A new 230-foot-tall observation wheel is the latest attraction at the historic Steel Pier in Atlantic City and was slated to open in early November. PS&S, a Warren-based architecture and engineering firm, was tapped last year to devise a solution that helped bring the project to life. — Photo by Marge DellaVecchia/PS&S
By Joshua Burd
The newest addition to the Atlantic City skyline is not another casino, but a 230-foot-tall observation wheel that will become the latest and greatest piece of the iconic Steel Pier.
The year-round attraction is set to open to the public in early November, but that might not be the case without the work of an architecture and engineering firm with deep ties to the seaside resort town.
The firm, PS&S, stepped in last year to provide a solution for what had become a major roadblock for the $14 million project. Thanks to a creative technical plan — as well as a firsthand knowledge of the pier going back more than 30 years — PS&S engineers helped create a path forward that eliminated the need to build an adjacent pier for the 485,000-pound observation wheel, saving its owner millions of dollars and the prospect of a lengthy and uncertain permitting process.
“The opportunity gained was by not having to build this associated pier for the wheel to sit on,” said Marge DellaVecchia, a senior director with PS&S, which is based in Warren and has an office in Cherry Hill. “They bought time and they certainly bought money.”
Now towering over the Atlantic City Boardwalk, the massive wheel is scheduled to open in early November, with enclosed pods that offer more space and a more high-end experience than a typical Ferris wheel. The attraction is the third-largest of its kind in the U.S. and is the latest piece of the historic pier and amusement park, which the Catanoso family acquired from Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2011 after nearly 20 years of operating there under a lease.
PS&S became involved with the project around a year ago, when a mutual friendship brought together the Catanoso family and DellaVecchia, who had recently joined PS&S after more than 25 years in the public sector. She said the pier’s owners believed that they would have to build a new pier alongside the existing structure in order to support the observation wheel, but the plan had become cost-prohibitive and construction had been stalled.
That prompted DellaVecchia to bring the challenge to the PS&S structural team, she said. As it turned out, the firm had the added benefit of having institutional knowledge of the Steel Pier.
While the pier dates back more than a century, PS&S oversaw the redesign of the landmark when it was reconstructed in the early 1980s. The rebuilt 1,000-foot-long pier consisted of steel and concrete supported by 54-inch diameter piles, perhaps meant to support a new hotel project that never came to be.
The design firm, which had built a presence in Atlantic City going back to the 1970s, also was hired to conduct a conditions assessment of the Steel Pier around six years ago. When it came time to tackle the observation wheel project, that familiarity brought an added level of comfort to the process.
“Part of laying this out was letting the contractor know where the piles were because they were very concerned — and we were concerned, too — that they would have to transfer the load to the piles,” said George Reichert, an associate principal with PS&S, who was involved in the original redesign of the pier.
Engineers with the firm came to determine that the piles were strong enough to avoid having to build a second pier, but still had to figure out how to support the wheel atop the existing 12-inch-thick concrete slab.
“We found out that you can’t just build this thing on the pier,” said Glenn Kustera, a vice president and principal in charge of PS&S’s structural group. “The pier won’t support it — it’s too heavy, the loads are too high and they’re too concentrated.”
The team had to account for the weight of the structure and the fact that the entire load would be distributed across eight columns that connect to the wheel’s hub, along with the need for it to withstand high winds. To address those concerns, they designed a structural concrete girder system atop the existing pier, using large beams to help transfer the weight to the underlying piles rather than to the deck itself.
Kustera said the project faced an additional complication when it came time for construction: The pier wouldn’t support the influx of new wet concrete during the construction of the girder system, which would have a footprint of about 150 feet by 90 feet. The team devised a plan that called for using steel beams inside what would become the concrete frame and pouring the concrete about two feet at a time.
“It had to be sequenced in such a way that you weren’t overloading the existing pier,” Kustera said. “And then, at the end of the day, it transfers all the loads directly to the concrete piles.”
All told, designing and getting the needed approvals for the project took around four months. Most of the structural work was completed by this past spring, according to PS&S, which also advised the Catanoso family on reconfiguring some of the older rides on the pier.
The firm is now able to tout its role in another high-profile project in a key part of the state. Aside from the cost savings, the design helped overcome the uncertainty of trying to build the additional pier, given the additional layers of regulation and permitting that come with building along the coastline.
“I don’t know that this ever actually gets built if not for this (solution),” said DellaVecchia, who has helped lead the expansion of PS&S’s Cherry Hill office. “That’s what was amazing for me. This didn’t happen unless we were able to think a little differently about how to do it, because the first knee-jerk reaction of how to do it is to build another pier.
“So by these guys having the ability to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s just look at this in a different way, let’s just look at what might be possible here, knowing what we know,’ it actually opened a door that might make the project a viable project. And I really do believe it is an economic driver for Atlantic City.”
To be sure, the new attraction comes during a period of economic momentum. The former Trump Taj Mahal, which sits directly behind the pier along the Boardwalk, is set to reopen next summer as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City under the stewardship of the global entertainment brand and investors Jack Morris and Joseph Jingoli.
To the southwest, Atlantic City Development Corp. is developing a mixed-use, $220 million Gateway project that will include a new satellite campus for Stockton University and headquarters for South Jersey Industries. That project is set to open next fall.
In the meantime, PS&S hopes to continue its decades of involvement in the iconic resort town. Along with the observation wheel, the firm has worked on other recent projects such as Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center and the Borgata’s newly built pool complex.
PS&S CEO and President John Sartor believes the best is yet to come.
“There are always going to be renovations and rehabilitation, but from a development perspective, we hear that there’s more coming,” Sartor said. “There are still some large tracts of land out there. It’s just a matter of when folks feel comfortable investing again at a large scale.”
Aside from devising a way to ensure the Steel Pier could support the 485,000-pound observation wheel, experts with PS&S had to figure out a way to get the structure there in the first place.
Reichert, the associate principal with the firm, said that required PS&S and Atlantic City’s engineering teams to reinforce the Boardwalk in order to handle the large trucks, concrete pumps and other equipment that would be going to the project site. They also used controlled fill to build a temporary road alongside the Boardwalk that would connect to the pier.