Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Forest City executive says shrinking arena to preclude major league hockey was conscious choice, downplays modular construction as "research project"

So much for Nets CEO Brett Yormark's coy statements about how arena promoters would "would love the [New York] Islanders [hockey team] to play a couple of games at the Barclays Center."

It's long been suspected that the arena would be too small to accommodate major league hockey, and even a market analysis commissioned by Forest City Ratner stated that "the arena would need to be retrofitted to accommodate the ice-making abilities the NHL requires for its franchises."

Last week, Bob Sanna, Forest City Ratner Executive VP for Construction, told a Pratt Institute School of Architecture audience that, to design a smaller arena that could be financed, "we made some pretty deliberate decisions early on: we weren't going to have a [professional] hockey team."

He noted that, to make an ice floor, the seats move in one direction only, which doesn't make for good hockey sightlines.

That doesn't preclude some hockey games, just a season. The tight, smaller arena--675,000 square feet in the Ellerbe Becket (plus SHoP on the facade) design, opposed to 850,000 square feet in the original Frank Gehry design--furthers a focus on basketball.

Development as contact sport?

Also, though it's frequently said the arena will follow design guidelines developed by Gehry--which are fairly general, such as imposing transparency from the street--Sanna described the new arena as "a complete redesign."

He spoke as part of the Pratt Institute's spring 2011 School of Architecture Lecture Series. While Sanna's lecture, according to the promotion, was titled "Development as a Contact Sport," it was more a nuts-and-bolts description of the challenges faced by construction managers on such a project, and a class of would-be construction managers made up the bulk of the audience.

Also, he downplayed the developer's leaked plans to consider modular construction of the first tower as a "research project" and "experiment."

Community involvement?

An opening slide described Forest City Ratner as "New York City's most prolific ground-up developer over past decade," as specializing in "large-scale public/private projects," and "committed to community involvement."

Sanna soon added, "All of our projects really do invest in the community." No one challenged him on that--it wasn't the focus of his talk--but that could have led to some contentious discussion about the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement and Forest City Ratner's unfulfilled promise to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor.

Variety of projects

He quickly ran through Forest City Ratner projects outside of Atlantic Yards. He noted that the 400,000 square foot Atlantic Terminal Mall was designed to accommodate an "overbuild"--a building on top--though, while it was in development, only retail was planned. Then came the Bank of New York Tower, 410,000 square feet.

He suggested that, beyond the kudos for Frank Gehry's design of the Beekman Tower, the building deserves attention for the 100,000 square foot school in its base. He also cited 80 DeKalb Avenue, MetroTech, and the New York Times building.

Atlantic Yards: six years more?

Sanna suggested that the Atlantic Yards project has had "an incredible gestation period," given that it was announced in 2003.

He also said it was "contemplated to be built out over the course of six years," a statement that was incomplete, misleading, or erroneous.

Perhaps he meant that Phase 1--the arena and at least three towers--might be built over six years. The entire project, with a projected 16 towers, could take 25 years.

Or, perhaps, Forest City Ratner contemplates handing off much of the project to Chinese investors, who've been offered development rights as collateral?

Perhaps we shouldn't read too much into Sanna's statement. He was a little fuzzy on facts at another point in the lecture, suggesting the arena would have 130 suites, while the number has since been cut to 104.

Project features

Sanna noted a significant benefit for arena-goers: the arena lower bowl would be below grade with the scoreboard visible to passers-by, so half of those entering the arena will not have to climb upstairs, as at Madison Square Garden and at many other arenas.

He noted that the oculus at the arena entrance, which will provide promotional signage, allows for views from multiple angles, rather than simply facing the arena.

The arena will have 200 Wi-Fi points, which help with concession transactions, as well as a DAS (Distributed Antenna System) to ensure the building's wired for visitors.

Sanna said eight acres of open space were planned, as a "Battery Park City-type environment"--a statement that fails to note that, in the latter project, the open space came first, not last.

He said the developer is now construction the first phase of the permanent railyard, part of "five stages of track relocation."

Forest City Ratner is building a new mass transit connection, stairs and a passageway to the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street subway hub. One challenge: significant deterioration in subway structures (presumably as described here).

For the 18,000-seat arena, "we think eight to ten thousand people will probably come by public transit," he said.

Another challenge involved the relocation of of utilities, such as gas, water, and cable, from Pacific Street in the center of the arena block to the perimeter of the arena block.

Arena redesign

Sanna noted that initial bidding on arena plans began in 2007 and 2008, a "very difficult time in construction pricing. The numbers we were getting were astronomical."

The volume of the Gehry arena was in part driven by the need to accommodate hockey, but such a building could not be financed, he said. So Forest City "started from scratch" at the end of 2008.

He showed a schematic of the project footprint, pointing out that the space for Building 3, at the southwest corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, would serve as temporary open space and accommodate bicycle parking.

He pointed to the practice facility, located near the northwest corner of the site, as well as private club areas.

Successful arenas allow trucks access to the event floor, allowing equipment load-in for events such as concerts and circuses. "We wanted that advantage in order to compete," he said.

There are no ramps, but two "huge truck elevators" to accomplish that purpose.

Construction issues


Sanna said Brooklyn offered advantages for constructing an arena. Unlike in Manhattan, where builders encounter rock, or Queens, where they hit soupy soil, in Brooklyn's there's dense sand and gravel.

The water table is 25 feet below grade, while the building will be 20 feet below grade; only the drilling for the foundations for truck elevators has encountered the water table.

He said construction of the arena proceeded in a counter-clockwise direction from the northeast part of the arena block because "we had tenants yet to be relocated"--a reference to residents, notably project opponent Daniel Goldstein and his family, living on Pacific Street.

(Goldstein owned his condo and only at the last moment, after the exercise of eminent domain, was a tenant of the state; he was never a tenant of the developer.)

Sanna noted that the "building we took a lot of our cues from, Conseco" Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, is made out of reinforced concrete, but the Brooklyn arena is made out of structural steel.

Recognizing security issues, he said, the building is designed with "a completely redundant load path" aimed to ensure its stability.

The steel facade, and delays

Sanna described the steel facade designed by SHoP as intended to rust and have a "gritty urban character."

As with the Beekman Tower and the Times Tower, mock-ups have been used to show vendors what's needed for the facade.

In this case, arena builders aim to have pre-weathered steel experience the equivalent of eight years of wet/dry cycles, a process that takes four months, at 24 hours a day.

This is being done by the firm ASILimited in Indiana, which states that "Field erection is planned to start July 2011."

It's unclear whether that timetable is solid. Sanna said that the process of "weathering cycles" is behind, with efforts afoot to speed up the process.

Q & A: traffic

Most questions focused on the practical. Does the use of public funds impact procurement?

"Everything you build is under scrutiny," Sanna replied, noting that the state requires such things as particulate filters on trucks at the arena site.

One slightly confrontational questioner asked about the "traffic nightmare" at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue.

"I grew up in Park Slope," Sanna said, downplaying the issue, adding that his grandfather had been complaining about traffic for 50 years.

He said it hadn't been part of his presentation, but the project also includes parking facilities as well as efforts to encourage use of public transit and bicycles.

Q & A: modular

What about the developer's modular plans?

Sanna again said it was a question outside the scope of his presentation but downplayed it as "an experiment... It is for all intents and purposes a research project."

If it's a research project, perhaps it's a negotiating ploy with the unions.

Or perhaps Forest City Ratner just isn't ready to tip its hand.

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