SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Facilities

Rockets launch a new era at Toyota Center

A new look and logo complement the Rockets’ new home.

Tip-off arrives soon after 7:30 p.m. for the Houston Rockets' third regular-season game at new Toyota Center, and half the 2,800 club seats are empty.

It's tempting to put the blame on road construction in downtown Houston. Streets are ripped up and lanes are closed everywhere. This is a Saturday night, however, and there's no workday rush hour standing between Rockets fans and the new $235 million arena, which opened Oct. 6 with a Fleetwood Mac concert.

The tan-brick Toyota Center, designed by HOK Sport, doesn't stand out like the Astros' Minute Maid Park a few blocks away, its retractable roof structure a dead giveaway that the business conducted inside is ball games. In comparison, Toyota is not recognizable as an arena until you're nearly inside.

That was the intent, said general manager Doug Hall, formerly a building manager with SMG for 10 years at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh and Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville. "It has a real low profile downtown. It's not a monster building like Staples Center or American Airlines Center."

The paid attendance for the evening will total 18,148 (the building holds 18,500 for basketball), proving that ticket holders indeed have shown up. Many, in fact, showed up early. Before the game, peering from inside the building through the glass wall that distinguishes the main entrance, it's evident that at least several hundred early birds are waiting in line for the doors to open. At 6 p.m., they get their tickets scanned, then have them marked with black ink, the second checkpoint confirming that they received a free Yao Ming foam head, the promotional giveaway.

The Toyota Center boasts the largest lower bowl in the NBA, Rockets officials say.
Fans roaming the east side of the concourse pass a display of four new Toyota vehicles, including a Toyota Tundra pickup. Another automobile showcase, dubbed "Tundra Zone" and spanning the size of two suites on the upper level, is still under construction, expected to open by Dec. 31. The truck will be stripped down to lessen the load before a crane on the arena floor lifts the vehicle to its perch.

"One suite is going to be a vehicle display with spotlights going to it at various times in the game to create some buzz around it," said Tad Brown, Rockets vice president of corporate development. "Attached to that is a traditional suite with seats and plasma TVs where the dealers can run promotions to get people to come up and sit in the Tundra Zone to view a game. It's a different and unique element to the building that not many people have done before."

The Rockets have sold 45 of 80 traditional suites ranging in price from $140,000 for basketball only to $250,000 for all events. That total does not include 12 of 14 courtside suites without a view of game action that sell for $250,000. All but eight of 120 floor seats "with feet on the wood" were sold for $525, $750 and $1,500 a game.

But back to those club seats: As the ball goes up between the Rockets and the Orlando Magic, where are the folks who paid $125 to $175 a ticket for cushy 21-inch-wide seats between the baselines?

It's simple: Dinner has been served, and the high rollers are eager to taste what Levy Restaurants has to offer.

Standing by in the Red and White Wine Bistro
They're grazing at the two 9,000-square-foot Rocket Club lounges, exclusive to premium-seat holders. Or they're spending $85 a plate to entertain guests in a more formal atmosphere, the 150-seat Red and White Wine Bistro, starring two 14-foot dark-wood wine towers. Each contains 1,500 bottles of red and white, reflecting Rockets owner Leslie Alexander's interest in collecting fine wines.

Both lounges, situated behind the club seats on the east and west sides off the main concourse, and the restaurant on the lower suite level are open to the basketball court. All three areas have ledge dining space, the "front row" of those eateries with unobstructed views of the action.

David Carlock, the Rockets' vice president of business development, said that based on discussions with concessionaires, the team opted not to use in-seat waitservice because it could disrupt the game experience for nearby fans.

"We're thrilled with the kind of reception the club lounges are getting," he said. "One argument against it may be that [the appearance of empty seats] doesn't look good for people watching on TV. We are taking a number of steps to increase our serving capacity and ability to take care of our customers quickly and meet the demand."

The arena has 80 traditional suites, plus courtside suites without a view of the action.
Rockets President George Postolos said upgrading the food was among the Rockets' primary objectives in relocating from Compaq Center, what team officials called the most outdated NBA venue. Postolos said Levy Restaurants Chairman Larry Levy told them that per caps have exceeded those of the firm's nine other NBA clients.

"Our goal was to have one of the five best restaurants in Houston," Postolos said. "At least that's what Larry told us our goal should be. We wanted the Red and White to be a beautiful space with great views of the bowl from VIP entrances. That was more important to us than anything else. It was our top priority."

