WHAT TO DO WITH THE BIG O?
Why not pay for yet another roof to make the stadium useful, when it would cost a very expensive $700 million to knock it down? Wait ... $700 million?
Allison Lampert digs into the file and finds the demolition estimate is full of holes.
Even as figures in the hundreds of millions of dollars are being debated as the cost of installing a new roof on the Big O, the idea of razing the iconic Montreal landmark has been dismissed by its manager — the Olympic Installations Board (OIB) — as too expensive to carry out. Considering the stadium’s vast size and unique structure of reinforced concrete blocks held together with cables, an engineer once compared the impact of demolishing the Big O to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, “where one-third of the island of Manhattan was covered in a thick coat of dust and debris.”
But for the first time, a Gazette analysis, including examinations of three feasibility studies, discussions with a dozen demolition industry experts and an exclusive interview with the engineer behind the $700 million estimate cited by the board, suggests the OIB’s long-used financial argument against razing the stadium — just like the roof — appears to have holes.
The estimate, which continues to baffle the demolition industry for being so high, stems from a 2009 report that author Gino Lanni says was designed to be preliminary. Lanni, an engineer with Groupe Séguin Experts-Conseils Inc. — now called Génius Conseil Inc. — said he had only a twomonth mandate to prepare the study, which had such a potentially large margin of error, the results could be off by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It’s really a feasibility study,” said Lanni, who prepared the 2009 report as an update of another preliminary study on the Olympic Stadium he oversaw in 2003. “When you’re at the feasibility stage, you’re not doing any design. Your margin of error there can go from 20 to 100 per cent, practically.”
Lanni said his estimate of $666 million to $700 million — depending on industry demand — would cover any “surprises” like the discovery of additional asbestos in the stadium, beyond certain ducts that were already known to contain the potentially carcinogen- ic material.
“When you’re starting off a project like that, you don’t have much information,” he told The Gazette.
“The final estimate is (from) the guy who puts in the price or the engineer who does the final drawings.”
While the OIB often refers to the $700 million figure as the cost of razing the Big O specifically, all three feasibility studies commissioned by the board cover the demolition of not only the stadium, but all the structures it manages: the tower (including the pool and sports complex), two parking garages and the board’s offices, for a total of more than 5.6 million square feet.
A board spokesperson declined to comment for this article. The Gazette’s questions, such as whether asbestos is present in the concrete — key data for estimating demolition costs — could only be answered following a formal request under Quebec’s access-to-information laws.
Among The Gazette’s other findings:
Lanni based the $700 million figure on an estimated 30 per cent rise in prices since 2003, when an earlier study placed the stadium’s demolition at $510 million. But his analysis was based on the Statistics Canada non-residential construction index, which takes into account the price of materials used to develop buildings, not to tear them down. A comparison with a demolition is a “misuse of our index,” Statistics Canada’s Randy Dorken said.
Unlike construction, demolition costs fluctuate because they can be partly offset by the salvaging of materials like steel. While far smaller and simpler than the Big O, the 33,000-seat Canad Inns Stadium in Winnipeg was demolished this year for around $1 million — in part because a deal was worked out with the contractor to recycle the steel and concrete. A 2004 study by engineering firm CIMA+, which said the stadium’s deconstruction costs could run as high as $587 million, calculated recyclable steel at $100 a tonne, compared to around double that amount right now.
Groupe Séguin, which became Génius Conseil in 2010, is the same firm that worked with a subcontractor to calculate the $10 million to $21 million decontamination costs of the land sold to developer Frank Catania & Associates for the controversial Faubourg Contrecoeur housing project. La Presse revealed that the city sold the site — which had a municipal evaluation of $31 million — for $4.4 million to Catania once the firm’s decontamination and other costs were subtracted. Yet a second company, Genivar, later found the decontamination costs to range between $5 million and $7 million. Lanni said he did not prepare the Faubourg Contrecoeur study.
After examining all three reports on the stadium — obtained by The Gazette under Quebec’s access-toinformation laws — a large Quebec demolition contractor and two of his work site engineers said they believed the $700 million estimate far exceeds industry norms, despite the difficulties posed by the Big O’s pre-stressed concrete structure, in which concrete is poured over steel reinforcing cables. While the contractor agreed that the Big O couldn’t be demolished in one shot, because of the dust and the risk of concrete blocks flying off once the cables are cut, the tower’s base and the ring around the top of the stadium could be weakened and engineered to fall safely inside the Big O, with the rest of the structure left to be razed by heavy equipment.
“This appears to be political,” said one of the engineers, who spoke on condition that his name not be published. “If you really want to know the price of dismantling the stadium, you need to get an engineer to prepare all the necessary plans ... and hold a request for proposal (ask bidders to submit estimates).” Groupe Séguin was first asked to come up with a feasibility study in the early 2000s, after calls to demolish the stadium generated headlines. At the time, spectacular demolitions of aging U.S. stadiums, like the Seattle Kingdome in 2000, made news broadcasts, and critics wondered why the same couldn’t be done in Montreal. One local demolition boss, Gino Forlini, was quoted as saying the Olympic Stadium could be imploded with dynamite for less than $10 million.
In a 2005 column, The Gazette’s James Mennie cited the $587 million figure from the 2004 CIMA+ study, sarcastically suggesting that the money for the demolition be raised through a lottery, with the lucky winner getting to push the “button marked ‘BOOM.’ ”
How a unique stadium — designed by the renowned French architect Roger Taillibert for Mont- real’s 1976 Summer Olympics, and an integral feature of the city’s skyline — had become so reviled largely came down to dollars and cents.
