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Civic San Diego against clock figuring Horton Plaza's next step

The walled-off perimeter to the expansion site of the historical Horton Plaza downtown will remain in place for a considerably longer time than was expected earlier in the year.

Ever since construction bids came in significantly higher than anticipated earlier this month on the project -- a roughly $12 million budget was approved based on engineer estimates -- the timeline on the development has become less clear.

The reason for the discrepancy in figures is under review, according to Civic San Diego, the remnant organization of the Centre City Development Corp.

Addressing the Civic San Diego board of directors, Civic San Diego Senior Project Manager Daniel Kay provided at a May 21 meeting a possible schedule that could have ground breaking on the plaza's new amphitheatre-style civic space by October.

Just in February, Kay had expected that to happen as soon as June. But even that target was further back than the April 2013 goal set in late 2012 by the space's future manager, Westfield, which operates the adjacent Westfield Horton Plaza shopping mall.

In estimating project costs, Civic San Diego Interim President Andrew Phillips said the same best-practices standards were used as with any other Civic San Diego project.

"Our cost estimator performed cost estimates at (the submittal of) 80 percent construction drawings and at 100 percent construction drawings," Phillips said. "Those were also peer-reviewed, and the peer review found the cost estimates were within reasonable estimates, that they were consistent."

Civic San Diego believes the estimates to have been solid, though Philips added that more than a year has passed since they were provided.

"They're spending time dealing with (the California) Department of Finance, trying to figure out if there's been a market change," Phillips said. "And that's what we're trying to determine at this point in time -- what's causing this."

As laid out by Kay, there are a few options, including the possibility of requesting more funds from Civic San Diego's board of directors, the city's redevelopment successor agency, the successor agency's oversight board and the Department of Finance.

The Department of Finance reviews all funding requests for projects, such as the Horton Plaza project, determined to be prior obligations of former redevelopment agencies, which were dissolved in 2012 per state law.

Another option would be to place the project out to bid again, but with an amended plan to fit the budget.

The difficulty in redesigning the plan comes in the owner-participation agreement that made the project possible. Any changes made would have to be evaluated against the agreement with Westfield, which would depend on a "world class" inviting space to fulfill its obligation to accommodate more than 200 programmed events per year in the expanded plaza and amphitheatre next to its mall.

Civic San Diego said it will determine what the best course of action is in the coming weeks, Phillips said, as the project bids are being studied item by item to figure out where they came in higher than estimated.

Phillips said he wasn't sure if the bids, as submitted, listed itemized costs to the extent that such discrepancies would be immediately known.

"It's going to depend on the time it takes to go in and evaluate the bids, and then work with the city on the best course of action," Phillips said. "In terms of the bids, they're valid for 120 days, so time is of the essence."

The low bid on the project came in at about $15.7 million, including additions for all fixtures, soft costs, an 8 percent contingency and $1.09 million for an interactive water fountain.

Including all the same costs, the high bid of $17.74 million for the plaza and fountain would amount to $20.19 million. As has been the case since the expanded plaza was being designed, Civic San Diego said that if needed, it could drop the fountain from the plan.

Philanthropy, which has for some time been sought to retain the fountain, is now an option for covering the larger budget shortfall. Phillips declined to identify any potential donors that have been approached.

An October groundbreaking would set up an expected October 2015 opening for the expanded plaza. If a request is made for additional DOF funding, the new proposal review period could last up to 45 days.

Expansion of the historical Horton Plaza has been pondered since the decades following its development in the 1870s.

At first, it mostly served as a courtyard of sorts for the Horton House hotel, which is no longer there but was developed where the U.S. Grant hotel now sits.

By the 1880s, Horton Plaza was used as a host site for weekly concerts and other public gatherings. Its developer, Alonzo Horton, deeded the plaza to the city of San Diego in 1895. It has taken on various looks since, including some changes that came when the mall that now sits next to it and was named after it was developed in the 1980s.

The plaza's redevelopment would not only expand the plaza, but return the portion of it ringed with palm trees to its historical state as a park.

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