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Cover Story - August 2006

Cinematic Construction

Rockaway Movie Theater Project Overcomes Early Drama

by Natalie Keith

Construction started in October on the $15 million AMC Rockaway 16 movie theater in Rockaway, N.J., on an aggressive timetable for completion.

But then the sky opened up - as it is apt to do in the Northeast - and brought the wettest month on record for New Jersey dating back to 1895. After the rain, the fall temperatures dipped quickly.

The rain and freezing temperatures thwarted early foundation work and eventually delayed the start of the "main feature." The 68,000-sq.-ft. theater will have 16 screens and nearly 3,400 seats when it opens this fall at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall next to Interstate 80. It was originally scheduled to open in August.

The wet weather caused major adjustments, starting with the need for the project team to pump rainwater out of the site. Then the team realized it would not be able to use the foundation it had dug prior to the rains, said project manager Stephan Butler of New York-based Stegla Group, the general contractor.

"We had only been onsite for a few days - the foundation had been dug - when the rains came," he added. "Our building pad could not sustain the bearing loads, so we had to re-excavate. We had to dig deeper and build back up to what would have been the original foundation level."

The team also had to add imported backfill over a geotechnical material to provide ground support for the theater, said Melanie Bell, vice president of corporate communications for AMC Entertainment of Kansas City.

The team could not make up all of the lost time, but it did limit the damage, Butler said. He estimated that the new foundation work could have resulted in nearly a three-month delay, but by working weekends and overtime the project team was able to only fall behind by 6.5 weeks.

Still, the delays pushed concrete pouring tasks for the foundation into the winter months.

"We had to put concrete blankets down in the area where we did concrete work," Butler said.

The project's aggressive phased schedule called for treating the two wings of the buildings - each containing eight movie theaters - almost as separate phases, with the team working from west to east. As workers were erecting steel on the east side of the project, others were already building walls in the west wing.

"It allows you to get in and get work completed more quickly," Butler said.

Although this type of phasing has been used with other projects, "you generally don't want to do it in the extreme that we did it in," Butler added, because of the confusing logistics.

The building uses non-load bearing, precast concrete insulated wall panels that are lighter than composite concrete wall sections and offer better energy efficiency, Butler said. Installing the 80,000-sq.-ft. worth of VersaCore panels, manufactured by Fabcon of Savage, Minn., took 15 days, which Butler said is faster than the erection pace for traditional panels.

In addition to the rainy conditions, the project team also faced a corporate >> merger. The theater originally had been designed and permitted as a Loews Theatre, but early on during construction, AMC merged with Loews Cineplex Entertainment, with the combined company taking on the AMC name.

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To address the change in ownership, Kevin Istas, AMC's vice president of construction, attended an owner, architect, and contractor meeting shortly after the merger was finalized in January and outlined expected changes to the ongoing project. The team modified the design in stride to meet AMC specifications, Bell said.

The changes affected interior and exterior colors, the configuration of operational and concession spaces, and other features. The result is a unique design that blends Loews and AMC theater elements, said Eric Hugger, principal of Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr and Huber of Grand Rapids, Mich., the architect, which Loews had originally hired.

The theater will have stadium-style seating, two party rooms, and a wheelchair-accessible mezzanine level.

Bell said movie theater designs need to account for a high volume of "people traffic" of up to a few million customers a year, and the Rockaway facility is no exception. The volume factor requires strict attention to fire and life safety codes, acoustic transfer, picture quality, sound quality, heating and cooling, Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, vertical transportation, food preparation and handling, and security and cash management.

The building's design already called for a "larger-than-life" quality, Hugger said. The design mixes the heights of a 60-ft.-tall center tower, 44-ft.-tall flanking towers, and 36-ft.-tall towers on the ends of the building.

"The varying heights help to break up the mass of the structure," he said.

The entryway also is meant to stand out, Hugger said.

"We're using a metal panel arch system that integrates hidden cove lighting that gives the entry a dramatic look at night," he added.

Key Players

Owner: AMC Entertainment, Kansas City

Architect: Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Grand Rapids, Mich.

General Contractor: Stegla Group, New York

Structural Steel: Lorvin Steel, Brampton, Canada

Concrete: M&R European, Woodside, N.Y.

Excavation: J&B Excavation, Wharton, N.J.

Plumbing: Westenberger Mechanical, Boonton, N.J.

HVAC: McCloskey, Linewood, N.J.

Electric: EJ Stewart Electric, Parsippany, N.J.

Concrete Panels: Fabcon, Savage, Minn.

Metal Panels: Bamco, Middlesex, N.J.

Carpenter: Avon Contractors, Farmingdale, N.J.

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