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Design of New York Wheel Overcomes Geotechnical, Logistical Challenges

By Jay Landers

Upon its completion in 2017, the 630 ft tall New York Wheel will become one of the tallest observation wheels in the world.

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Situated on the northeastern tip of Staten Island, the New York Wheel will offer riders unparalleled views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. © Perkins Eastman, S9 Architecture

August 11, 2015—Situated on the northeastern tip of Staten Island, a new observation wheel called the New York Wheel will offer riders unparalleled views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. While ideal in terms of its prominence and vantage point, the waterside location presents a host of design challenges, particularly involving the site's poor geotechnical conditions.

Expected to cost approximately $500 million to design and construct, the New York Wheel will eclipse the current record holder—the 550 ft tall High Roller in Las Vegas—by more than 80 ft. In comparison, other notable observation wheels around the world include the 541 ft tall Singapore Flyer and the 443 ft tall London Eye. (See "High Flyer" by Robert L. Reid, Civil Engineering , October 2009, pages 42-53.) However, an observation wheel currently under construction in Dubai is expected to stand at 689 ft.

Along with the wheel itself, the Staten Island attraction will include an 80,000 sq ft Wheel Terminal Building and a 325,000 sq ft multiple-level parking garage. The terminal building will house a ticketing area, a museum, and retail and restaurant space, while the roof of the parking garage will feature a parklike setting to increase the amount of open space on the project site.

Essentially, the design and construction of the wheel and its attendant facilities amount to "two projects in one," says Chris DeLuca, P.E., the director of engineering for Broadwall Consulting Services, a subsidiary of The Feil Organization, of New York City. Broadwall Consulting Services is acting as the owner's representative for the developer, New York Wheel LLC, also of New York City.

Design and construction of the wheel are the responsibility of a joint venture comprising Starneth, which has its headquarters in Enschede, The Netherlands, and Mammoet, the heavy-lifting specialist that is based in Schiedam, The Netherlands. A subconsultant to the joint venture, Mendenhall Smith Structural Engineers, of Las Vegas, is serving as the engineer of record for the design of the wheel.

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The New York Wheel will eclipse the current observation wheel record holder—the 550 ft tall High Roller in Las Vegas—by more than 80 ft. © Perkins Eastman, S9 Architecture

Among the wheel's chief components is a 570 ft diameter steel rim structure, which will be made of steel pipes ranging in diameter from 20 to 51 in., according to Fraser Smith, P.E., S.E., a principal of Mendenhall Smith. Smith provided written responses to questions from Civil Engineering online. Supporting the rotating rim will be 144 large structural steel cables that are more than 3 in. in diameter. At the hub, four main bearings will enable the structure to rotate around a fixed spindle that has a diameter in excess of 16 ft. Supporting the spindle are four 18 ft diameter steel legs, which also will provide resistance to wind and seismic forces.

Affixed to the steel rim structure are 36 capsules, each of which can carry up to 40 passengers. "As with other large observation wheels, passengers will load at the boarding level while the wheel is making its 30 to 35 minute revolution," Smith said. "Although it may be stopped to load special-needs passengers, guests enter and exit from [the] capsules as the wheel rotates," he said.

Thirty-two synchronized electric motors will propel the wheel. As the wheel rotates, the interiors of the capsules will remain level by means of a pair of perimeter slew rings with gears. The outer ring connects to the wheel rim, while the inner ring is integral to the capsule. "Capsules rotate within this slew ring to maintain a level floor position despite the rotation of the wheel rim," Smith said.

The architectural design for the two-story terminal building and the multiple-level parking garage was developed by Perkins Eastman, of New York City, and its affiliate, S9 Architecture. After the wheel itself, a signature feature of the site will be the parklike setting located on the roof of the parking garage. In developing this design, the project team sought to "blur the distinctions between the architecture and the landscape overall," says Navid Maqami, AIA, LEED AP, a design principal of S9 Architecture. As the most visible portion of the structures surrounding the wheel, the roof of the parking garage is "perhaps is the most important facade of the building," Maqami says. All told, the site will afford approximately three acres of open space.

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The attraction will include an 80,000 sq ft Wheel Terminal Building that will house a ticketing area, a museum, and retail and restaurant space, and a parking garage with a vegetated park on its roof. © Perkins Eastman, S9 Architecture

Accessible by ferry as well as by vehicle, the wheel and its related attractions are expected to appeal to tourists as well as residents of Staten Island and the remainder of New York City. In selecting the site, the project team sought to reconnect Staten Island with what is currently an "underutilized area," Maqami says. A steep drop of roughly 30 ft separates the waterfront site from Richmond Terrace, the roadway that runs adjacent to the site. The design includes "multiple connections" from Richmond Terrace to the site, helping to reconnect Staten Island to the waterfront in this location. In this way, the architects wanted to go beyond simply creating a tourist destination, Maqami says. Instead, the project, with its parklike setting, restaurants, and splendid views of Manhattan, will offer New Yorkers "a place to go." 

