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My first job: Diving into a NYC megaproject

Atlantic Yards project has provided lessons for a lifetime

When the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets decided to call Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center home, the community needed a major infrastructure facelift.

By Caitlin (Bowen) DiDonato, civil engineer (New York, NY)

I began my career on a megaproject. And in New York, no less. Big, complicated, and daunting, the Atlantic Yards project was every engineer’s potential nightmare—and dream. As a new civil engineer fresh out of college, I had just joined Stantec and was eager to dive in.

I learned right away that Atlantic Yards was an extremely quick-paced project with fast-approaching deadlines. Since it had many different components (e.g., a large arena, high-rise buildings, a new subway hub), it was really a bunch of smaller projects grouped into one massive project. Each had its own design team, contractor, schedule, and requirements, but they all had to be planned simultaneously to keep the overall project moving forward. As a newcomer who didn’t fully understand the magnitude and complexity of the project at that point in my career, I still knew it was a massive undertaking.

Related items: To learn more about the Atlantic Yards multi-use development and the many components that make up this megaproject, click here. To learn more about Stantec’s other transportation and infrastructure projects, click here.

The first few weeks on the job consisted of a whirlwind of meetings and site visits, which was exciting—and overwhelming. Our team met with what seemed like hundreds of people, including clients, developers, contractors, consultants, utility companies, and various city, state, and federal agencies. My main task was to prepare utility drawings of the entire site for weekly coordination meetings. Updates based on field changes were brought forward in these meetings and could be instantly incorporated. We were also able to troubleshoot potential issues together as a team. Each meeting and communication helped build the project’s momentum.

The designs were completed and construction of the arena and subway station was already happening when I joined the team. The project moved along smoothly, despite having so many moving parts and players. As an engineer working full-time on the project, I had an insider’s look at how to manage a megaproject and was both surprised and impressed by the smooth progression.

Creating a footprint for a new subway station as part of Atlantic Yards project meant digging deep. Our design used steel beams to support the excavation and protect the hidden world below.

Numerous factors make a project of this size and scope possible. From my observations and experience, I learned that the following three actions are critical to a megaproject’s success:

  1. Get ahead of the issues. No matter how well you know a site or project, unexpected situations will always pop up. If you identify and address all potential conflicts early in the design process, you minimize the surprises—and the headaches that come with them.
  2. Bring major players to the table in the beginning. Major agencies like the Department of Transportation, Empire State Development, and the Department of Environmental Protection were involved in the process from the start. Having these key decision-makers on board with our concept and keeping them in the loop at every phase eliminated conflicts and delays.
  3. Be on the same page as your entire team. Having regular meetings to keep all involved parties updated is key to any project’s success. For instance, the constant flow of communication between the different mini-projects in Atlantic Yards prevented unnecessary costs and stalls. 

As the next Atlantic Yards development phases unfold, challenges and obstacles may come up, but project team members will continue to coordinate to stay ahead of them. Personally, I’ve used what I’ve learned from this megaproject on several occasions. Anticipating potential issues, bringing in major players early, and having regular update meetings has led to successful outcomes on my other projects. Not bad for a rookie civil engineer who was once fresh out of college.

Related item: Creating infrastructure for new development in one of the world’s great cities

Caitlin, a civil engineer in New York City, will be talking about Atlantic Yards and the various factors that continue to make it a success at the WTS Conference (May 17-19, 2017) as part of a panel session. Caitlin’s session is at the Marriott in downtown Brooklyn on Thursday, May 18, at 3:45 p.m. Attendees will also have a chance to visit the project site in person (it’s just steps from the conference).

The Carlton Avenue bridge was constructed over active Long Island Rail Road tracks.

As a newcomer who didn’t fully understand the magnitude and complexity of the project at that point in my career, I still knew it was a massive undertaking.

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