6 million to pull up and replace slightly more than 100,000 square feet of concrete on the pavilion floor. Some 5.3 million pounds of concrete came out. The new floor went in with two pours. Work started in December; as of this month, crews were applying finish.

Couldn’t a concrete floor last longer than 28 years? Cabrera said the floor was open to the weather in the center’s early years. Only when the center had trouble booking the space did it surround the Sails Pavilion with glass walls. It seemed people in other cities couldn’t believe the space would be habitable in late fall, winter and spring.

Still to come is the $11 million replacement of the fabric roof structure. The center is targeting Jan. 31 to finish that project.

An infrastructure loan from the state of California is financing the improvements, Cabrera said.

Other recent improvements include new chillers, ceilings, lighting, fire systems and the replacement of three restrooms in the older building.

The center plans capital improvements on a 10-year calendar, Cabrera said.

Timing Is Tricky

The most iconic thing about the center is probably its site on the waterfront, which inspired the sails and other ship motifs. Being near hotels and entertainment is a factor that has generated envy among other convention hosts, Cabrera said.

Triangular buttresses and circular structural shapes are the San Diego Convention Center’s signature architectural elements along Harbor Drive. The circle motif includes circular windows as well as barrel-shaped window structures in the expansion. One unique feature is a stairway over the top of the building, which gives pedestrians on Harbor Drive access to the bay on the other side.

Inside the center lobby, convention-goers are treated to a quarter-mile view through concentric circles when they get halfway up the long escalators.

The escalators, by the way, are being replaced in a $3.7 million project, while the elevators are being modernized to the tune of $1.3 million.

Those projects are scheduled to wrap up in late 2018 and early 2019. The timing is tricky, Cabrera said, since the center has to keep some assets running while others are down.

Timing for all capital improvements is tricky, Cabrera said, since convention-goers and construction don’t mix well. And the center is enjoying very good occupancy at 74 percent, he said. Cabrera said 50 percent is the industry standard, and many consider 60 percent full occupancy.


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