Wandering the cavernous expanse of KeyArena’s new dirt floor, the first thing that strikes an observer is what isn’t happening.
Construction workers wander back and forth — roughly 225 to 300 at any given moment — but the joking around, gatherings and overall camaraderie typically found on job sites seem missing. Instead, workers give each other ample space as they exit dirt haulers, climb up makeshift stairwells and scaffolding and tend to completing a $930 million rebuild of the city’s major sports arena during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They’re encouraged not to stand around talking to one another,” said Ken Johnsen, construction executive for the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group, which is spearheading the rebuild for an NHL team launch in October 2021. “Even when they do their morning stretch, that’s usually a group thing they do together. But they aren’t really doing that anymore.”
Instead, social distancing has become the norm 53 feet or so below ground — where the new floor is located — just as on the streets above. By adhering to strict safety protocols agreed to in advance by unions and tradespeople entering the site, the project was allowed to keep going as an essential service while others citywide ground to a halt.
The project actually stopped voluntarily for four days late last month to go over those enhanced safety measures.
Johnsen, walking the floor Tuesday with The Seattle Times, said the extra month gained by continuing work has been a plus, and the arena is scheduled to start being built back up again next week.
Since demolition work began early last year, it’s been about tearing things down and digging a floor 15 feet deeper — doing so since last fall with the venue’s 44 million-pound roof partially suspended on temporary posts.
Those posts have held the roof up entirely since January. Getting the roof off those temporary supports is one of two reasons — the other being the project’s status as a government facility because the city owns the venue — why work at KeyArena didn’t halt like it did at NHL Seattle’s future practice-facility site at Northgate Mall.
Johnsen said the roof theoretically could have stayed on the temporary posts for the rest of this year, though that’s not what they are designed for.
“You won’t find too many people in the industry thinking that’s a great idea,” he said.
And it won’t be a reality much longer: Eight of 22 permanent original “Y” columns have been reattached to the roof while four additional support buttresses are being prepared as well. Starting next week, workers will begin erecting steel for the first new wall in the arena’s northeast quadrant — where the columns will have all been reattached.
Crews initially had to cut down all 22 columns — leaving the Y-shaped top portions dangling rebar from the roof — so they wouldn’t be in the way as a wider footprint was dug sideways to double the venue’s square footage to more than 800,000. They began pouring concrete footers for the new posts in January, then inserting steel rebar foot-by-foot back up toward the arena’s roof — encasing it in concrete — before reattaching it to the dangling Y-shaped portions.
Now, with wall work beginning next week, the arena will begin to take its permanent shape. By next year, interior work will have started and — everyone involved hopes — finish in time to reopen the venue by summer 2021. NHL Seattle had hoped to reopen for hosting the 2021 NHL draft in late June, but with this summer’s event in Montreal already postponed by the pandemic, there’s no telling what that future holds.
The WNBA Seattle Storm also wants the venue reopened by June 1, 2021, so as not to disrupt part of a third season with the team already playing two years in temporary home locales. Johnsen wouldn’t commit beyond “summer of 2021″ for a completion date, other than to say KeyArena definitely will be open for an October 2021 puck drop.
Walking the site Tuesday, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said the venue can be “one of the world’s great sports arenas” when it reopens under a new name and praised workers for the job done under trying circumstances.
Some workers occasionally bumped up within six feet of one another.
Johnsen said the realities of construction make social distancing impossible 100% of the time, especially when crews must work in pairs on specific tasks. But they’ve done a good job, he added, of self-policing and not standing around in groups unnecessarily. Instead, they take lunches apart, go directly to and from where needed and are taking days off when feeling exhausted or unwell.
No COVID-19 cases have been reported, he said.
And with NHL Seattle due to resume construction on its Northgate practice facility Tuesday, as construction sites statewide begin reopening, they’re keeping fingers crossed any additional KeyArena hurdles won’t be pandemic-related.