Del Mar’s New City Hall turns the corner on construction


With wooden trusses rising up from the construction site and ribbon-cutting barely nine months away, Del Mar’s 30,000-square-foot civic center appears set to come in on time and on budget despite an array of delays and cost overruns.

The $17.8 million effort to build the 9,000-square-foot city hall and 3,000-square-foot town hall amid a 15,000-square-foot plaza on Camino Del Mar is the largest and costliest capital endeavor the city has ever taken on, and has put to test the city’s planning and financial mechanisms in unprecedented fashion.

Heavy winter rains and unstable soil conditions discovered when building the underground garage have complicated its construction. In all, more than two dozen construction “change orders” have had to be made as of last month, totaling $313,000. But the cost overruns are comfortably within their expected threshold, and everyone involved with the project — from city staff to contractors to consultants to a resident oversight committee — is optimistic that the budget will hold true through completion.

Former Mayor Al Corti, who the city council appointed as project liaison, led a July 17 update to the council, doling out high praise for city staff, the contractor and for former councilman Don Mosier’s work to land a $390,000 state grant that will outfit the civic center with a state-of-the-art photovoltaic power system.

“A lot of the unknowns are behind us: soil conditions, rain issues, a lot of the things you don’t know when you’re under the ground,” Corti told the council at the July 17 meeting. “So to be at this point and … only have spent $300,000 in change orders, you’re in good shape.”

Those overruns amount to 2.27 percent of construction costs, compared to an industry standard of 5 percent, said Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane. The biggest of those change orders was an $85,000 increase from SDG&E for work on utility lines.

“Quite frankly, even after all the conversation we had with them … it was never anticipated to be to that degree, and it feels like they kind of changed the game with us as the process went forward,” she said.

This stage of the construction has also brought its biggest impact on surrounding neighborhoods. Various adjustments — including temporary crosswalks, fencing and restrictions on turns off of Camino Del Mar — have been made to try to accommodate traffic flow around the 1.5-acre site, but the city has nonetheless fielded a smattering of requests and complaints from frustrated residents.

Given the challenges, Corti commended those neighbors for their patience.

“It’s not easy to live in a neighborhood when there’s massive construction going on,” he said. “… You can’t satisfy everything but overall I think it’s going pretty good.”

Now that the years-long process is nearing its final stages, city staff members have gained a much clearer sense of the actual costs of outfitting the finished facility, Crane said. The council will have discretion on a wide range of those purchases. The council approved two big additions at the July 17 meeting: $270,000 for professional services and soil and stormwater inspections, plus an additional $471,000 to increase the budget for furniture and equipment.

At the project’s outset, city staff had sketched out their furniture and equipment needs to be $912,000. Now that they have a clearer idea of how to outfit the facility, their needs look to be closer to $1.38 million. The biggest elements include $225,000 for the audio-visual system, $202,000 for the security system, $182,000 for furniture and $72,000 for kitchen equipment.

Those additions will come out of a $1.5 million contingency fund the city set aside at the beginning of the budget process. The approved changes, once spent, would leave only $120,000 in that fund, so the council agreed to replenish that back to between $250,000 and $300,000.

With the funds set aside, Corti suggested that the council wait six to nine months before actually spending the money for line items such as kitchen equipment, patio furniture and the “bells and whistles” of the audio-visual gear.

Bob Gans, president of the Del Mar Foundation and a member of a finance subcommittee that issued a report on the project last month, commended the city’s work and shared the optimism that the project will be completed within budget. While the subcommittee’s report warned of possible sticking points in the road ahead, it did so in order to help steer the city council away from having to overextend the contingency fund.

“Use of the contingency does not mean that the budget is being blown or exceeded. Far from it,” he said. “We actually think it’s commendable to include this size contingency to account for these kind of things that have happened.”

Deputy Mayor Dwight Worden had worried about the accruing overruns, but those concerns were put to rest by the subcommittee’s report.

“A project of this magnitude to be on budget and on schedule, in my experience, that almost never happens. That’s really pretty awesome,” Worden said. “And as I see it, our need for contingency money will go down as the uncertainties in the project go away.”

If the schedule holds, construction will be completed by the end of March 2018 and city staff will be able to vacate the temporary city hall on Jimmy Durante Boulevard in May or possibly sooner, Crane said, and a firm date for ribbon-cutting will become clear this fall.