After being closed for 22 months, Liberty Science Center will reopen to the public on July 19th. I will be attending a special media preview of the new facility which promises to be state-of-the-art and take science centers to a whole new level. In the meantime, here is an article which appeared in the Star Ledger...

SCIENCE CENTER’S METAMORPHOSIS
Bigger, more dazzling, it’s about to reopen on time and on budget
BY KITTA MacPHERSON STAR-LEDGER STAFF

It’s not your grandmother’s science center anymore.

When it reopens to the public on July 19, after being closed for 22 months, the newly renovated and greatly expanded Liberty Science Center will be far more than just a place with shiny new exhibits.

It will be daring and bold.

Its designers expect the center to reinvent the very concept of what a science museum should be and lead the world in that direction. Far more than just ‘‘hands-on,’’ the exhibits and experiences offered by the center will be relevant, put in the context of everyday experience.

Visitors will watch smoke pumped through a wind tunnel curl around the silhouettes of skyscrapers, rather than be presented, old-style, with physics diagrams. They will be jostled on a subway car and ‘‘exposed’’ to infectious diseases, instead of viewing static displays of micro-organisms.

‘‘Science is alive, exciting; it’s part of our everyday lives,’’ said Emlyn Koster, the science center’s president and CEO. The Egypt-born geologist has led the Jersey City science center since 1996 and guided this $109 million project that nearly doubles its size.

Behind the scenes of the magical reinvention of the science center is yet another story — of a construction project that was completed at warp speed.

The project, managed by Skanska USA, one of the world’s leading construction groups, will be completed by its deadline and without any cost overruns, according to Koster.

In an era marked by ever-spiking prices for basic materials like steel, concrete and petroleumbased products like PVC, such a performance is laudatory, construction experts said.

‘‘I think that’s remarkable,’’ said Dennis Mockaitis, a senior vice president of Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc., in Lawrenceville, a major construction firm. To meet deadlines and cost restrictions, he said, science center officials must have planned well, estimating their costs accurately and installing ‘‘good people’’ on site for troubleshooting.

‘‘Yeah, I think they did an excellent job, and that’s saying something because we’re (Skanska’s) competitors,’’ Mockaitis added.

The looming completion of the project is even more impressive, according to another expert, considering that its designers kept the existing building and altered it from within, rather than starting from scratch.

‘‘When you are trying to fit something new to something old, it is much more challenging,’’ said Walter Konan, chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

POPULAR, BUT FLAWED
The original building, a $68 million, 168,000-square-foot rectangle, opened in 1993 to throngs of visitors. Part playground and part classroom, the center was a hodgepodge of science themes. On an overcast day, the bare concrete walled interior could feel cavernous and bleak. Shortcuts, too, were taken to cut costs. An outdoor fountain planned to break up a concrete expanse was never built. Exhibits were installed too close to the front doors.

Visitors complained of long lines and crowds and broken exhibits.

After a decade, with more than 4 million visitors, it had become the state’s most popular museum. But it also began to look tired.

By the late 1990s, state leaders as notable as former Gov. Thomas Kean started to drop hints in speeches about the idea of expanding the center. Koster and others prepared a white paper outlining ideas for a new kind of science center that played into Koster’s own ideas of relevancy.

Planning continued, intensifying after 2002 until 5 p.m. on Labor Day, 2005, when the building closed for construction. Koster laid off most of the staff. The remaining personnel scattered to six locations in Jersey City, Union City and Newark.

Second only to the creativity that produced its new exhibits is the feat of engineering — overseen by the architectural firm Ewing-Cole — involved in putting the now 295,000 - square-foot center together.

By adding a giant wing to one side of the building and making it the new entrance, the designers shifted the focus of the center by 90 degrees. This meant that the central space of the main building, punctuated by two vast atria, had to be paved over to make solid, continuous floors. The builders constructed decks extending several hundred square feet out over the old space, a project that required extensive engineering.

And with a new entrance comes a new address: 222 Jersey City Blvd.

Builders removed the old escalators, which broke down often, and ate up space at the building’s center. They replaced them with staircases, which they installed in the building’s signature glass tower, a spot that no one had ever figured out how to use. For structural reasons, the stairs could not be attached to the sides of the tower. They were, instead, engineered from the ground up.

Handicapped-accessible elevators are available elsewhere in the building.

The success of the project can be attributed to a couple of factors, according to Susan Cole, who is both president of Montclair State University and a trustee of the center.

Liberty Science Center staff, she said, ‘‘took very great care’’ in conceiving and planning the facility, involving not only architects, museum designers and engineers, but broadly diverse groups from the public.

Cole, who chaired the capital project committee that provided guidance and oversight for the project, also praised the partnership that grew between the state and private donors through the life of the project. Support from the state’s Economic Development Authority, in particular, was steady through several administrations, she said.

Cole oversaw the design and construction of the Science Museum of Minnesota and has managed construction projects at her Montclair University totaling $250 million. ‘‘Yes, I have built a few buildings,’’ she said.

The state EDA requires what it terms ‘‘a basis of design,’’ a very detailed document that ‘‘eliminates many of the estimates and replaces them with hard decisions,’’ according to Robert Dougherty, the retired chief operating officer of PSE&G Energy Holdings, LLC and chair of the science center’s board of trustees.

The document took months to develop and cost the center $300,000 to complete. It was ‘‘well worth the effort,’’ Dougherty said.

BUILDING TO A CONCLUSION
Construction workers at the site, nestled at one end of Liberty State Park, are racing to finish the final leg of the nearly two-year odyssey of construction.

Along the way, he said, ‘‘there were some tense moments, but there was no screaming or yelling.’’ Even though mistakes have definitely been made.

Last month, someone turned off the building’s air conditioning system at the close of work one Friday evening, leaving the building to steam up over the weekend. When the construction crews returned the following Monday, they found that thousands of gallons of water had leaked out of a cracked fish tank on the second floor.

Last week, a delicate exhibit shipped from California arrived in shards, requiring an emergency crew of artists to materialize and repair three sculptures made from a flexible plastic known as PET-G. Eight weeks of work must now be compressed into three.

During one of his many walkthroughs of the construction site, Wayne LaBar, vice president of exhibitions and theaters for the center, noticed late last week that the plastic case housing cables controlling the center’s iconic Hoberman Sphere was too short.

This meant that a tall visitor could reach up and touch exposed wire — a dangerous proposition.

Once that problem was solved, LaBar headed to another spot, where an electrician installing an exhibit had pointed out that the ceiling lacked an electrical outlet.

‘‘Sometimes I feel as if I’m behind a large elephant and I have to drive it forward,’’ said LaBar as he climbed to the building’s fourth floor. ‘‘Sometimes I have to push it along and it’s hard. I know the elephant is going to get there but it’s sometimes frustrating to wait.’’