A $1-billion home for the New York Islanders ice hockey team on Long Island is skating hard toward completion in time for the next National Hockey League season in December. The journey for the 19,000-seat UBS Arena, which broke ground in September 2019, was on a fast track when the project team faced a major obstacle—a nearly 50-day work stoppage from late March to late May last year under a COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
The ability to recover from that setback—and stay on schedule—has become a defining feature of the project, with the team adjusting design, staging, logistics and staffing elements in response to the pandemic as work advances on the 700,000-sq-ft structure at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., in Nassau County, near the New York City borough of Queens.
“We’re really in a good place for the amount of time we had to absorb,” says Paul Young, senior vice president for project management at Oak View Group. With partners Sterling Equities and the Islanders team, it is developing the overall $1.3-billion project to include the arena—alone worth $1 billion, according to media reports—and a retail and hotel complex. “That was a tough time for us, just not knowing how long it was going to last,” Young says.
The arena project benefited from several factors: a mild 2019-2020 winter, smooth foundation work, early steel erection work and the fact that facilities that produced precast and steel for the job remained in operation during the pandemic’s first wave, Young says. “When the COVID shutdown was lifted, we were back up and running within days,” he says.
Still, the project team—led by AECOM Hunt-Barton Malow as joint venture construction manager, Populous as architect and Thornton Tomasetti as structural engineer—had to make quick adjustments, such as hiring pandemic response staff, setting up temperature check tents, adding mask and social distance requirements, and creating touchless entrances, Young says. There is also a projectwide contact tracing system that triggers targeted quarantines if individuals on a crew test positive for the virus, he says.
“The system is working well. We’ve not had a major shutdown or a major outbreak since” implementation, Young says, adding that “productivity has kept us in a position to say to the NHL, ‘Yeah, we can be ready.’”
The design team also began to update food service operations, patron circulation paths and MEP and filtration systems with measures to limit virus spread in the completed facility—such as added doors and entry-egress routes, says Jason Carmello, a Populous principal. “We are in constant analysis of how the pandemic will shape not only this building but also future buildings,” he says.
As the team finishes roof and exterior close-in work this month, the shift to interior MEP and finish trades will require new COVID-battling strategies, Young says. The team is considering staggered start times, day- and night-shift work and “chasing” schedules to rotate crews by site quadrants. “All are on the table as potential options,” he says.
The arena had already experienced a major change well before the pandemic—a move to Belmont Park in 2018, which occurred after project architects had already completed design development plans on an original site at Willetts Point in Queens next to the Citi Field baseball stadium. “We did a lot of massaging to incorporate the arena into a new site, with new surroundings,” says Kurt Amundsen, a senior principal at Populous and the arena’s project manager.
The ownership team moved after winning a 2017 request for proposal process, sponsored by the Empire State Development agency, to develop a 43-acre state-owned parcel next to Belmont Park’s famous horse racing track. The winning bid also plans for a 340,000-sq-ft retail and dining complex, a 200-room hotel and other amenities that will begin construction in 2022 alongside a new Long Island Rail Road station.
In addition to its hockey-first identity, the arena will host 150 concert, family show and sporting events annually, using elaborate curtains, flexible seating, a retractable scoreboard and other features to shift for different events. Bars, lounges, terraces and other signature spaces are all over the arena’s footprint, including a “fan zone” special section, one 11,000-sq-ft club overlooking the seating bowl, another club straddling the tunnel that players use to enter the main floor, private suites and a lounge with opera box-style seating.
Music and Hockey First
One of the project’s central goals was to serve as both a “first rate” sporting venue and a concert space of the same quality, Young says. That meant stepping up the entertainment logistics side, with loading docks on the same level as the event floor and freight elevators to bring stagehands up into the trusses, he says.
“And there are multiple truck docks so they can get in and loaded up faster than some of the historic arenas built with more of a sport-first focus 20 years ago,” Young says. The ability to load quickly is key. “There will be no shortage of major touring acts wanting to play this building,” Amundsen says. “It’s money in their pocket when they can get in and get out as quickly as possible.”
