SEATTLE — With a long list of Seattle accomplishments as a construction executive— spanning from Safeco Field two decades ago to the recently completed Seattle Seawall project—Ken Johnsen is the perfect person to oversee the build of the New Arena at Seattle Center.
"I grew up here," says Johnsen during his commute last week. "I went to the World's Fair [in 1962]. I was nine years old. I remember the Monorail and the arena and the Bubbleator."
While Johnsen's checklist of memories is impressive, no doubt his New Arena punchlist these days is longer and even more epic. He is the just the man to give us a first insider's look at the New Arena construction.
The project started Dec. 5 with, well, deconstruction. Johnsen says the crew and bulldozers spent weeks "removing seats, removing equipment, removing the ceiling tiles." Same for suites, concession stands and locker rooms.
Next was more weeks of moving and relocating power lines, water and steam pipes, and moving them all carefully.
"So that when you do disconnect the building," says Johnsen, construction executive for Oak View Group-Seattle, "the rest of the neighbors don't have a problem."
Johnsen says with the "make-ready work" now finished, fans will begin seeing more activity in and around Seattle Center. Demolition work started earlier this month, knocking down auxiliary structures such as "the NASA and Blue Spruce buildings."
Another outdoors project slated for early April is removing and cataloging the historic curtain wall of glass we all admire when walking in and by Seattle Center. Every piece of glass will be returned to its exact place sometime in 2020 thanks to meticulous photographing and tagging notes.
Inside, the "hard demolition" of the arena will commence late April/early May range, removing lots of cement.
Then the fun stuff unfolds.
"This is a truly fascinating construction project," Johnsen says. "I just came off the Seawall project. People would come down and just stare at what we're doing. The same thing will happen at Seattle Center when the roof is suspended in mid-air."
Wait, what, huh?
Correct. Roof. Mid-air.
"This is not a renovation," says Shaun Mason, a construction consultant at CAA ICON who is now working on his third NHL Arena project (others were Pittsburgh and Edmonton). "It is an all-new arena under that historic roof."
The national-and-local landmark roof will be supported by steel columns and buttresses that will start appearing in late April. There will be a point this summer when the roof will be almost an optical illusion resting in mid-air. Expect thousands of double-takes.
"While we hold the roof up, we'll starting digging the hole," says Johnsen.
The 1995 update of the arena involved digging 37 feet below ground. The New Arena project plan calls for going down another 15 feet and excavating 600,000 cubic yards of dirt from June to October. That's some gigantic hole.
"What people are going to see is lots of trucks hauling dirt," says Johnsen. "I forget how many truckloads that will be … a lot."
But Johnsen quickly adds the truck traffic will be monitored and controlled for the benefit of Seattleites and city visitors alike during our city's most beautiful time of year. Well, at least 'most beautiful' until the Seattle NHL franchise makes the playoffs some April soon.
Mason points out the dig will "go much wider on all four sides" to achieve what NHL Seattle executives all say will be the greatest bowl of seating for fans in not just the NHL, but all of sports. Mason says it will allow fans to be much closer to the ice and NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke pledges "there will not be a bad seat in the house."
The project is currently slated for finish in the late spring of 2021 in time for the Storm's WNBA season. Sixty to 80 concerts are expected to be booked in the first year of operation, fitting around the NHL franchise when it glides the ice in that fall.
For his part, Ken Johnsen can attest to past, present and future presence of this current construction site's full measures of fun, city wonder and burn-in-mind memories.
"I went to my first concert at the arena in 1963 … the Beatles!" says Johnsen, laughing. "I was 10. My brother was a year older, 11. I easily recall my brother yelling at all the girls to quit screaming so he could listen to the music."
No one will be quieting the crowds in 2021.