The District's convention center may be considered a case study in how to complete a major project within budget.

Despite soaring building costs, which threaten similar projects with huge cost overruns, construction on the Washington Convention Center is proceeding at a rate that will put it on target at $98 million when it is completed a year from now.

That timetable contrasts sharply with the situation in New York, for example, where construction of a mammoth exposition and convention center is running into problems. Faced with skyrocketing costs, managers of the New York center recently announced a decision to cut construction plans by 3 percent.

The decision could mean the loss of some major conventions and exhibits that would require more space than would be available in a scaled-down New York facility.

While dozens of revisions in original plans have been made for the Washington Convention Center, every effort has been made to maintain the basic design and gross space that will make it competitive.

"We've had to reject bids and readvertise and pull back to meet our dollar allocation," said Robert F. Gordon, project manager for the center, bounded by New York Avenue, 9th, 11th, and H streets NW.

Design changes and revised bids for steel work in one exhibit hall, for example, cut costs for that part of the project by $1.5 million, said Gordon.

The District's success in holding down costs can be attributed in large measure to a decision early on to profit from mistakes that had been made by other cities.

"We put together a team and went out and surveyed centers across the country to find out what problems they had, the mistakes they made and what they would do if they had it to do again," recalled Gordon.

District government officials and local business leaders began discussing plans for a convention center as long ago as the early 1900s. Serious work started about 12 years ago. Even after a decision had been made to commit to the project, the start was delayed almost five years.

Gordon and his team used the delay to build a valuable data base on the problems associated with similar projects.

In the original plan, the center was to have been built on a site that would have placed it a block to the east. But that would have meant building the center over 9th Street NW, or constructing a tunnel at that location, a costly undertaking in either case.

Less complex design changes have been equally as important in cutting costs, noted Gordon. Materials used for finishing wall surfaces, for example, "could run up your costs overenight."

Faced with that prospect, the center's managers have decided to use an interior and exterior wall material that precludes the need for paint, drywall or other veneers.

"Our whole purpose and thinking has been to put out a building that's functional as well as attractive and not create a Cadillac when we can't afford a Cadillac," said Gordon.

Construction on the 800,000-square-foot center began in April last year, and in the interim, work has proceeded on schedule despite cost-cutting changes in original specifications.

"It's been a damn fine working relationship with the architect and the construction manager," said Austin Kenny, executive vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association.

Kenny's organization is well into a full-scale marketing program designed to attract major conventions and exibits to the new center. About 30 professional and trade associations--four of them international organizations--have "definitely committed" their members for meetings to be held here between 1983 and 1989.

Meanwhile, a major organization is expected to decide within the next two weeks to hold its convention here in early 1983. Delegates to that convention would require about 7,000 hotel rooms.

Average attendance is projected at 9,500 for meetings and conventions that have been booked. Based on 1980 dollars, that translates into roughly $5 million that delegates are expected to spend in the District.

"We're extremely pleased because in the selling process, we have spent about 12 years talking about the building, and as a result, nobody would talk with us until we broke ground," said Kenny.

Essentially, all of the conventions that have been booked have been sold or booked within the last year. "We're frankly amazed at how well 1983 has gone," he added.

Kenny is confident the facility will be "well-used" in the first year, although not to its capacity. Bookings will increase by the mid-1980s, he noted. Traditionally, major convention planners book meetings five to 10 years in advance.

Meanwhile, the spinoff from construction alone has been a plus for the local economy, observed Gordon. The payroll at the construction site between June and September totaled $1.7 million. When the center is fully operational, it should generate between 3,500 and 6,500 jobs, say District officials. CAPTION: Picture, Officials say that the convention center project will be on target at $98 million when it is completed a year from now, contrasting sharply with projects in other cities. By James Parcell -- The Washington Post