Friday, April 16, 2010

Edmonton Arena District

I'm a huge believer in mixed use development in urban centers. My husband and I live in Central Edmonton and we love being able to take advantage of proximity to work, shops, and the beautiful river valley. As a result, I'm very excited about the proposed Edmonton Arena District, a mixed development project that includes a new arena for the Edmonton Oilers, plus residential housing, a community rink, a new casino, retail space and a winter garden. The project is being led by the Katz Group.

The video below features Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers and chairman of the Katz Group. It's a very frank discussion of why a project like the Arena District is of vital importance in attracting investment to the city:

Mr. Katz has announced his intention to contribute $100 million to the project, but I immediately noticed that a lot of the comments on YouTube suggest Mr. Katz ought to pay for the entire arena himself. This sentiment is echoed on Edmonton City Councillor Don Iveson's blog, where Iveson contends that the city shouldn't have to borrow the $400 million needed to finance the project. This sort of attitude always seems to be on display when a business person suggests a project that would improve life in the city.

I'm originally from Washington State, and I still remember the public outcry over billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen's proposal to construct the Qwest arena. There were dozens of letters written to local papers complaining that Allen should pay for the arena himself, rather than "leaving taxpayers with the bill." Of course, today most people will recognize that Mr. Allen's work in Seattle has helped to ensure its continued status as a world class city.

Of course, it's not just the cost of the project that has some Edmontonians concerned. The project has been criticized by Edmonton architect Barry Johns, who is concerned about the proposed location of the Arena District and LRT (light rail transit) access. I absolutely understand his reservations. Currently, the area that can be described as the "core" of downtown Edmonton is just a few blocks in diameter, and the proposed building site for the arena is a few blocks away. Also, the LRT does not currently run to the proposed site.

I think the hurdles Johns mentions can be easily overcome, however. While I strongly feel that approval of the development should be contingent on the addition of the LRT station, I am much less concerned about the notion of "extending" the downtown area, because, after all, that is the entire aim of the project!

The debate surrounding who should pay for the Arena District reminds me of the classic children's tale, "The Little Red Hen." I'm sure you will recall this story from your childhood. In it, the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat and has the idea of planting it and using the wheat to make bread. She asks the other farm animals to help her at each stage of production (planting, harvesting, milling, baking), but no-one offers. Of course, in the end, they all want to help eat the bread. City development projects always seem to work that way. People grumble about the cost, but in the end, they don't seem to have a problem using the services they didn't want to pay for.

Edmonton has the potential of being a world class city, but this will take genuine commitment on the part of the city government, private citizens and businesses. The Edmonton Arena District is a fabulous idea that will  beautify our city and help combat urban sprawl. Edmonton desperately needs some world class architecture to set the city apart and to attract people and investment. The completion of the Alberta Art Gallery this winter was a great start, but we need to build on the momentum that is being created if Edmonton is going to be able to compete with cities like Calgary for investment dollars.

For more information, please visit the Edmonton Arena District website.


Hels said...

Edmonton, like every other major city, needs the City Government to fund at least 51% of the new development.

On behalf of the good citizens of Edmonton, the City Government must:
1.present a vision for the future
2.participate in every single planning decision along the way
3.listen seriously to all the citizens' comments and
4.guarantee that the new development, once it is completed, will be available to all citizens, not just the wealthy friends of Big Business.

Margaret said...

Hi Helen!

I agree that it's very important to ensure the finished project will be accessible to everyone. I really like that the plans include a junior hockey rink, as I think that is a service that a lot of Edmontonians will be able to take advantage of. The winter garden is not a bad idea either - especially with the weather we have here!

mike w said...

There has been no evidence that building a rink will create any net economic benefit. Study after study has shown taxpayers getting bilked by publicly-financed sports facilities.

The real question is, who gains from this? The city goes into debt and takes all the risk, while Katz gets all the profit. That is literally what has been proposed so far (it doesn't help that the mat behind the debt-financing doesn't hold up, either).

It's a bad deal for tax payers.

Margaret said...

Hi Mike,

Thank you for your comment. I have seen these studies, but I disagree about how the economic benefit is calculated. There are multiple uses for these spaces, but the greatest benefit is that when people come to the city, they can easily identify downtown as a cultural centre.

Edmontonians already know we have a great city. We know where the great places to eat, shop and play are. But visitors don't. Hence the reputation as "Deadmonton". This city is very much alive for those who live here, but our rep outside the city is dismal. And that hurts us economically.

mike w said...

but I disagree about how the economic benefit is calculated.

How do you disagree? What study proves an economic benefit from a tax-funded arena, especially to a city that already has one?

You speak in generalities: Edmonton's downtown suffers from a lack of population density and decent transit to the suburbs, not a rink being built 2 miles away from the current one. It's a completely separate issue.

It doesn't help that Daryl Katz is asking the cash-strapped city to absorb all the risk while the Oilers take all the profit. It's a bad deal, with little measurable benefit to the city.

All that said, nothing is stopping Daryl Katz for paying for it himself...

Margaret said...

Hi Mike,

Edmonton has few landmarks. Outside of the city, we are really known for two things: the West Edmonton Mall and the Oilers. Hockey is important to the city, so it makes sense to me that a world-class stadium would be a priority.

That said, I'm not particularly married to the notion of the stadium, though it seems like a way to get the ball rolling on urban development. I also definitely think the Katz Group (and other private investors) need to make a major investment in the project.

At the same time, the people of Edmonton need to take an active role in the revitalization of downtown. And like it or not, that will mean spending some money.

mike w said...

It isn't a choice between Katz's all-risk plan and nothing.

If the City is serious about revitalizing downtown, then they can surely be more imaginative than getting bilked on an arena. The relatively resurgent area of Oliver Square didn't need a sports rink to be built. Spend the money on a proper LRT to the suburbs -- if anything, that's the most embarrassing deficiency for a city of almost a million.

Margaret said...

Hi Mike,

There are many infrastructure projects that need to be completed in order for the city to move forward. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm saying it's Katz' plan or nothing.

I would like to see revitalization downtown and better architecture. And I think public funding will play an important role, whichever plan we choose.

Right now, no-one is building anything downtown other than condos. In the absence of other concrete proposals to invigorate the downtown area, Katz' project offers some interesting alternatives.