The problem surfaced one spring day two years ago when a maintenance worker noticed buckling concrete on a ramp in the north end of Sun Devil Stadium.
The worker told his boss, saying he feared the bump would pose a danger to wheelchair-bound sports fans at the 73,000-seat stadium.
Structural engineers examined the damage and quickly realized it was no simple crack. There were numerous cracks. And there was a much deeper problem beneath the surface.
The stadium was severely overstressed, engineers told Arizona State University, and would require emergency repairs.
The main culprit: Water.
When ASU’s maintenance crew hosed down the stadium after games, water seeped through concrete, reached support beams and rusted them away.
The university rushed to repair the problems that posed the biggest risk before the 2005 football season started. Those repairs cost $10 million.
But the iconic, 49-year-old Sun Devil Stadium demands even more repairs today. Documents obtained through a Tribune public records request show engineers have recommended another $45 million to $67 million in repairs to replace beams and waterproof the stadium to avoid any more of what they characterized as “life-safety” issues.
One fix requires a procedure called “cutting the building into two halves” in the area where the maintenance workers first found the cracks.
The university plans to complete the repairs within three to five years. ASU officials don’t know how to pay for the repairs, or where they’ll find the money for up to $100 million in new amenities the university has wanted for years.
Time is working against the stadium. The rust is getting worse and will cause even more deterioration if left unchecked.
The costly damage could have been avoided if the stadium had been waterproofed when it was built, as is standard for many stadiums across the country. University officials said they’re correcting mistakes that date back to 1958, when designers deemed that a stadium in the desert didn’t need to be waterproofed.
The idea now is to avoid having to tear apart whole sections of the stadium to repair rusting beams in the future.
“We won’t go back in there again,” said Bruce Jensen, the interim director of ASU’s capitol programs management group. “We learned our lesson.”
ASU literally stumbled onto the problem in May 2005. Jensen recalls being called to the stadium after other ASU employees had requested a structural engineer to help figure out what was causing the cracks.
“We knew we had a problem,” Jensen said. “We didn’t know what it was or what the fix was.”
ASU hired Phoenix-based Gervasio & Assoc., which found problems ranging from tripping hazards to “severely overstressed” parts of the structure.
Water caused most of the problems, but some cracks on the north-end resulted from ground settling and a design flaw. "The north end of the stadium requires one or more stress-relieving expansion joints that allow the structure to settle without buckling. That's part of the repair work engineers call "cutting the building into two halves.""
Some of the work had to be done by the time the 2005 football season started, so the university hired multiple crews to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
ASU devoted $1 million to repairs that began that summer. As crews started, they discovered more damage and the scope of the project grew significantly. Crews resumed work in January 2006 and completed those repairs in August.
The university did not cancel any events during that time because the remaining deficiencies were not an immediate danger, said Virgil Renzulli, ASU’s vice president of public affairs.
Some parts of the stadium needed temporary bracing because steel beams had weakened so much. Rust had eaten away as much as half the thickness of some steel surfaces. Jensen said the public wasn’t at risk, and the emergency repairs got almost no public attention.
“We would have closed sections,” Jensen said. “We would have done something other than what we did.”
The university initially sold the media a story that the problem was the result of beer-swilling Arizona Cardinals fans. The stadium didn’t serve alcohol until the Cardinals started playing home games at the stadium in 1988, and maintenance workers had to hose the sticky suds away after each game.
But university officials now admit beer wasn’t really the problem. Soda and other food meant that the stadium had to be hosed down after events in which beer wasn’t served, said Mike Chismar, an associate athletic director at ASU. The additional nine Cardinals games a year simply accelerated the stadium’s deterioration.
That’s not, however, what the Arizona Board of Regents was told in December 2005 when university officials asked for more money to continue the repairs.
Regent Ernest Calderón said he didn’t know the stadium was sprayed with water after every event. He recalled being told the hosing only happened after beer was served.
“Candidly, the beer issue wasn’t something you’d forget,” he said.
Calderón said it doesn’t bother him that he was told a different story back in 2005 — as long as university officials fixed the problem.
“My angle is what can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?” he said.
Little to no drainage in some parts of the stadium contributed to the problem. The stadium, which originally had seats for 30,000 fans, underwent two massive addition projects in the late 1970s that more than doubled its capacity — all done without waterproofing the concrete floors or steal beams.
Waterproofing is more common now, Jensen said, but the stadium’s designers figured the desert atmosphere wouldn’t require the type of drainage and waterproofing required at stadiums in wetter climates.
The deterioration occurred slowly over the course of several decades, but ASU didn’t realize it because the serious damage wasn’t obvious.
While any fan can spot rust on beams and stairs throughout across the stadium, Jensen said the discoloration is superficial. The serious damage, he said, was hidden in places where water had seeped through concrete or pooled in out-of-the-way places.
“We would not have recognized the issue existed until it was pointed out to us,” he said.
It took a maintenance worker concerned about a tripping hazard to alert the ASU brass that there was a problem.
