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Horton Plaza development going to bid

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Construction of the planned amphitheater and the retrogressive update to the existing Horton Plaza park could begin as soon as late June, according to officials from Civic San Diego.

That's because Civic San Diego's plans for the plaza development were just recently permitted by the city.

The plan's specifications received approval from the San Diego City Council on Feb. 4, making it possible for Civic San Diego -- the city-owned nonprofit manager of development -- to next send the project out to bid with contractors.

About the same time, Westfield finalized its transfer of the property over to Civic San Diego.

Westfield had already finished its construction end of the development deal. It had demolished the old Robinsons-May building on site, remediated the area, provided clean fill material, and rebuilt and reconfigured the San Diego Gas & Electric transformer vault below grade.

That transformer had to be increased in capacity to accommodate the electrical and sound systems planned for the urban plaza.

The permitting process took longer than expected for Civic San Diego, but the recent milestones in the City Council approval and title transfer signal a construction start sooner rather than later.

"It was a handful of things," Civic San Diego Senior planner Mark Caro said of the city's slow approach to permitting the design plans. Even though no single issue was major, the culmination of several smaller ones added up, he said.

"Remember, it's a big set of drawings, a lot of things involved," Caro said. "The city's review had to do with the technical drawings of the park plans."

Daniel Kay, Civic San Diego's senior project manager for public works, said part of the extensive scrutiny can be attributed to Horton Plaza being the first major project in San Diego to hit the street after redevelopment agencies were dissolved by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.

There was a time — back in 2011 — when planners had hoped for the new Horton Plaza to open in time for a New Year's Eve dedication and celebration Dec. 31, 2013.

Two months past that old hope already, the schedule is obviously changed.

The bid process, which can take about four months to complete, is expected to begin in coming weeks, according to Kay.

"So we plan to award the contract toward the end of June, and then start construction in early July," Kay said.

A June or July start sets up a completion date targeted for midsummer 2015. The contract will call for a 12-month construction period, Kay said.

The project engineer has estimated that construction will cost just more than $10 million. That figure, however, still doesn't include the potential cost of an interactive water feature many people hoped would be included.

Civic San Diego President Jeff Graham said that when the project is put out to bid, the water feature will be included as an option so his team will be able to see how much the construction would cost with or without the feature.

"The idea is that we need to find out what the bids are, when it comes in, to see if we've got the funding for it," Caro said. "It's estimated, based on our consultants, that there isn't enough funding -- there's about $700,000 they think that it's over (when the fountain is included)."

But a bid showing a shortfall wouldn't quash plans. Ever since before the project's design plans were completed, it was predicted that including the fountain would send the project outside of budget constraints.

When the City Council in 2012 approved the project's overall budget of $14.2 million -- including engineering and permitting costs separate from the $10 million construction costs — it urged Civic San Diego to keep open ideas for bridging a gap should one occur.

Graham said he has been working to do that.

"We don't even know that there is a funding gap, because all we have is an engineer's cost estimate," Graham said. "I have spent a great deal of time reaching out to different potential philanthropic donors to help fund the gap, primarily adjacent or nearby property owners whose business or property could benefit greatly by having that interactive water feature there."

The water feature, from Graham's point of view, would be a way to keep the plaza active and inviting, which nearby businesses might appreciate.

"They have all told me pretty much the same thing, that 'As soon as you actually know that you have a gap, then come and talk to us and we are very interested in helping out,'" Graham said.

He said they couldn't commit yet to something without knowing whether there is a gap and how big it is.

Graham declined to name which businesses and people he had approached, citing the ongoing process.

"They haven't gone back to their boards with approval," Graham said. "They've just updated their boards on the potential and all I can say is that they've all expressed interest."

Graham is also considering the selling of pavers to be installed in the project walkways as a way to fill any financial shortfalls.

"Without tax-increment financing, it's fairly limited," Graham said.

The ceremonial groundbreaking that brought the first demolition work on the project site was held Nov. 29, 2012. When the expanded plaza is complete -- including the return of the historic palm-lined park on site to roughly its original and walkable state, with grass instead of shrubs -- an arched amphitheater-style plaza is promised to be the site of more than 200 events every year.

It's planned to include architectural luminaria, public restrooms, granite paving, three pavilion kiosks for retail space and underground storage.

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