But continuing that patron-friendly experience may have backfired a bit.

When conducting research of other NBA facilities, Rockets administrators took note that the seating bowl at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis was placed below ground level. "I remember going to Indiana and hearing about how they sunk their building into the ground to moderate the need for vertical transportation," Postolos said.

In other words, the Rockets embraced the idea that fans don't have to catch their breath to reach their final destination. Officials point out that the lower bowl has 10,000 seats, more than any other NBA arena. "Most people are walking down to their seats," Postolos said. "They don't have to struggle with the stairs. We went 32 feet down into the ground. It's easier to load and unload [bodies] and much more pleasant getting to your seat."

Patrons grab a stool at the bar in the Lexus Lounge.
What isn't so pleasant is the aroma originating from what Hall said are sewage lift stations transporting waste from the bottom-floor service level to street level. Comparing distances, Conseco Fieldhouse's seating bowl is about 20 feet below the ground, according to Ellerbe Becket, that building's architect.

In Houston, fumes from those lifts permeate parts of the building. The smell can be especially noticeable on the ground floor near the courtside suites, the adjoining Lexus Lounge exclusive to those patrons, the five-star dressing rooms, the Rockets and visiting team locker rooms and the media dining area.

Marketing and media relations representatives said the sewage smell has dissipated since the arena opened in early October. Hall said the odor will eventually be eliminated by figuring out the proper amount of water and air intakes in sewage treatment.

Installing signs that effectively direct foot traffic requires a period of adjustment with most new public assembly facilities, and Toyota Center is no exception. On the two escalators connecting the street level and upper concourses, the only option before the game was to ride them up, despite an overhead sign at the top indicating that patrons could take the escalators back down to the ground floor. The Rockets had an employee stationed where people got off the escalator to direct them to nearby elevators to return to the main concourse.

Sometime during the second quarter, the escalators eventually start heading in the opposite direction, Carlock said. Officials are still trying to gauge traffic flow and anticipate making changes. "We held some money back for revising our signage," he said.

In a stark contrast to the terrazzo floor on the main concourse, the upper level floor is bare concrete. The Rockets haven't decided how to finish that surface, said Carlock, adding that the fans don't seem to notice the difference. Indeed, those sitting upstairs appeared to be more concerned with weaving their way through a new environment. There were plenty of children taking part in "interactivities" such as the shoe-tie relay, mini-basketball arcade game and the make a sign "and get on TV" station, as pitched by a Rockets game operations assistant.

Company Work performed
A.D. Willis Co. Roofing
Acoustical Concepts Acoustical ceilings
Admiral Glass Co. Glass glaziers
Baker Concrete Construction Co. Tunnel and ramp
Baker Drywall Co. Metal studs and plaster, drywall partitions
CapForm Inc. Concrete superstructure and slabs
Capital Manufacturing Miscellaneous and ornamental metals
Crown Corr Inc. Metal panel
Desert Plains Inc. Fire proofing
Door Pro Systems Inc. Doors, frames and hardware
Easthaven Inc. Masonry
Flint Concrete Construction LLC Architectural precast
Foxmark Corp. Signage and ad panels
GraphTec Inc. Graphics
Griffin Dewatering Southwest LLC Dewatering
Har-Con Corp. Plumbing
Havens/FabArc Structural steel
HBS Construction Co. Miscellaneous specialties
Heldenfels Enterprises Inc. Structural precast concrete
HLS Enterprises Landscaping
Jimerson Underground Inc. Site utilities
Klinger Specialties Direct Inc. Toilet compartments and accessories
L.S. Decker Waterproofing and dampproofing
Mazur Construction Co. Millwork
McCoy Inc. Carpet
Melton/Ermco LLC Electrical work
Milam & Company Painting Painting and wall coverings
National Terrazzo Tile & Marble Inc. Terrazzo flooring
North Star Fire Protection Fire protection
Overhead Door Corp. Overhead doors and shutters
Primis Site concrete
SBC Datacom Special systems
Schindler Elevators Corp. Elevators and escalators
Sigma Marble & Tile Stone tile
Stafford-Smith Inc. Food service
Sterling Steel Co. Concrete reinforcement
TAG Electric Co. LP Temporary electrical
Tomlinson Acoustical baffles
Way Engineering Ltd. Mechanical engineering
Research by David Broughton
Sources: Hunt Construction Group, Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal research


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