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New County Operations Center coming to fruition

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Years ago, a plan was put together to bring six new office buildings, a conference center, a medical examiner's office and two parking structures to the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa. The approved and funded portions of that master plan are progressing as scheduled, and keeping construction crews busy at a time when the building industry continues to be a lowlight of the economy.

The Overland Avenue campus is being developed in a series of phases. The first phase included two 150,000-square-foot office buildings, a central plant, utility infrastructure and offsite improvements to mitigate traffic impacts. The improvements comprised Phase 1A of construction and were completed last year. The new medical examiner building was already under construction when improvements to the adjacent campus were approved for funding.

Early this year, Los Angeles-based Lowe Enterprises began construction of Phase 1B, a $531 million project that will bring two more office buildings identical in size and structure to the first buildings erected, and a 20,000-square-foot conference center. The final phase, Phase 2, seeks to add a fifth and sixth office building and an additional parking structure. Though approved for the master plan, Phase 2 has yet to receive the funding approval from county supervisors.

Jeff Redlitz, project manager with the department of general services, said construction efforts couldn't be going much more smoothly.

Work on the new County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa is progressing on schedule and within budget. Staff photo by James Palen

"Always on time, always on budget," Redlitz said, adding that there was actually a surplus of funds from the first phase, budgeted for a maximum of $188.5 million that has been returned to the Board of Supervisors. Figures received from the county show that Phase 1A developer costs came in at $148.5 million.

"It's not a surprise," Redlitz said of the savings. "We selectively choose materials – it's really a function of bidding."

Part of that selectivity came in the choice of using cast cement instead of more expensive granite for the shell of the buildings, he said, adding that the materials used will be just as strong and can be finished to look similar to granite.

The entire project, Redlitz said, was designed by RJC Architects to be a cost-saver and achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification, with exception of the conference center. That building, he said, will receive LEED Platinum status, the highest level awarded, for its incorporation of such sustainable features as a green roof.

Drought-tolerant landscaping is also planned for around the building. The parking structure, completed by Howard Wright Construction, has on its rooftop solar panels capable of producing more than 350 kilowatts of solar energy. And a focus on natural lighting is expected to reduce the complex's reliance on outside energy.

The open and consistent floor design distinguishes the office buildings from the typical, Redlitz said, allowing for easy relocation of departments if a temporary move is needed.

Several county department staffers have already moved into the new offices. The new setup, Redlitz said, has already begun making things easier by streamlining operations. As construction continues, many county operations are scattered throughout the city of San Diego. But that's beginning to change.

Some departments already taking root in the new buildings include general services, public works, environmental health, parks, agricultural weights and measures, human resources, small units of the auditor and controller department, and the sheriff's department.

Next summer, when phase 1B is complete, the planning department, and purchasing and contracting department will also be located in the facility.

Reiterating Redlitz' point, Tom Fincher, chief of project management for the county, said the project will mitigate the cumbersome nature of doing county business. County permitting is currently handled at the Operations Center Annex, at the corner of Ruffin Road and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. The purchasing department operates out of leased property in Scripps Ranch. The time and gas savings are just a part of what justifies the cost of centralizing operations, he said.

"Virtually all departments have meetings with a variety of departments," Fincher said. "It will be a minute or two if we have to sit down and look at each other, rather than a 15- to 20-minute car ride," he added, speaking to the time involved in the common task of leaving his office and meeting with someone in purchasing.

He pointed to a number of other benefits, including an increase in productivity and decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. But perhaps one of the most important benefits, Redlitz added, is the stream of construction work created from the project.

He recalled visiting the contractors' offices some time ago and realized that there wasn't a whole lot keeping their crews as busy as the operations center construction, which has been continuous for around three years now.

"They're pretty happy to have us," he said.

In addition to Lowe, the project has involved Roel Construction and Project Management Advisors, which is working with the department of general services in overseeing the project.

When Phase 2 comes to fruition is still in the air, Fincher said, but general services is in the process of finalizing recommendations for the additional buildings' occupants in anticipation of presenting them to the board later this year for approval.

"If we want to avoid any kind of work interruption -- if we can keep the design team and the construction team fully engaged -- then we would be looking to go back to the board probably as early as November, as late as January," Fincher said.

Phase 2 would cost around $150 million, he said.

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