The loading dock also has a shallow ramp sloping down to the event level 15 ft below ground, letting the design add a covered, heated marshalling yard and parking area, according to Carmello. “In this climate,” he says, “that’s a differentiation factor.”
The engineering team also designed the structure to support massive rigging loads for speakers, video and other equipment for touring acts, which today hang more than 200,000 lb of gear for average shows and up to 500,000 lb for major entertainment industry events, says Gary Storm, a senior principal at Thornton Tomasetti.
“Rigging loads have at least doubled from what they were even 10 to 15 years ago,” he says. “That has changed the way we build the roof structures to increase the pure vertical load capacity.”
The design also aimed for optimal acoustics, often overlooked in sports-first arenas, Young says. “We limited the number of glass railings and things that can reflect sound back,” he says. “And we’ve included sound baffling up in the rafters and on certain walls. We’re excited that as a music venue, it will feel intimate and sound great, whereas it will have an awesome, interactive experience for an Islanders game.”
The Belmont Park site offered flat, sandy ground, allowing the team to use spread footings instead of a pile foundation, Storm says.
The land also never housed major structures, adds Eric Lumpkin, an associate at Thornton Tomasetti and lead project engineer. “It was virgin ground, with tremendous load-bearing capacity,” he says. “It’s a huge site, which gave contractors ample room for laydown and staging and let them do open cut excavation.”
But switching sites also posed schedule challenges, leading the team to optimize steel design and procurement, Storm says. The engineering firm built its own Tekla model of the steel structure, allowing it to fully coordinate construction drawings, connection design and fabrication models, which saved time by providing more information to bidders and by using the same technology as detailers. “That sped up the process tremendously,” Storm says.
The team also placed vertical and lateral bracing for structural and seismic systems in each of the four main elevator and stair cores, where it wouldn’t interfere with core building functions, Lumpkin says.
The arena also has a signature column-free section —its 350-ft by 460-ft-long roof span over the main seating bowl that also supports lighting, HVAC systems and scoreboard elements, Storm says.
The construction team and its steel erector, J.C. Steel, installed four main T1 trusses in late summer for the roof. “The multiple aerial lifts [had] ironworkers in the baskets bolting up infill steel beams,” says William Racky, vice president of field operations at AECOM Hunt.
The team also used extensive digital modeling technology and LiDAR scanning to map out installation and track as-built progress for steel erection and placement of the precast seating, says Russell Dalton, AECOM’s BIM director for the Americas.
“By having geometric certainty, we can set these pieces in place the right way the first time,” he says. “When we place the precast seating, we can verify the breakers are spot on and there are no concrete shims and shavings.”
The team used multiple cranes for steel and seating erection within the bowl last summer, topping out on the structure in early October. With full enclosure imminent, the focus is shifting to MEP and interiors teams, Racky says.
Some work will continue on the exterior facade, with brick precast, glazing, canopies, curtain wall and other features. The exterior structure also incorporates large outdoor terraces on the main and upper concourses, Carmello says.
The design aims to harken back to the original Madison Square Garden with brick and a heavily articulated aesthetic, Amundsen says. “There’s a very urban look and feel to that vernacular,” he says.
The finished arena is aiming for LEED 4.0 certification, with measures focused on renewable energy, reduced water and electricity consumption, and goals to become a zero waste facility. It also will feature extensive landscaping to fit in with the Belmont site, “keeping as many trees as we can,” Young says.
The arena also will feature an array of advanced communications technology, with both an internal distributed antenna system and Wi-Fi networks, Young says. One example is so-called grab-and-go technology that will allow patrons to more quickly interact with food and beverage vendors and experience shorter lines, he says.
The facility will also house 5G speed communications technology embedded within the seating bowl itself through thousands of connections, wiring and antennas, allowing patrons to connect via smartphones during interactive portions of events, Lumpkin says. That’s because traditional antennas hung from railings and catwalks wouldn’t be close enough to the users.
Such intricate systems seem ideal for vast footprints like those in an arena. “The more technology advancements that are made, the more physical space you need in these types of buildings,” Amundsen says. “As devices get smaller, the equipment and real estate needed to support them increases.”