Hammer-wielding engineers pounded away at cracked concrete to see if it would pop up easily and reveal weak spots and rust.
As long as the concrete stayed in place, ASU believed it was unlikely any severe rust was hidden underneath.
Workers cleaned off the rust in problem areas, welded new metal to the beams and applied an epoxy to the beams to keep water from penetrating the surface.
In some cases, that required lifting up entire concourses fans walk on to expose the support beams.
ASU officials said there was no way they could have known the stadium’s poor drainage and lack of waterproofing would prove so damaging. They now admit the stadium should have been waterproofed years ago.
“The one thing we now know in hindsight that could have been done better is waterproofing,” ASU’s Renzulli said.
JUST THE BEGINNING
The 2006 repairs fixed the worst of the problems. And this spring, ASU spent about $800,000 to replace four severely rusted beams that support the north-end grandstand. Pictures taken by the engineers show scaffolding holding up the grandstand while workers replaced the beams. That phase of work is now wrapping up.
Gervasio & Assoc. recommended another $45 million in repairs. But that’s if work starts immediately. Inflation and further deterioration could boost the cost of the repairs to $67 million if the university waits five years to finish the job.
A second engineering firm determined it might not cost as much. ASU hired Scottsdale-based PK Associates to review the Gervasio findings, and PK figured the first firm’s estimate was about 15 percent too high.
A big part of the difference was a $9.6 million contingency to cover unknown issues once work begins. PK told ASU in an April memo that the contingency seemed high because much of the exploration and design work has been done.
ASU officials said they’re not sure exactly how much work they’ll have to do. Crews will determine the extent of deterioration once work starts, Jensen and Renzulli said, and it could turn out the engineers overestimated the amount of repair work needed. Firms often assume damage could be worse than initial investigations imply, Renzulli said.
“You can be sure they’re taking the most cautious approach to everything,” he said.
A Tribune review of the records shows the firms agreed on most major points. Because the recommendations were so similar, Jensen said he’s not sure whether ASU needs a another opinion to see if more should be done — or if repairs are recommended that ASU considers nonessential.
“It would depend on what was being recommended and whether or not we felt we needed a second opinion,” Jensen said.
One discrepancy in the documents came from PK Associates. An April 16 memo from the firm to ASU stated that rust is severe enough to be a “life-safety issue.”
Jensen sent an e-mail to the engineering firm on May 21 to request clarification of that point. A PK executive replied later that day the matter wasn’t as urgent as it sounded.
“What I was trying to indicate in the letter is that it appears that the deterioration of the structure is currently not a life-safety issue but will be if the items indicated are not repaired,” the e-mail response stated.
The stadium likely will be safe for another 15 years, Renzulli said, but it will need more repairs if the university wants to use it for decades to come.
ASU’S WISH LIST
University officials want to modernize the stadium in ways that could prove even more costly than the essential structural repairs.
Fans and university officials have said for years they want to get rid of the metal-bleacher seats that often become scorching hot in the summer. They also want more restrooms and would like to modernize existing restrooms that have outdated features such as trough urinals in the men’s rooms. The university also wants to expand and rebuild concession stands.
The stadium also needs new plumbing and electrical systems.
ASU has hired architectural firm HOK to propose stadium improvements and identify the costs. The St. Louis-based firm has designed numerous professional and college stadiums, including the new Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale. It’s expected to turn over the report within weeks.
LOOKING FOR MONEY
ASU hasn’t figured out how to pay for the extra amenities, let alone the essential repairs.
University president Michael Crow formed a committee last month that will study possible renovations at all of ASU’s athletic facilities, including Sun Devil Stadium. ASU has estimated that it will need to come up with $3.4 billion over the next few decades to build and repair its academic and athletic facilities.
Tax dollars generally don’t pay for new buildings or major renovations at Arizona universities, so private donations will determine how much ASU can afford to spend.
“A lot of what we can do would depend on what you can raise,” Renzulli said.
The City of Tempe is one possible source of funds.
But Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman was hesitant about giving the city’s money directly to ASU. But he said he’d help lobby the Legislature for funds or to help ASU raise money.
He suggested ASU pay for stadium repairs with an estimated $45 million from the pending sale of university-owned land along the south shore of Tempe Town Lake. ASU is developing the Marina Heights project with SunCor, a firm that is also developing the adjacent Hayden Ferry Lakeside.
Tempe Vice Mayor Hut Hutson said he didn’t know about the stadium’s structural problems until earlier this month when contacted by the Tribune.
“I’m surprised nobody’s contacted me,” said Hutson, who is the chairman of Tempe’s finance committee charged with studying a possible partnership with ASU.
Hutson said he’d like to see if Tempe can help, but he also had reservations about using city tax dollars on a state-owned facility.
Hutson has held season tickets to Sun Devil football games since 1970 and considers the stadium a “wonderful facility.” But he said it’s dated and needs a major renovation. “I’d sure like to see them do it,” he said. “That place just comes alive when it’s full. You can just feel the momentum that builds up in there.”