On April 17, 1964, a crowd of more than 48,000 fans gathered in the Flushing Meadows neighborhood to witness the New York Mets play the first game at their new home in Shea Stadium. In attendance was the $25-million stadium’s namesake, William Shea, a popular attorney who spearheaded National League baseball’s return to New York after the Dodgers and the Giants left town in 1957.

Despite a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the state-of-the-art ballpark adjacent to the World’s Fair site helped turn the area into a hot spot in the heart of New York City, offering easy access from all five boroughs.

It was the beginning of a rich tradition with many athletic, entertainment and cultural firsts. Built with all the modern amenities, the stadium was the first all-purpose facility in the country specifically designed for both baseball and football and it featured two motor-operated stands that moved on underground tracks.

It accommodated 60,000 screaming fans who welcomed the Beatles to America for their famous 1965 performance. Other legendary appearances from Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones to Pavarotti and Pope John Paul II placed Shea in a league of its own.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Shea was transformed into a relief center with food, supplies and makeshift lodging, and served as the site of a massive memorial service in the following weeks.

In 1996, The New York Times reported that Mets management wanted to build a new ballpark in Queens within a decade, but time is quickly running out to reach that goal. A perennial star of Major League Baseball, Shea’s light was literally fading until it received an improved power infrastructure.

A grand slam

Forty years after Shea’s gates opened, E-J Electric Installation Co., —a Long Island City, N.Y., firm that, after 105 years in business, holds the distinction as the country’s oldest independent electrical contractor—is performing a series of lighting retrofits and other electrical upgrades that will allow the facility to step up to the plate in the new millennium.

“As more aging stadiums remain in operation, there’s no other option but to retrofit them to meet modern facility lighting standards. That’s not just fixtures, but also power distribution,” said Angelo Economou, E-J Electric project manager. “With new fixtures, there’s the benefit of more efficient lighting and higher-level light output, so you also need to look at increasing the lighting circuitry.”

In 2005, E-J Electric will complete a five-year contract for year-round electrical maintenance of Shea through the Mets’ lease with the City of New York/Parks and Recreation Department. Maintenance includes all electrical systems, scoreboards, signs, concession-area broadcasts, media hookups, lighting and new construction.

Among the projects the company has completed to date include replacement of 138 stadium normal and emergency lighting and power panels with 189 new ones, implementation of a state-of-the-art General Electric concourse lighting-control system and the installation of all the service feeders, which consists of 42 sets of four 1,000 MCM underground feeder cable, along with the service and distribution switchgear.

This included replacing six 4,000A main switches and adding one new concession-service switch to upgrade stadium and concession services, as well as five distribution switchboards. Power distribution was supplied to new center-field bleachers for lighting and power, plus a new 350kW generator was installed to power reengineered concourse and field lighting.

A major three-phase lighting retrofit has allowed the 57,405-seat facility to become a more modern entertainment mecca with brighter lights, better power distribution and a safer environment for players and fans. Following a lighting retrofit in the early ’80s, the facility received another significant upgrade starting in 2000-01 with a new roof-mounted field-lighting system.

Bright lights, big city

Major League Baseball’s lighting standard for today’s infield is 70 foot-candles and 50 foot-candles to illuminate the outfield. Players (especially outfielders) discontent with field visibility were introduced to a retrofit solution that significantly increased lumen levels despite a reduction of fixtures by one-third.

Fortunately, mild winter conditions greeted an E-J Electric crew of 12 electricians on the stadium roof where, 100 feet above the field, they navigated 36-inch-wide catwalks to remove 784 floodlights and install a high-wattage system. Iowa-based Musco Lighting’s SportsCluster2 system added custom-built brackets to hold 25 clusters of eight 2,000W metal halide lamps offset from the roofline.

According to Economou, Shea Stadium’s interior lighting, originally outfitted with incandescents, was retrofitted two decades ago with metal halide technology. The winter of 2002-03 ushered in harsh weather for a two-part project that called for the installation of fluorescent lamps in fixtures similar to high-bay metal halide sports fixtures.

A crew of 80 E-J electricians equipped with 20 scissor lifts to access the 19-foot heights and several knuckle lifts for higher levels, braved severe subfreezing conditions to simultaneously retrofit Shea’s concourse and emergency backup (egress) lighting systems.

In the event of a power failure, the original egress design provided neither sufficient nor responsive light for emergency evacuations. Said Economou, “The reason the city’s architectural and electrical engineering firm, STV Inc., selected fluorescent over metal halide was for faster response for the egress system. There would’ve been a short downtime between the generator starting and the lights starting. With fluorescents, it’s instant.”

He noted that the concourses received 127 new Sportlite fixtures fitted with four 26W lamps, 206 fixtures containing six 42W lamps and a total of 49 fixtures containing four 42W lamps. The new egress system provided 75 fixtures containing four 42W lamps for the ramps, while the concourse gained 106 fixtures with four 26W lamps each. The two interior systems are connected by 24,500 feet of feeder conduit and wire and nearly 28 miles of branch conduit and wire.

With the upgraded egress lighting system and the backup generator in place, the stadium was equipped for emergency response had the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout occurred as the Mets played host to the San Francisco Giants that night. The game, however, was cancelled.

New century of power, data, safety

Increased capacity to meet life safety needs amounted to more than new fixtures and a generator. “It was not only a retrofit, we added branch circuiting and a total of 16 new panels on eight risers throughout the stadium to redistribute the power and increase the load of the egress lighting and normal concourse lighting. It’s a lot safer now,” said Economou.

When E-J Electric first started installing panel boards in 1899, they were fabricated in the field using job site scraps. In its third century, E-J has evolved from wooden enclosures and gaslight to fiber optic and satellite systems.

Early projects included the original Metropolitan Opera building, the Paramount Astoria film studio, construction of United Airline’s computerized reservation system, completion of Morgan Station, one of the largest automated mail facilities in the United States, and the installation of voice, data and security systems at the United Nations.

A recent project involved the voice, data, broadcast and CCTV systems at the U.S. Tennis Association National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tennis tournament is played, and all power and low-voltage systems at the Rose Center for Earth Space and Science at the Museum of Natural History.

E-J’s most recent retrofit phase at Shea involved brighter bullpens and improved security lighting for the stadium’s gates with newer “necklace lighting” that was completed before the 2004 season’s first pitch. The bullpens received six 1,000W fixtures to replace the previous 750W lamps, while the wall-mounted necklace lighting also was upgraded using Musco technology.

“We estimated that levels for the security lighting were raised 30 to 35 percent using the same circuitry and same wattage because of Musco’s system,” added Economou

While everyone at E-J cheers on the Mets, there are no bigger fans than Richard Poggi, project executive on the Shea Stadium projects, general foreman Lou Giampa and steward Jack Minogue. They are hoping the upgrades give the team and stadium years of extra innings. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.