SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/Facilities

After a long look, USTA taking the plunge on roofs for U.S. Open stadiums

The road to building a new retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium had project officials questioning their sanity, one U.S. Tennis Association official says.

“I don’t think anyone was insane enough besides us … to consider putting a roof on an [open-air] stadium,” said Danny Zausner, chief operating officer for the USTA, governing body for the facility. “But we like to keep things interesting around here, so we’re doing it 15 years after the fact.”

Arthur Ashe Stadium (center in rendering) is set to have a roof by August 2016.
Photo by: ROSSETTI

After more than a decade of studying the issue, the path is clear for a three-year, $150 million project to be completed in August 2016, in time for the U.S. Open. 

Rain has interrupted play at the U.S. Open for the last five years, but officials have studied the roof issue since 2003, Zausner said. Early on, the high costs to put a roof over the 23,000-seat stadium were well beyond what the USTA could afford and did not fit with its mission.

“Each time, we were like, ‘OK, we’ve done our due diligence but we can’t make it work,’” Zausner said. “Now, we finally have a system that is aesthetically pleasing, and cost palatable. We get to open and close [the roof] in a time we consider to be satisfactory from a player perspective.”

Working with sports architect Rossetti, the original design firm, and structural engineer WSP, the tennis group found a solution for a lightweight roof that won’t put too much stress on the structure.

Hunt Construction Group, a firm with experience building retractable roofs in sports, is managing the construction.

The biggest challenge for project officials was tied to the fragile soil conditions at the USTA complex. At the turn of the 20th century, the land was a dumping ground for coal ash for all of Manhattan. Over time, the built-up ash caused long-term settlement issues at the site.

“They’re literally sitting on Jell-O,” said Matt Rossetti, a principal with Rossetti working on the roof project.

Adding to the lack of a strong foundation was the issue of New York’s footprint in a moderate seismic zone, said Ahmad Rahimian, a structural engineer with WSP. After taking several stabs at a solution, they came up with a structure that could support the roof on its own legs, completely separated from the existing structure, Rahimian said. In the end, the roof design basically mirrors the structural system of the original stadium.

“It’s very elegant and very simple,” Rossetti said. “It will have the look like it was all done at one time.”

The roof will move on giant wheels similar to those at major league stadiums. The roof itself is a rigid frame of steel covered with PTFE, a synthetic material with a Teflon-like coating to it. The roof will act like two sliding doors parting from the center, Rossetti said.

The roof sits about 15 feet above the stadium in part to get air flow through the building. When it rains, side panels drop down and cover those open spaces to protect the players and spectators, an interesting twist in the evolution of retractable roofs, Rossetti said.

“That’s something new, plus the center of the roof can lift up to allow ventilation,” he said.

The roof is designed to both open and close in five minutes under storm conditions. The USTA originally looked at a design that called for the roof to close in upward of 30 minutes, but officials did not feel it was in line with keeping its commitment to the players. The organization did not want players to have to leave the court for 30 minutes or more because of rain or the threat of rain, Zausner said.

The USTA is forming a policy for when to open and close the roof. As it stands, once the roof is closed during a match because of bad weather, it would not be reopened even if skies cleared, he said.

“Our goal is to still feel like you’re in an outdoor stadium even with this opening,” Zausner said. “We’re still under the impression that this roof will hardly ever be closed. With our luck, it probably won’t rain again for 10 years, and that would be fine.”

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