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Ken-Do Attitude

Oak View Group/NHL Seattle's trusted construction executive Ken Johnsen 'sorts through a thousand voices' to assure monumental things get done for our city

by Art Thiel / @NHLSeattle_ /

SEATTLE -- On a scale of one to 10, one being, say, a backyard chicken coop and 10 being Hoover Dam, Ken Johnsen is asked where he scores the New Arena at Seattle Center for degree of difficulty.

"Nine," he says, "plus."

He is smiling. Johnsen likes working on hard things.

The longtime Seattle construction executive, hired by Oak View Group and NHL Seattle in November to help manage the complicated delivery of a world class sports and entertainment arena to Seattle Center by mid-2021, knows a few things because he's done a few things.

In the late 1990s, the task was to invent and install a first-of-its-kind retractable steel roof that would slide safely over a four-acre Mariners baseball field and 46,000 seats without its trusses obstructing views of fly balls or trains running beyond right field.

 In 2001, the project was to build a new City Hall downtown next to the original, which in places was as little as 10 feet away, while keeping all offices and services functioning. Then demolish the old building, hindered by the same requirement.

In 2008, a similar full-operations requirement was part of a $50 million upgrade of the King Street Station and its 100-year-old clock tower: The trains must run on time, all the time.

In 2009 at Seattle's venerable Pike Place Market, the next hard thing was to replace the decaying structures' mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems while the market stayed open to host its annual 10 million visitors-while making sure none of the upgrades looked modern or mismatched with the original architecture. 

In 2013, the eroding seawall holding up Seattle's waterfront was more than 100 years old. To replace it, the task was to keep out the water from Puget Sound on the west and rainwater runoff from Seattle's hills to the east. Nature operates 24/7.

Johnsen, a Western Washington University grad, was part of the management team for those projects. Each one walked the tightrope across the Valley of Perpetual Civic Skepticism to successful completion. Johnsen was there on the tightrope, sure-footed, offering suggestions, orders, applause and finger wags while holding his breath along with everyone else. 

 "The projects all had elements of, 'How are they going to do that?!' " Johnsen says on a recent tour of the New Arena job site. "I have been really lucky to work with very smart, talented designers, engineers and contractors who find ways to pull these things off."

 As his job as project manager for the $330 million seawall wound down, the city again hired Johnsen - an owner-partner since 1986 in the Shiels Obletz Johnsen management consultancy with offices in Portland and Seattle - to help with the intricate task of the arena.

In December 2017, the city had entered into a partnership with Oak View Group of Los Angeles to build the new arena while preserving the building's roof, which is designated as a historic landmark because of its iconic status from the 1962 World's Fair.

Instead of a complete teardown that would make matters easier, it became, in the words of one of the project's principals, "like building a ship in a bottle."

Johnsen quickly grasped the complexity of the project. He presented his findings and perspective in a construction-update meeting in late October 2018 attended by NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and the club's management consultant at the time, veteran hockey coach Dave Tippett.

"After the meeting, Dave said, 'You know, that guy was really something - he's terrific,' " Leiweke says. "I give Tip credit for planting a seed."

Leiweke called his brother, Tim, the Oak View Group CEO who runs the entirely privately funded arena project. Tod told him they should hire Johnsen. 

"Tim said, 'You know what? I was thinking along the same lines,'" Tod Leiweke says. 

Tod Leiweke met with Robert Nellams, Seattle Center director since 2006, and Marshall Foster, director of the office of the waterfront and civic projects -- the city's representatives in weekly meetings with Oak View principals. Leiweke was direct: We need Johnsen on the NHL Seattle side of the table.

"Marshall and I looked at each other, and after a bit, I said, 'That might not be a bad idea,' " Nellams says. "Our thing from the beginning was, if we're going to get this done with this aggressive timeline, you've got to get the best people." 

"Making sure you have the wherewithal to make things happen, to have someone who knows the ins and outs, and to be able to have the relationships between the contractors and the [investors] -- Ken can do that."

 "He has to sort through a thousand voices, and every one of them has to believe in his credibility, that he will treat them well, and be open-minded," Nellams says. "Then guess what? You get stuff done."

Leiweke says Johnsen's long experience in people management is vital.

"He came in to the project and didn't try to knock down all the pins," Leiweke says. "He didn't say, 'Now I'm the boss - things are going to change.' He simply understood how to get things done and unite the team."

More insight from Leiweke. "Ken's as honest as the day is long, with a track record that is spectacular. He understands the nobility of what we're doing. That's important to me. He knows we're doing something for the city, and believes in it. It's not just a job."

Video: Towers Installed in Arena to Support Historic Roof

Not long after Johnsen's hire was announced came an early test. The project's general contractor, Skanska-Hunt, a joint venture between Skanska and AECOM Hunt, agreed to step away. Stepping in was Mortensen, one of the top arena/stadium builders in the country. 

 "Ken had to convince everyone that it was the right thing to do, and he threaded the needle." Nellams says. 

Says Leiweke: "Skanska did a wonderful job in some ways, then had to ask if this is what they wanted to do, long-term. This is what Mortensen does all the time. Nobody got uptight. We're still friends with the guys at Skanska, which is a remarkable achievement."

The crossover period was smooth, and demolition commenced this past January. By March, machinery was removing seats and arena equipment. The original concrete seating bowl is now completely gone, same for the concrete floor and any other arena effects under the roof. 

"Somebody should have a wedding reception here," says Johnsen, smiling. "It's the ultimate tent."

Approximately 600,000 cubic yards of dirt will be excavated by year end. The amount would cover the entire playing surface of T-Mobile Park to a depth of 70 feet or seven stories. The hole, 15 feet lower than the 37 feet dug for the 1995 remodel, will create space for locker rooms, a 500-car garage, eight loading bays for live entertainment stage equipment, additional back-of-house needs and more. The 800,000 square feet represents a doubling of the interior space of the previous building, which for years was the NBA's smallest.

Johnsen says the current demolition/excavation phases require about 120 workers a day on site. By next summer, the full-on subterranean construction will expand the workforce tenfold at its peak, with Johnsen and other leaders aiming for maximum speed with minimum maintenance.

"I try to get people together who aren't naïve and say, 'Well, this isn't a problem,' " Johnsen says. "But also people who aren't so overwhelmed, they say, 'I don't know what to do.' "

With contributions from so many laborers, managers and executives, plus politicians, bankers and tolerant neighbors, Johnsen actively resists the handy label of "a Ken project."

Yet his local record speaks for itself. What he is more comfortable speaking about is everyone's aspiration.

"We know it's a tight schedule," he said, "and we know we can do it. This is important to the city." 

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