Pandemic creates new considerations for arena construction
By Allan Kreda
Tim Leiweke could hardly contain his enthusiasm while he gestured toward what will be center ice at the New York Islanders’ future home at Belmont Park.
Leiweke, chief executive of venue development firm Oak View Group and a partner with the Islanders for UBS Arena, was discussing the team’s run to the conference finals increasing fan support for a project that broke ground last September and will be ready to host games in about a year.
Ticket demand is strong, with about half of premium club seats and the arena’s 56 suites selling in the past three months, he said.
“The team generated such a buzz and we were able to ride that buzz,” Leiweke said.
But amid all the anticipation of the Islanders at long last having a state-of-the-art $1 billion home, there will be the never-ending concern of finding ways to incorporate normalcy and ensure safety for when the team, it hopes, hosts more than 17,000 people at games in late 2021.
After the pandemic shutdown, the NHL resumed its 2019-20 season in two so-called bubbles in Canada without fans in the stands. Once games return to home markets and spectators stream back into arenas, fans at Belmont Park will experience many new features, including cashless concession transactions to limit contact and help lines move along faster.
No U.S. sports league that plays its game indoors has widely permitted fans to attend games yet, but NFL teams with retractable roof stadiums — including the Atlanta Falcons and the Dallas Cowboys — have allowed limited-capacity crowds.
“We are waking up every day and trying to figure out how to have clean air,” Leiweke said. “That is critical to get people back to the live experience. We will get their confidence back.”
The Belmont project was on hold for two months after New York put restrictions in place to slow the spread of coronavirus in mid-March, when it struck with ferocity. UBS Arena is expected to be completed in time for the 2021-22 season.
The Islanders won’t be the only team in a new venue. The expansion Seattle Kraken — the NHL’s 32nd team — will begin play next year at the carbon-neutral Climate Pledge Arena, where the project was delayed for only two days.
Leiweke’s firm is working on both arenas — a scenario that has presented challenges and a chance for synergy in terms of safety and sustainability. Up to 1,000 workers are on-site in each venue on a given day, he said.
“These were two cities that had to deal with the impact of the pandemic early on,” he said. “We’ve taken a leadership position on sanitization. We will have sophisticated filters that clean what comes and goes. We also have to remember that when the vaccine comes, it is not the cure.”
“We have to be at a point where the virus is on the other side of the mountain,” he added. “We’re going to extremes.”
In addition to ensuring clear air for fans, the home of the Kraken will particularly focus on renewable energy, with solar panels on its atrium plus the arena mechanical systems, heating, dehumidification and cooking systems running on electric power. Single-use plastics will be eliminated over time, and there will be electric charging stations for vehicles outside.
Ed Bosco, managing principal at ME Engineers, has the task of studying and implementing airborne virus reduction solutions at UBS Arena. The company is working with more than 50 existing venues.
His team studied medical data including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, domestic and foreign universities’ research and testing completed by equipment manufacturers and by international health research organizations. The goal is to make sure the Belmont arena would be ahead of the health curve, an evolving process.
“Buildings constructed before COVID-19 needed to balance comfort, safety and the fan experience,’’ said Bosco, whose firm has worked on venues like Madison Square Garden, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.
Bosco said government guidance on airflow rates and occupant spacing used to reopen schools has been a valuable tool. Because sports and entertainment venues have high ceilings and large concourses, he said, there is more air per person than in a typical classroom. At this year’s U.S. Open, closely supervising the operation of HVAC equipment helped increase ventilation in indoor spaces used by players and event staff by a factor of three, Bosco said.
Bosco also explained that active virus particles in the air can be reduced by ventilation, filtration, local dilution and exposing the virus to ultraviolet radiation.
“We can adapt existing buildings to operate differently when COVID is a concern and revert back to operating them as they do today when COVID has passed,” he said. “At UBS the systems will be newly calibrated and heavily tested during construction so we can be more certain about the data we collect and the building’s responses to tests we are running.”
Bosco added that having time to adjust UBS Arena before it opens has proved valuable.
“We’re starting to find solutions that really rise to the top,’’ he said. “We are looking at the big picture and how that influences the return of public assembly. It feels like these events are going to be what lets us get comfortable being back together as a society.”
Also involved in the UBS project is Matt Goodrich, whose eponymous firm is responsible for layouts and designs of corporate suites and public space inside and outside of the arena. One option that will be present in the arena will be touchless features in the bathrooms.
“We had a project this big happening over a long period of time and then COVID popped into our consciousness relatively late in the process,” Goodrich said.
Both arenas will also harken back to earlier generations. Belmont’s architecture will feature archways and brickwork reminiscent of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field.
History is also a key element in Seattle, where the roof at Climate Pledge Arena is from the 1962 World’s Fair, an homage to President John F. Kennedy’s focus on space exploration that Leiweke insisted on including.
The arena, which will also host the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, will promote sustainability by encouraging fans to collect rainwater that will be turned into ice for their hockey team.
“They can bring it over in buckets and we will put it into our system and plant,” Leiweke said. “We will use it not only to put down the first sheet of ice but to maintain all year long.”
As work continues on both coasts, Leiweke’s zest has no time to wane. The Kraken will give Seattle its long-awaited NHL team, and the Islanders will be skating in a brand-new arena.
“Kudos to the crews out there to get that done for our organization and fans,” Anders Lee, the Islanders’ captain, said. “It’s going to be a special spot. We’re all going to enjoy the heck out of the Coliseum, give it another phenomenal ride. Belmont is right around the corner and it’s exciting.”