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Speed-Skating Oval for Divas

Builders of the Massive 2010 Winter Games Venue Envisage an
"Internationally Recognized Icon" on a Par With Sydney's Famous Opera House

Jeff Lee

Vancouver Sun

February 16, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Vancouver Sun, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Vancouver Sun.]

When it is finished it will be the third largest of its kind in the world, so massive it could hold four DC-10 aircraft wingtip-to-wingtip, and so remarkable in its design that its owners hope it will be considered on a par with the Sydney Opera House.

For now, however, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics speed-skating oval in Richmond is nothing more than detailed engineering and architectural plans for a site beside the Fraser River that is now covered in nearly two metres of compacting sand.

By year's end, the home of the world's newest speed-skating venue will be a slab of concrete covering a 450-stall parking garage. And over the late winter of 2007, the distinctive flowing line of the massive roof will begin to take shape as a crane wheels in place 15 glue-laminated beams so huge they're each just shy of a 100-metre Canadian football field in length. They will bracket 13 huge columns that represent Canada's 10 provinces and three territories.

This is the place that also holds the greatest promise for Canada to break its at-home gold medal drought; in neither the 1988 Calgary Winter Games nor the 1976 Montreal Summer Games did a Canadian win an event.

In 2010, spectators in Richmond may well see that drought end. Canada's new Own the Podium program, which seeks to identify and help train athletes who can win medals, has suggested Canada could win eight of the 34 speed-skating medals.

A long-track speed-skating oval is arguably the dominant architectural venue to build in any Winter Olympics. It is an opportunity for a city or country to stamp its mark.

Lillehammer, Norway did that for the 1994 Winter Games with an oval at Hamar in the shape of an overturned Viking ship. Salt Lake, which hosted the 2002 Games, built a light, clear-span cable suspension roof that carved 950 tons off the conventional oval roof design. Calgary's 1988 Olympic oval -- still considered the fastest ice on earth -- was the first covered speed-skating oval in North America.

Richmond's is no less unique. From the air, the roof will take the stylized native shape of a heron's wing, a tribute to the Salish First Nation and the large wading bird that cohabited the riverbank at first contact 230 years ago. It will cover 33,000 square metres of space, including a 20,000-square-metre main floor that includes a 400-metre refrigerated track. It will easily be seen from many places in the Lower Mainland and is being built on one arm of the Fraser river, between No. 2 Road and the Dinsmore Bridge, almost under the flight path of the Vancouver International Airport on Lulu Island.

"This will become an internationally recognized icon," said Ted Townsend, Richmond's senior manager of corporate communications. "It will be like B.C. Place or other signature buildings, or, in a more grandiose way, like the Sydney Opera House."

Among the factors being considered in the oval's construction is feng shui, the Chinese art of placing objects in buildings and other places to maximize positive energy.

Sherman Tai, a 53-year-old feng shui consultant, was hired by the city of Richmond for input on the oval because of the importance of feng shui to Richmond's large Chinese-Canadian community. Tai also provided feng shui advice for the city's new city hall, Townsend said.

The architects behind Richmond's striking design are Cannon Design, whose principal and lead project architect, Bob Johnston, was involved in the design of both the Calgary and Salt Lake tracks. The company has also done work for the Commonwealth and Pan American Games, and consulted for London, which won the 2012 Summer Olympics.

This is the year that Richmond's big Olympic gamble takes shape, with construction starting on many parts of the $178-million development. Within months, contractors will begin pouring concrete for the parking garage, which will be housed under the massive oval.

It's a gamble because Richmond is getting only $60 million from the 2010 Vancouver Organizing Committee, which moved the oval project from Simon Fraser University to keep ballooning costs under control. SFU had been the premier site for Vancouver's submission to the International Olympic Committee, but lost it after the cost of its project escalated beyond $78 million.

Richmond came in with a different proposal: incorporate the 400-metre speed-skating oval into a major riverfront revitalization that would be used to offset additional costs.

The overall development encompasses 13 hectares on seven city-owned parcels and will ultimately include 130,000 square metres of commercial and residential space, including a proposed hotel. The city estimated in its application that it will get $54 million from that development. There will also be a new waterfront park. But until the Games are over in 2010, only the oval, parkade and public gathering place will be built.

The rest of the site will be used by Vanoc for temporary Games facilities, including parking, and broadcast and media services.

