When COVID-19 began to shut down America, Ken Johnsen, in charge of a big hole in the middle of Seattle that had a roof and a dirt floor but no walls, began thinking what anyone in charge of a deadline project would think.
“Do we go on?” said the veteran Seattle construction executive. “How?”
Answers on a sublime summer afternoon Monday were evident: Wills and ways were found.
The hole is about 90 percent filled with Climate Pledge Arena.
The excavation crew and the steelworkers are now replaced by drywallers and carpenters. Seats are being bolted to concrete. The home locker room has lockers.
It has taken 3.1 million person-hours — about 2.4 million of them since the grim shutdown of March 2020 — and at least $1 billion in private cash, but the people paid to know these things say the former State Pavilion/Coliseum/KeyArena will be ready in October for the Seattle Kraken’s first season in the National Hockey League.
And starting to look a lot better than any nearly 60-year-old should look.
It won’t happen in time to have even part of a Storm season, or a concert, or home preseason games. Three exhibitions were farmed out last week to Western Hockey League rinks in Spokane, Everett and Kent. And the Kraken may begin the Oct. 12 regular season on the road for a few games while the new joint gets all its systems checked.
But it will open. Despite all.
Sometime before Halloween, Seattle sports fans will have a treat. Now that tricks are over. Mostly.
“We’re committed to that time frame and we’re on track,” Greg Huber, project executive for general contractor Mortensen, told media members on a preview tour, with no small amount of pride. “I thought that (Covid) was going to really doom the time line, and had every potential to.”
The project halted for two days as Mortensen, sub-contractors and the Oak View Group that was funding the project with a lot of borrowed money, scrambled to create a plan to move ahead. Assembly of the project’s lone tower crane, pivotal to the entire project, barely had been completed.
“At that point we were working harder to manage a COVID response plan than to manage a construction site,” Huber said. “We needed to make sure that we were safe and healthy at the site. That was job number one. Once we started to build that plan to gain worker confidence, we could start getting rolling again.
“Adapting to a pandemic was one of the most difficult things that we’ve ever done.”
Masking up and distancing professionally, work crews that would eventually average 1,000 people a day began the gradual ramp-up, despite some covid-positive episodes. (Huber: “It was always traced to what happened outside of work. We never had what you’d consider an outbreak, where we had an entire crew out.”) Pressure to meet the 2021 NHL season — the league overruled Oak View’s original plan of a 2020 start as way too ambitious — steepened the climb.
“The duration of the intensity has been pretty long here,” Huber said, “in terms of the number of days we started working day and night.
“We’ve been working a day and night since the mass excavation started Sept 20, 2019. Coming up on two years working day and night is uncommon for an arena. Typically you’ll start working a night shift once you start working inside the bowl. That was a very different element here.”
Then there was the weather — record rain, a major snow dump, record heat.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Huber said. That included the shutdown’s disruption of global supply lines that played havoc with materials delivery to the job site.
He offered an example of the purchase of retractable seating platforms for use with different concert-performance needs. The platforms were bought from a company in Slovakia at a pre-pandemic price before escalators hit, but the shutdown made shipping a nightmare.
“Tracking shipments has never been more difficult than it has right now,” Huber said. “We’ve got so many people on our staff that can track a boat from here to Slovakia, to Malaysia, to China, to wherever it is. It has been an all-in effort. The things that used you used to be able to get in a week, two weeks or maybe even six weeks, now you get it whenever.
“So we’ve had to pivot . . . it has never been more difficult to get things delivered on time and a good level of quality.”
The platforms arrived. The show will go on.
Almost no finishing touches are in place, but much has been done where few fans will see — below grade.
A parking garage, massive kitchen, locker rooms and some building operations are under the street level entrances. The most impressive asset is a huge loading dock that can accommodate up to eight semi-trailer trucks. The KeyArena predecessor space had room for two at once. The inability of national touring acts to follow each other quickly always left the Key, and by extension Seattle Center, financially vulnerable.
Said Johnsen, sweeping his arm at the dock space: “People who do (arena concerts and staging) for a living, and those who operate these buildings, they come here and think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”
That may be true downstairs. Upstairs, closer to heaven, there is a small problem — some seats with partially obscured views.
High up on the west side, the media operations/press box are in a gondola that hangs down partly in front of some seats. The ice sheet is completely visible, the twin video screens are not. The obscured seats will be supplemented with TV monitors.
Even in a new house, there are things that can’t be helped.
Johnsen, whose civic construction resume includes major roles with T-Mobile Park, Seattle City Hall, King Street Station, Pike Place Market and the Seattle Seawall, is closing in on another another legacy edifice. He knows a little something about working out of tight corners.
“An amazing project,” he said, ” that I’m gonna say went smoothly — not easily, but smoothly — in terms of not getting into a mode of, ‘Ohmigawd, we got a problem that we can’t solve right now.'”
“Other than, I suppose, covid.”
If he had solved that, we’d have to get him out of his work boots and tool belt and into lab coat next to Dr. Fauci. We could back-fill for him at the arena by cleaning the windows.