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Rocks Prove to Be Tough Foe at Midtown Athletic Club

Mon December 14, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

Tennis is a fast-paced and decisive game, but expanding a favored tennis center was a long and patient process — a little like a hard-fought match between Serena and Venus Williams. Following an end-of-May dedication, the new, $7-million addition to Midtown Athletic Club, in Rochester, N.Y., is open with a much larger club and more things for members to enjoy while pursuing healthy habits.

Thirty years and many surprises later, the excavation phase revealed something like Stonehenge beneath the ground — weighing from 26,000 to 35,000 lbs. Plans immediately changed to incorporate the biggest rocks as part of the outdoor site, an idea promoted by the club’s general manager Glenn William. The boulders could have been crunched in a matter of days using hydraulic hammers, but William was quick to realize he had something special in his way — something to talk about when club members are unwinding in the enormous outdoor, multi-jet whirlpool.

“I had no idea when I got here,” said Dan Schreiber, owner, Schreiber Excavating. “After we took down a few houses, we discovered the basements were built right over big rocks. Then the gas company came to move the gas lines, and they were about three feet deep when they pulled out a couple of three-footers. The rocks became more plentiful and larger in size. By the time we got to the other end of the street, we had pulled four boulders that were 11 feet across.”

To add more clay tennis courts, a large swimming pool, whirlpools, and an outdoor pavilion he said, “We removed the foundations, filled the basements, and compacted everything to 95 percent and graded it all to within a half-inch.”

Schreiber said his team of five excavated all of the rocks themselves, but arranged for a crane to come in to move the largest ones.

“The biggest one was 17.5 tons,” he said. “We know that because the guy from Clark Crane had his scales. He needed to know how much it weighed before he could move it.”

Besides heft, the crane operator needed greater reach. Schreiber explained, “The whirlpool tubs had to be installed first, and the boulders were going to be part of a natural border around them. They had planned it this way, but they had to get the boulders past the whirlpools.”

When asked if there were any anxious moments as tons of limestone hovered over a very expensive water feature, Schreiber replied, “Holy cow! You’ve got a bunch of strappers hanging tight on almost 18 tons of rock held by a crane over a very expensive pool? You bet!”

The expansion phase took a year of intense work, and hundreds of tons of boulders of various sizes either became part of the environment or were hauled away. Club members had to be able to fully use the existing facilities seven days a week, so staging the work was critical. They have been rocking around the clock with this project.

Jay Allison, project superintendent, Christa Construction LLC said, “An awful lot of things have to happen in a very short time. We’ve had full days, seven days a week with lights on until 9 or 10 at night.”

As Allison spoke, laborers with wheelbarrows of concrete moved by while painters finished the hand rails in natural stone-like tones and others raked the surface on high-tech, blue clay tennis courts. Landscapers came to inspect the budded viburnum and clematis climbing the new walls. Fairly large trees looked like they already belonged there. Somehow for the media opening they managed to have brand new, enormous, rhododendron in full bloom.

As many as 90 people representing various disciplines have been working on site at any one time, in a confined area with a large pit for the swimming pool in the center.

“We’ve got a good bunch of contractors who try like heck to be coordinated so that everybody gets a chance to get their work done,” said Allison. “The most difficult thing has been the interior renovation while members used the facility. The only way in and out was through the job site. Plus we had big stuff like cutting concrete, which can create smells. There were lots of things to deals with. You’ve got to remember that people are here for their health.”

More surprises were in store as they began to dig. Schreiber Excavating workers tore up Gould Street so that gas, water, sewer, cable and electricity lines could be moved. Gould Street turned out to have a concrete road underneath the asphalt.

Waiting It Out

Patience, they say, has its virtues. Midtown’s family-owned and run management team (they have nine other Midtown Athletic Clubs around the country) began this ambitious expansion plan in 1978 when they bought their first private home on Gould Street. It took more than 30 years to buy the entire block of 10 homes and have the street released to them by the City of Rochester.

A manhole still onsite is the last vestige of city ownership, and the small round cover demanded special treatment and approximately $90,000.

“If a city vehicle had to drive through the landscape — approximately 11,000 square feet of outdoor area behind the courts — to the manhole cover, it could get stuck and leave deep ruts,” Schreiber explained.

As a precaution, the city insisted the developers place a hard plastic mat-like material under topsoil to withstand the weight of trucks. It’s called EcoGrid and is manufactured in Germany.

Honoring the former tree-lined Gould Street neighborhood, developers turned the trees that had to be taken down — cherry, maple, oak and ash — into 20 Adirondack-style benches by Tom Scott’s Woodworking and Furniture in Lima.

“The $7-million is just for this phase. We really have more into it when you consider the demolition of the houses and buying the street,” said Robert McKernan, club manager. “The first house we bought was way down at the end. We kept coming, thinking ’now we’ll have six courts.’ Then another house would come on the market. There were a couple of houses we really paid too much for because we needed them to get the extra court done.”

Midtown-owned houses were rented over the years and then demolished all at once.

Athletically speaking, pumping up doesn’t stop here.

“We are under contract to purchase Domine [a large manufacturer of stone materials that neighbors Midtown Athletic]. We already purchased the parking lot. Domine is consolidating their operations in Fishers,” said McKernan.

For the owners, the spa-like expansion at Midtown Athletic is a huge deal. Strategically, this is more than a makeover, this is crunch time. By adding outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a spa and whirlpool, nine outdoor clay tennis courts, a cafe, a locker room, and an open-air Adirondack-style lounge, the former tennis-heavy facility has morphed into a “destination resort,” or a high-end country club without a golf course. However, management insists that their goal is rebuilding tennis enthusiasm in Rochester. Midtown Athletic, from the beginning, was always about tennis.

While it remains a racquet sport-focused facility, Midtown Athletic Club has also expanded into the healthy-living, spa, and resort territory — without the beds.

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