The city has also pledged not to raise property taxes to fund the project, and that another $50 million would come from nearby River Rock Casino's revenue-sharing agreement. The remainder will come from development charges levied for nearby projects, naming rights and sponsorships.

After the Olympics, the oval will be converted to a multi-use sport facility that will include two Olympic-sized ice rinks, up to eight hardwood ball-sport courts, a gymnasium, a 200-metre track and a rubberized turf area.

The speed-skating oval will be covered with removable flooring and could still be used for competition.

But more importantly, the oval is being positioned by the city as a future home for up to six national teams, as well as a centre for sport excellence. The building will have fitness facilities for both high-performance athletes and the local community.

One of the first teams being courted is the University of B.C. rowing team, which is building a $6-million boathouse on the river just north of the oval.

The oval project is so huge that Richmond hired a raft of advisers and managers to keep it on track, and broke it into at least 23 separate contracts. Everything from roof design to pre-cast concrete to elevators to electrical and mechanical work has been sectioned off. Franklin Holtforster of MHPM Project Managers Inc. is the overall project manager. Dominion Fairmile Construction was hired as advisory construction manager, and will handle the issuance of contracts.

"We will let all the contracts this year. This project will be completely tendered this year," said Greg Scott, Richmond's director of major projects. He is equally confident the oval will be finished in the fall of 2008, enough time to give Canada's athletes two training seasons before the Olympics.

So far, Richmond has issued three contracts. Clearing and grubbing of the site took place last year.

Agra Foundations just finished creating what Scott said is "a forest" of underground stone columns to densify the ground to keep it from moving. And E. Mathers Contracting just finishing pre-loading the site with 100,000 cubic metres of sand to compact it prior to construction.

The sand will remain there until April or May, after which it will be removed to allow for construction of massive concrete abutments that will be used to help anchor the roof trusses.

In January, Dominion issued a call for companies interested in bidding on 19 contracts. (One contract for finishing the building envelope, including installation of the huge glass windows, has not yet been put to tender.)

A separate super-flat concrete floor will be installed over the concrete base, between which will be sandwiched a massive refrigeration system. The skating floor and liquid-ammonia refrigeration system will be installed in 2008.

Scott said Richmond opted for wood beams rather than steel for the roof trusses to showcase B.C. products.

"There aren't may companies that can bend steel in an arch that long and it can't be done locally. We want to push the wood market, and esthetically it is elegant," he said.

So far, Richmond has spent $5.9 million on developing the project, including $2.3 million for design and nearly $1 million to prepare the site.

In what may have been the shrewdest investment, however, it donated $500,000 to the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corp. in 2002 and 2003, shortly after Vancouver won the bid and while it was considering moving the oval from SFU. Vanoc awarded Richmond the venue in August 2004. With that foot in the door, the city then spent $459,000 that year and in 2005 to send staff and city council on 16 trips to examine ovals around the world.

The trips, including repeat visits to Calgary, Salt Lake City, Lillehammer and Turin, created controversy among taxpayers who wondered if all the travel was necessary.

In December, council approved another $120,000 to send nine people, including Mayor Malcolm Brodie and Coun. Bill McNulty, to Turin for the 2006 Olympics. Brodie has defended the expenses, saying the city has to get this project right and the trips helped it learn what not to do.

The project has not been without financial problems. Like other public works, it is affected by both "scope creep" and a white-hot construction market that is creating shortages in skilled labour and materials.

As an example, Scott said, the oval was costed out at $206 million after all of the project designers, engineers and interested parties were asked what they wanted to see in the oval. It was then pared back to what the city could afford.

Scott said it was similar to someone telling a developer about the dream home they want, only to have to cut out the library, swimming pool and expansive gardens once the dream's sticker price is added up.

Ultimately, the city agreed to spend an additional $23 million over its original $155-million price to include the parkade.


Venue: Speed-skating oval

Location: Turin

Size: Overall covered area: 26,500 square metres. Track size: 400 metres x 12.60 metres.

Seating: 8,463.

Number of events: 12

Distance from athletes' village: 3 kilometres.

Post-Games use: Fairs and exhibitions in concert with the existing, and massive Lingotto Fiere convention centre, a former Fiat factory.

Cost as of 2005: 70.45 million euros, ($99 million) of which seven million euros ($9.8 million) come from the City of Turin and the rest from the federal government.

Of note: The new oval is in the centre of Turin, and a short walk from the Lingotto Fiere centre, where the main media centre is being housed. Construction began in 2003 and was finished late last year.