Since its inception, the Big O was beset with financial problems. Delays and the price of the steel running through the stadium’s concrete blocks — which soared six-fold during its construction — doubled the planned building costs from $135 million. Then there were the repair costs, with chunks from the tower tumbling into the field in 1986, and pieces of concrete breaking off in 1991 and 2012. The original roof was replaced by a non-retractable one in 1998, which tore from snow buildup just a year later.
The total cost for building all the Olympic facilities — plus renovations, repairs, interest and inflation — left taxpayers with a mortgage of $1.5 billion and the inspiration for a new nickname: the Big Owe.
In 2004 the stadium lost its key tenant after the Montreal Expos, who played there since 1977, moved to Washington, D.C., becoming the Nationals.
A decade later, financial questions surrounding the Big O continue to generate controversy at a time when the Quebec government is projecting a $2.5 billion deficit this year, putting off plans for a balanced budget until 2015-2016.
This week, Radio-Canada reported that the stadium’s roof has deteriorated further, with the num- ber of tears tripling from last year and the maintenance doubling from $400,000 to $800,000 in 2013.
And a study on the possible return of Major League Baseball to Montreal — expected to be unveiled at a news conference next week — is to recommend a new ballpark closer to where the majority of fans live, given the broader North American trend of tearing down and replacing aging stadiums.
Without a new roof, the stadium continues to bleed money. According to the OIB’s financial records, the Olympic Park lost more than $20 million a year over the last two fiscal years, excluding Quebec government subsidies. In 2012, the board spent almost $11 million on payroll costs for its 180 regular employees “who maintain the park and handle administrative functions for the organization.”
Efforts have been made to boost the stadium’s use — during the 2011-2012 fiscal year there were 22 major events, like concerts and trade shows, along with 59 secondary activities, such as private rentals. But the Big O was left empty for 284 days. Changing the roof, which would allow the stadium to remain open all year, would lead to $160 million a year in economic spinoffs, according to a 2009 Secor study, the board says on its site.
Pressure has been mounting on the Quebec government, which owns the stadium, to make a long- term decision about the structure. Industry sources say the Parti Québécois government is considering a $300 million roof, although Tourism Minister Pascal Bérubé has yet to make a decision, apart from ruling out all chance of demolishing the stadium.
Some members of Montreal’s business community believe a more detailed demolition study should be produced, especially in the wake of The Gazette’s findings suggesting the Big O could be dismantled for far less.
“The $700 million doesn’t make sense. To me, this stadium is a white elephant,” one real estate professional said.
“Let’s just say I find the $700 million figure intriguing,” said Michael Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based National Demolition Association, which represents more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and Canada.
While Taylor declined to give an estimate, since he wasn’t familiar with the Olympic Stadium, he said the figure would “likely drop significantly” during a bidding process.
Kevin Callahan, chief operating officer of Demco Inc., the New Yorkbased demolition company that razed the former 57,000-seat Yankee Stadium in 2010, said the $700 million estimate was unheard of in the industry. Callahan said it cost $23 million to dismantle the legendary New York City stadium, which was mostly razed by crews instead of being imploded, in part because there was an elevated subway line located just feet away.
“I can’t imagine anything within a multiple of that, short of having a nuclear reactor underneath,” said Callahan, whose company is now in bankruptcy protection for events unrelated to the Yankee Stadium demolition.
“For $700 million, I can take down a nuclear plant.” Ask Ryan Priestly to give an example of a challenging demolition, and the president of Ontario’s Priestly Demolition talks about taking down an oil rig in the ocean. The Olympic Stadium doesn’t even make his short list.
While Priestly is not familiar with the Big O, he has demolished smaller structures that used posttension cables — which involve high-strength steel strands or bars — including a 10-storey parking garage that was near the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto.
“Is it fundamentally different? No, it’s not that much, but it’s different than conventional concrete,” he said. “We come across it two or three times a year.”
According to the 2009 study, taking down the stadium would generate 1.4 million tonnes of concrete and steel debris, and the very act of cutting the cables that hold the concrete blocks together would risk sending debris flying.
“You cut the string and the whole thing collapses,” Lanni said.
Lanni’s recommendation for taking the stadium apart piece by piece — a plan that would take five years to design and execute — might be costly, but it is the least risky scenario, he said, for a stadium located in an urban area and in a city where the use of dynamite is heavily regulated.
Indeed, rules governing environmental protection and the use of dynamite have become more strict over the years, but the demolition industry continues to dismantle structures in densely populated areas. Unlike the World Trade Center example given in Lanni’s 2009 study, demolitions are specifically controlled by engineers.
Mark Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition Inc., said he wasn’t familiar with the Olympic Stadium. But his U.S.-based company has used explosives to demolish thousands of structures worldwide over the last 70 years, including stadiums like the Kingdome, bridges, and buildings like Orlando’s former city hall — which was located just feet away from the building that replaced it, with the implosion captured in the action film Lethal Weapon 3.
“CDI regularly (brings down) major structures on top of and immediately adjacent to ... rail tunnels, utility lines, oil transmission lines and railroad rights of way,” he said.
Demolition association executive director Taylor pointed out that if Controlled Demolition could implode the former Orlando city hall without damaging one glass pane on the neighbouring building, experienced members of his industry have the ability to deconstruct a stadium located near a métro.
“These were all difficult engineering challenges ... but the industry has the ability to do this. Having a subway running underneath a structure to be demolished is a surmountable, workable problem.”