Bryant Park Lawn Frozen for Free Ice Rink

By Mary Johnson on October 26, 2012 7:00am 

MIDTOWN — Each fall in Manhattan, Bryant Park’s pristinely manicured lawn turns to ice.

Its stone-covered walkways become a miniature mall, and a temporary glass-walled restaurant  offers diners an unobstructed view of the thousands who skate for free in the heart of Manhattan.

The massive and highly anticipated transformation involves a two week effort involving a calculated coordination of trucks, traffic and construction, while managing to keep most of the park open to the public.

Over the years, employees of the Bryant Park Corporation say the process has been tweaked to optimal efficiency, from the moment the first piece of sod is stripped off the lawn to the first skate slicing through the ice around noon on Friday.

“It really happens very fast. Each day you come and something’s different,” said Nell Wright, event producer for the corporation.

“We have a lot of delicate areas to think about,” she added. “There’s a lot going on around us and also inside the park.”

This year, which marks the seventh season for the rink and the 10th for the market, the transition from park to holiday mecca began on Oct. 9, when crews arrived before dawn to start removing sod from the lawn, said Craig LaCaruba, vice president of capital projects for the corporation.

The lawn takes a beating throughout the year, LaCaruba said, and this year it was “decimated” after hosting everything from yoga classes to flocks of sheep to square dancing.

Because of the amount of activity that takes place on the lawn, the surface was completely redesigned back in 2010, partly to bring in a more durable sod blend, LaCaruba said.

But the park also needed to take into account the two-story New York Public Library storage facility full of books that rests just beneath the lawn, and the amount of weight the roof of that underground building can safely support, LaCaruba explained.

Once the sod is removed, LaCaruba said machinery was brought in to flatten the sloping lawn.

Then, on Oct. 11, the load-in process began for the construction equipment and materials that build the rink and the park’s holiday shops.

Wright said that detailed inspections occur three times a day during load in and load out, and she is responsible for monitoring what can be a tricky traffic situation on West 40th Street, as bulky trucks bearing heavy equipment vie for limited parking space on the busy Midtown street.

Those inspections continue on a less regimented basis throughout the two-week-long construction process, during which both the rink and the market rise simultaneously within the park.

Part of streamlining the process of turning the grassy enclave into a winter wonderland included a new addition to the park last year that rid it of the large diesel generators that once sat on West 40th Street and Sixth Avenue, contributing to noise and air pollution and rankling neighbors, LaCaruba said.

“We now have in the park an underground switchgear room, which is essentially a power plant. And now there will never ever be the need for massive diesel generators,” LaCaruba explained, calling the plant a dream some 12 or 15 years in the making.

“Bryant Park was never really designed to be the town hall and the center stage for Midtown Manhattan, so it really didn’t have the electrical distribution and some of the other things in the park, like the lighting, that was necessary to carry on all these activities,” he added. “We [have] become plug and play.”

Over the two-week-long construction process, the shops are the first to take shape, standing empty until vendors begin to fill the cubes with their wares.

A deck is built around the rink, with steps and seating for spectators. A pavilion to house the skate rental facility and some food vendors is built just south of the rink, and on its northeastern edge, the temporary restaurant, Celsius, rises.

Finally, the last step is creating the ice, which Wright said depends heavily on the weather. Rain is the enemy of ice-making, she said, but if the skies remain clear, the ice is frozen steadily, one layer at a time, over the course of several days.

The amount of ice remains the same every year in order to keep the weight in check and the icy surface from impacting the roof of the underground library building, LaCaruba added.

All the park’s winter amenities are produced by Upsilon Ventures and sponsored by Citi. According to Dan Beiderman, head of the Bryant Park Corporation, the collaboration between all the parties allows the park to offer free ice skating, though skate rentals bring in an estimated $1 million.

“Financially, it’s a boon. It allows us to do more flowers, more programming throughout the year,” Biederman explained.

The winter transformation has also filled the park with activity an extra five months out of the year, he added.

A day before the rink officially opened, fans took to Twitter to share their excitement.

“Bryant Park’s ice rink opens tomorrow. I’m way too excited,” tweeted @kelslog.

“I’m not ready for the winter’s cold weather,” tweeted @kricekate, “but there’s just smthn exciting about Bryant Park’s ice rink being set up. #BringOnTheHolidays.”

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