- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

Convention center may open in 2003

Two years after construction began on the new Washington Convention Center, officials say the project is on schedule to open in 2003, although they concede it is $48 million over budget.

The center is being built at Seventh and M streets NW, about one block north of the existing center. The new center will feature 2.3 million square feet of space, including 44,000 square feet for shops and restaurants.

City leaders say a new center is needed because the existing one is too small.

Since breaking ground on the new center two years ago today, construction workers have removed 1.3 million cubic yards of dirt from the six-square-block site and laid a concrete foundation. Workers began erecting the steel shell of the building this summer.

"I think it's easier for people to appreciate the magnitude of this project now that they see it's more than a hole in the ground," said Lewis H. Dawley III, general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Convention Center Authority.

Construction of the steel shell is scheduled to be completed in December 2001, with electrical wiring of the building slated to last from January 2001 through January 2003.

The total cost of the project was estimated to be $708 million when construction began in 1998. This year, officials revised the estimation, saying it will probably cost closer to $756.8 million.

Mr. Dawley, who also helped build the convention centers in Detroit and Philadelphia, said cost overruns are common in long-term construction projects.

For example, steel costs more than it did two years ago, Mr. Dawley said. Also, the D.C. region is experiencing a labor shortage, and the construction industry has been among the hardest hit.

The convention center authority has tried to fill the labor shortage by hiring D.C. residents who do not quality for formal apprenticeships to help build the new center.

Tony Robinson, spokesman for the convention center authority, stressed that the project has remained fully funded throughout its construction.

The cost overruns have made the convention center a political hot potato. Adrian Fenty, who defeated incumbent D.C. Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis in last month's Ward 4 Democratic primary, often used the center project to criticize his opponent, one of its most vocal supporters.

Meanwhile, residents of the Shaw neighborhood near the new center have said they fear the project will bring new development to the area that could jack up the price of living there.

Jayne Shister, vice president of D.C.-based commercial real estate brokerage Cassidy & Pinkard Inc., said the new center will probably spur development of new hotels, shops and restaurants.

Ms. Shister said the center, which is near New York Avenue in Northeast, could also help boost development along that corridor. Several technology companies have set up shop in that area, and Giant Food Inc. and Kmart Corp. announced plans for new stores there last week.

"I suspect that area is where there may be the most spinoff development, because that's where the land is," she said.

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a church-backed group that pushes for more housing in downtown Washington, said he hopes affordable housing will be built near the center.

Mr. Lynch said he also hopes at least part of the existing convention center, an 800,000-square-foot facility at 900 Ninth Street NW, will be redeveloped as housing.

"We have a real opportunity here," he said.

A task force is studying potential uses for the existing center. Officials have said the center could be turned into a music museum or provide overflow space for the meetings held at the new center.

Joseph Sternlieb, coordinator of the convention center redevelopment project, said the task force will make its recommendation in January.

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