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Looking at the HarborCenter construction site in downtown Buffalo, it is hard to imagine Canisius College will play hockey there in six months.

Nine months into building the $172.2 million sports and entertainment facility, next to the First Niagara Center, the site is a mass of steel girders, concrete and cranes.

In one of the biggest, fastest construction projects in Buffalo history, the Buffalo Sabres are marshaling an army to take their HarborCenter project – which includes two NHL-sized ice rinks perched six stories high – from ground-breaking to occupancy in just a year and a half. Laborers have been on the job on Saturdays almost from the start of construction last April, and general contractor Mortenson Construction added a second seven-hour shift on the project in January. Work is now being done 15 hours a day, six days a week. That includes three operators of the two tower cranes on each shift.

The project site has averaged 150 to 160 workers a day during the winter. That will jump to more than 200 in the next few weeks, plus another 15 to 20 whenever concrete is being poured, “which is pretty much almost every day, given that we’re working in multiple areas of the building,” said Ryan Poropat, lead project supervisor for Mortenson.

Even more significantly, the project has reached the point where work on several different areas can proceed at the same time, without having to wait for the previous task to be completed. With the garage structure complete and steel rising, workers can turn their attention simultaneously to the main rink, the secondary rink, the hotel tower and the pre-cast walls of the parking ramp.

So despite delays caused by a harsh winter, the Sabres expect it to be completed by October, in time for Canisius’ hockey home opener on Oct. 5. That’s slightly later than the original goal of late September for the rinks, five-level garage, the (716) Food & Sport restaurant, Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop and other retail space along Main Street.

The 205-room Marriott Buffalo HarborCenter hotel, rising 12 stories above the northwest corner of the 850-space garage and rinks, is still slated to open in May 2015.

“I’m not going to tell you we’re exactly on schedule. It was too tough of a winter,” said John R. Koelmel, president of HarborCenter.

But have faith, the builders say.

“The name of the game here is basically trying to separate each of the crews so each one is independent from the other and I’m no longer waiting on this guy to be done,” said Poropat. “We’re at the point when a whole lot of work is breaking free.”

Said Koelmel: “After this, it just goes.”

A ‘resume-builder’

Sabres officials unveiled plans for HarborCenter in August 2012, heralding it as a major private investment by team owners Terry and Kim Pegula. The center is connected to the First Niagara Center, creating a sports and tourism destination. It will be the first three-rink facility in the National Hockey League.

The project is complex. HarborCenter has a concrete garage with a hotel on top, surrounded by structural steel ice rinks elevated six stories in the air, plus a two-story sports bar and other retail space – all built on a lot that actually isn’t large enough to support it. Hence the need to transfer some weight over Perry Street to connect it to the First Niagara Center.

“This project is hands-down the most complicated job I’ve ever personally done. ... It’s got a little bit of everything,” Poropat said. “I volunteered to move my family to Buffalo and build this job, because of what the job was. This is a resume-builder. It’s a once-in-a-career type job, no doubt.”

Heavy and continuous snow, bitter cold temperatures and brisk winds teamed up during the past few months to slow down construction work. Work was suspended altogether on just two days because of separate blizzards, although conditions were far from ideal on many other days. But Poropat said Mortenson officials had anticipated and planned for weather challenges, and are accustomed to dealing with them, noting that the company is based in Minneapolis and he’s from Chicago.

“The project’s always been in Buffalo,” he said. “We have a lot of experience relative to cold weather, and winter does come every year. So we put a lot of plans in place early in the season.”

The contractor signed a contract with a heating unit supplier in July, and began assembling heaters, blankets and tarps as early as September, when National Fuel Gas Co. hooked up gas lines. They knew they would be building the structure “in temperatures that aren’t conducive to concrete,” Poropat said.

He said there are no hard-and-fast rules about not pouring concrete below a certain air temperature, but the liquid mixture has to be at 70 degrees upon arrival at the job site, and the temperature of the steel rebar used for tension in reinforced concrete has to be at least 30 degrees at the point where the concrete is going. So Mortenson set the minimum air temperature at 20 degrees and above.

When the temperature dropped below that, they had to adjust plans on the fly. When temperatures fell to 11 degrees, managers brought in concrete to test conditions and found they could still pour. So the company changed the guidelines for the job to a minimum of 10 degrees, “and basically kept it there all winter,” Poropat said.

Officials are quick to credit the attitude of the predominantly local workforce for keeping the project on track.

“We know how tough this winter has been, and it’s a little bit tougher six stories up, with the wind at 30 miles per hour, and the attitude they have is unbelievable,” said the Sabres’ chief development officer, Cliff Benson. “Honestly, I stand there some days and I wonder how they do it, and they’re doing it every day.”

At ice level

Workers are now tackling what Koelmel calls the “ice level” of what will ultimately be a 20-story building. That’s the sixth floor, where the rinks will provide a venue for youth, college and amateur hockey games and events.

Koelmel said crews are forming the “bowl” of the main ice rink on the south end of the building, across Perry Street from the First Niagara Center where the Sabres play. Above that, he said, steel is “taking shape” to create the barrel roof to enclose the feature rink. And the steelwork is also in place to support the bleachers and other seating around that rink, which will ultimately seat 1,800 spectators.

The slabs and metal deck are being installed for the second rink, enabling more work to start there. The pre-cast concrete panels that will form the exterior of the parking ramp will be brought in and installed, starting at the corner of Washington and Perry streets, and moving clockwise around the building.

Additionally, now that the Sabres’ season is over, a nearby parking lot at Perry and Michigan can be used as a staging ground to assemble the long-span wood trusses for the barrel roof over the main rink. Once built, they will be driven over and picked up by the tower crane and set into place.

Construction of the concrete hotel tower will begin shortly, and five or six stories should be completed by late May using a different system to build it than the slow process that was needed for the garage. As each floor of the hotel core is poured and hardens, hydraulic jacks below will push it up and set it into place before moving up to that floor to start the process again. Meanwhile, workers can pour the rest of the floor at their own pace.

“It offers us the opportunity to build it a little bit quicker, since we’re kind of in control of our own destiny,” Poropat said.

Once the floors are poured, the glass and metal frame walls for the hotel can be built from the inside, and the tower will be enclosed before next winter. “The hotel won’t be weather-dependent by next year,” Koelmel said. “This was the winter to get through.”

By late June, the south tower crane will be taken out piece by piece over three to four days with an erection crane, after it’s used to place some large mechanical units inside the structure during the weeks of June 9 and June 16. The other tower crane will be dismantled in a similar fashion by early September, and most of the facility will open in October.

“Six months from now, not only will we be ready to open, but the structure itself will be very, very visible in terms of its impact on the skyline,” Koelmel said.

By then, the hotel elevators should also be operating, so crews will remove the exterior construction elevators and reopen Main Street. Then “we’ll be working exclusively on the inside, just fitting out the upper floors and finishes,” Poropat said. “By the springtime of next year, it’s bringing beds in, tables and chairs.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com