Despite its "fantastic location" for scenic views of New York Harbor and New York City, the project's waterside location presented significant geotechnical challenges during design, says Rudolph "Rudy" Frizzi, P.E., G.E., D.GE, M.ASCE, a managing principal and executive vice president of Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc., of Elmwood Park, New Jersey. Langan is providing geotechnical and seismic consulting services on the project. Once part of the harbor itself, the project site was later reclaimed and used as a rail yard. Consisting of mainly miscellaneous fill and former bay bottom material, soil deposits at the site are "soft and inconsistent," Frizzi says, and they "get thicker and thicker as you move to the north"—that is, toward the direction of the bay. In fact, in some locations the underlying bedrock is as much as 90 ft below the existing site grade, and the upper several tens of feet of bedrock are generally in a decomposed and weathered condition. Because the wheel is to be located by the water's edge, "our heaviest load demands are on the portion of the site where the subsurface conditions are the most challenging," Frizzi explains.

As a heavy structure that has high overturning and uplift loads, the wheel needed to be anchored into the bedrock. Achieving this goal required designing deep foundation systems for the wheel, particularly its four large legs. All lateral, uplift, and compression loads are "framed down to each of those four legs," says Satyajit "Seth" Vaidya, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior associate and vice president of Langan. "That's where the focus of all the loads is," Vaidya says. To support those loads, 96 large-diameter drilled shafts are to be socketed into the underlying bedrock. Above the bedrock, the drilled shafts have a diameter of 67 in., while the diameter decreases to 35 in. below top of bedrock. The large diameters of the upper portions of the drilled shafts are needed "to help resist the high lateral loads that we get off the foundations for the wheel, which is a tall structure that is subjected to high lateral and uplift loads," Vaidya says.

Each drilled shaft supporting the wheel is designed to have a compressive capacity of 1,000 tons, an uplift capacity of 540 tons, and a lateral capacity of 115 to 155 tons. A field test program was begun recently to verify that the planned methods of constructing the drilled shafts will achieve the desired loading capacities, Frizzi says.

Foundations for the parking garage and terminal building consist mainly of 16 in. diameter, closed-end, steel pipe piles that are driven to bedrock and filled with concrete. Ranging in depth from 20 to 65 ft below the existing site grade, the approximately 1,500 piles to be used on the project each have a compression capacity of 130 tons and a lateral capacity of 7 tons. However, for locations at which foundation elements need to extend beneath a 50 ft wide transit right-of-way on the south edge of the project, drilled shafts are used, rather than steel pipe piles, because of space constraints and concerns regarding vibrations. Extending to depths of 30 to 50 ft, the drilled shafts have a 39 in. diameter above bedrock, a 35 in. diameter below the top of the bedrock, a compression capacity of 520 tons, and a lateral capacity of 10 tons.

As for other design challenges, the 2014 New York City Building Code required the completion of a site-specific seismic study for the project site. This analysis indicated that soil deposits in isolated portions of the site and within an isolated zone beneath the ground surface could potentially liquefy under a code-specified seismic event. Therefore, the effects of potential soil liquefaction had to be considered in foundation design. Because portions of the site are located within the 100-year floodplain, the site and building design also had to account for hazards associated with flooding, Vaidya says.

Approximately 15 years ago, the project site, then still a rail yard, was converted into a parking lot for an adjacent minor league baseball stadium. In so doing, existing contamination at the site was either cleaned up or capped, says Robert Caravella, P.E., .M.ASCE, a vice president and the lead project manager of AKRF, Inc., of New York City. The firm is providing civil and environmental engineering services for the New York Wheel project. Now that the site is undergoing redevelopment, the project was designed to ensure that any remaining contamination from prior rail activities is handled appropriately and not released into the environment, Caravella says, particularly during the extensive foundation construction required for the project. 

Beyond the challenges stemming from the geotechnical conditions, the project design had to account for certain unique considerations associated with erecting a structure of this magnitude, says Jeffrey Smilow, P.E., F.ASCE, an executive vice president and the USA director of building structures of WSP. The structural engineering firm, which has its headquarters in Montreal, prepared the structural design of the wheel's foundation, the terminal building, and the parking garage. 

As part of the design process, WSP had to collaborate with the contractors to account for "temporary construction loads that in some cases overpower the permanent loads," Smilow says. For example, a temporary foundation must be constructed for the large crane that will be used to erect the wheel, including its approximately 300 ft long legs. To be erected in 150 ft long sections, the legs consist of roughly 18 ft diameter pipe fabricated from steel plates. Other design challenges have included the "very tight" construction tolerances for the approximately 100 anchor bolts that will hold down each leg and the "congestion issues" associated with the large number of drilled shafts needed to support the wheel, Smilow says.

Construction began during the first week of June on the foundations for the wheel, the terminal building, and the parking garage. The global construction firm Skanska is constructing the foundations as a subcontractor to the Gilbane Building Company, of Providence, Rhode Island, which is overseeing construction of the entire site. Overall, construction is scheduled to conclude in mid-2017, with operations set to begin in the summer 2017.


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