THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS’ NEW $1.5 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, New York, boasts some of the best sightlines and the largest arena scoreboard in New York State. However, bringing the project to near completion while complying with COVID-19 restrictions and safety requirements was no small feat.
Designed by Populous and JRDV Urban International, the 17,255-seat arena for sporting events (and 18,500 seats for concerts) opened in November 2021, and features clubs, suites and lounges, ten bars and concessions, a state-of-the-art sound system, an NHL locker room and player campus with a cardio mezzanine level and shoot room, and an updated sports lighting, ice mapping/projection system and 12 all-player tracking cameras.
One of the primary design goals for the 745,000-square-foot arena was to create a venue meant for hockey, rather than a building that had been adapted for the sport as had the Islanders’ previous homes. Populous created hockey-specific sightlines for fans by designing the seating bowl to be closer to the ice than an arena that prioritizes basketball. This move produced an intimate experience that allows spectators to feel close to the action on the ice.
The arena architecture also supports current needs for immersive music concerts and other performances. A 400,000-pound rigging grid can support 300,000 pounds of equipment for an end-stage or center-stage setup (versus the 100,000 weight limit of most last-generation arenas). An industry first, the interior mezzanine catwalk above event-level premium spaces offers direct access to all utilities that serve the premium spaces from above, including Wi-Fi, gas, and electric. This prevents temporary closures or damage to ceilings, walls and other infrastructure, during possible repairs. There is also direct freight elevator access from the arena floor to the catwalk for continued ease of event operations.
A high level of structural engineering was required to execute the unique space. Its super- structure’s gravity system is a steel composite beam/column system with a steel-braced frame lateral system. Four long-span roof trusses, each weighing approximately 180 tons and running 35 feet deep at the middle, support the primary roof and create a 350-by-460-foot column-free space
for the seating bowl.
“The soils in the area are native Long Island sand with a very high bearing capacity of 10,000 psf,” explains Eric Lumpkin, project manager for Thornton Tomasetti, who performed the project’s structural engineering. “This meant the arena could be founded on shallow spread footings, which resulted in significant cost savings.”
As opposed to a traditional basement wall, the team chose a 20-foot-high concrete retaining wall to structure the below-grade spaces, which allowed the contractor to backfill the wall almost immediately.
The structural engineers also decided not to place the braces for the lateral load-resisting systems in the back of the seating bowl, as is typically done, in order to avoid having braces obstruct the concourses. Instead, they located the vertical braces in stair cores and around the perimeter of the building.
“Drag struts were utilized to collect load from the inboard portion of the arena and distribute it at the braced frames in the outboard stair cores and perimeter façade line,” explains Gary Storm, a senior principal at Thornton Tomasetti.
To help enable the 150 annual events scheduled for the arena, in addition to the hockey season, full-depth infill trusses span between the primary trusses to support the rigging grid for concerts and events, and a catwalk and platform system supports scoreboards, speakers, and sporting event lights. Lumpkin explains that the full-depth infill trusses are advantageous because the bottom chord also serves as a rigging beam for concerts.
The long-span roof was designed for a centerhung scoreboard with a weight of 120,000 pounds and a 30,000-pound offset hoist to lift the scoreboard. Fully nested into a 60-by-60-foot hole in the roof, this location supports show loads for concerts positioned under the scoreboard.
In addition to supporting the large rigging loads for speakers, video boards, lights, and other equipment, the arena is designed with a robust loading dock and marshaling yard.
“From an architectural standpoint, this meant increasing the number of loading docks and ensuring that the marshaling yard is large enough to allow for the delivery and movement of freight,” says Storm. “To accomplish this, the structural engineering team had to design large column-free spaces in the marshaling yard areas.” To create these spaces, a series of 10-foot-deep, 110-foot-long trusses were built over the marshaling yard to make sure that no columns would obstruct truck access to the arena.
Pointing out that the 60,000-square-foot marshaling yard is one of the largest in the industry, Jason Carmello, a senior principal and architect with Populous adds, “the yard is covered, enclosed, heated and provides ample power/data connections for 10-plus trailers, direct access to the loading dock and arena floor via ramp and creates one of the most accessible load-in/load-out sequences in the marketplace. The arena also has direct freight elevator access from the arena floor to the catwalk for continued ease of event load-in/ load-out.”
When COVID hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020, arena construction shut down for 50 days. When work resumed, New York State’s mandatory quarantine for all out-of-state visitors prevented the Kansas City-based Populous architects from visiting the site, with the exception of two individuals who were New York residents.
Thornton Tomasetti was able to rely on local colleagues for handling any necessary site work. “Luckily, we had a great group of staff from our New York office who were able to make site visits and be the eyes and ears for the design team back in Kansas City,” says Lumpkin.
“Each night, the design team would review site photographs taken during the day in order to give real-time feedback to site staff. Additionally, video calls over smart phones with site staff became a regular occurrence to review complex conditions in the field,” he says.
Quickly adjusting to these unique circumstances, the project team began using tools like HoloBuilder, which enabled the team to get a better look at slab which enabled the team to get a better look at slab reinforcing and structural steel with the software’s high-resolution, three-dimensional images that rotate, pan, and zoom.
In response to the new health and safety concerns, the design team also modified food service operations, MEP and filtration systems, patron circulation paths with added doors and entry-egress routes.
Another interesting byproduct of the travel ban was the architects’ ability to spend time that would have been lost to travel turning around Requests for Information and Submittals at a faster pace.
Fortunately, the majority of the structural materials—mainly steel, concrete, and rebar—were procured prior to the pandemic, so contractors AECOM Hunt and Barton Malow didn’t run into any major supply-chain issues.
Though the steel design and procurement was performed pre-COVID, the fact that Thornton Tomasetti had built its own Tekla model of the steel structure allowed the engineers to fully coordinate construction drawings, connection design, and fabrication models, which sped up the beginning of the project, and ultimately helped keep things on schedule despite the shutdown.
“Our Tekla model had all of the connections fully detailed and modeled with plates, bolts, weld sizes, holes, etc.,” says Storm. “The model was then passed along to the fabricator to generate shop drawings. The greatest advantage of this delivery method is the time savings achieved by eliminating the traditional pass-off to a third-party detailer and delegated connection designer.”
he design team also utilized Revit BIM360 to generate construction drawings. With the full design team in a shared cloud model, this eliminated the need to pass models back and forth between design firms. “This is advantageous from a coordination standpoint because engineers could see any changes in real-time in other engineering and architectural models,” adds Storm.
Digital modeling technology was also used to map out installation and track as-built progress for steel erection. With these geometric details precisely established, steel elements were positioned correctly the first time. The project site also worked to the team’s benefit as the contractors had ample room for steel laydown and staging.
The cutting-edge arena also features robust Wi-Fi networks with 5G speed communications technology embedded within the seating bowl through thousands of connections, wiring and antennas. Patrons can participate in interactive events via smartphones and take advantage of convenient grab-and-go options like Amazon’s Just-Walk-Out Stations. Targeting LEED certification, the arena incorporates renewable energy, reduced water and electricity consumption, and zero waste.
Alongside the new venue are plans for a 340,000-square-foot retail and dining complex, a 200-room hotel and a new Long Island Rail Road station which ran on a limited schedule last season and will be full-service later this year. The site is shaping up to offer something for everyone, especially dyed-in-the-wool Islanders fans who will celebrate the team’s 50th anniversary this coming season, finally in an arena worthy of their enthusiasm.