Arenas and Civic Myopia

This afternoon, Edmonton City Council will consider the Master Agreement for the proposed downtown arena. It will almost certainly pass, with some contingency to cover the missing $100 million if provincial funds don’t materialize.

The purpose of this post isn’t to rehash the debate. The arguments on both sides are well known, and anyone who tells you the project is certain to succeed or fail is deceiving themselves (and you, if you believe them). Despite my concerns, which I’ve expressed over a number of posts on this site, I long ago resigned myself to the fact that this would almost certainly go ahead. I don’t wish ill upon my hometown, so I do hope this does becomes a success once built.

This post is about a different aspect of the debate. A few months ago, I realized what really bothered me about this debate. It’s not so much about the project itself (flawed as I may see it), it’s about the underlying approach and outlook which drives it.

I visit Portland, Oregon, about once a year. It’s one of my favourite cities, and one that is well-regarded as a model of civic development. It also follows very few of the rules and practices that are popular for urban development. Its downtown is devoid of mega-projects. It’s arena and convention center are across the Willamette River, removed from the city core, and really peripheral to what we think of as Portland. It has no signature building (the John Deere sign is the only image that comes close). I took the photo below while walking across the Hawthorne Bridge, facing west towards downtown. Unless you’re familiar with the city, you’d be hard pressed to name where this picture was from. The greenspace in the foreground is the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The city tore up a freeway and turned it into parkspace in the 1970s, when the auto-boom in cities was still going strong. It’s a great example of a forward-thinking action that most cities are just catching up to now.

Portland Skyline

While I was there in December, I read an article by baseball writer Jonah Keri, which talks about how the successful Tampa Bay Rays and the not-so-successful Kansas City Royals (who had just consummated a major trade) approach building a team differently. He writes:

It’s the rigid and binary ways that we — fans, media, even general managers — think about team-building. And how the most effective decision-makers rarely consider only two possibilities when making a move.

He critiques the Royals General Manager by adding:

He also, whether consciously or unconsciously, shut out other possible ways for the Royals to improve their team.

The same principle applies to city-building. In this context, Keri is commenting on how the Royals fixated on getting an “ace”, one of the generally accepted building blocks for a successful club. The Rays have been one of the most successful clubs by challenging many of these assumptions, and using a data-driven approach to how they assemble and manage their team differently than the status quo.

He finishes by saying:

The Royals didn’t necessarily make a terrible deal. They just showed a terrible lack of imagination. In the long run, that might be what hurts them the most.

I’ve sensed the same lack of imagination from many arena proponents. Certainly, not all of them (the Mayor, in particular, has shown tremendous imagination and leadership on countless other issues.) Yet, for many leading civic voices, it’s been a 6-year fixation, at the expense of considering other ways to build a better city. The short list of civic redevelopment projects currently in vogue would include things like an arena, convention center, entertainment district with restaurants/shops/condos/hotels, usually in some combination. Yet, successful cities think about creative, and less conventional ways of how to become more vibrant. A popular project like New York City’s High Line is a good example. It took years to overcome resistance, opened to huge acclaim, and will no doubt be replicated by cities across the continent in coming years. As I previously wrote, Edmonton has done so on several occasions, and conversely it has struggled when it’s chased the latest trends. Today it’s an arena, tomorrow a convention center or casino (as Toronto and Ottawa are dealing with right now.)

It will take years to determine if this project is successful or not. What citizens should be focusing on is the decision-making process behind it. If any city – not just decision-makers but its citizenry as a whole – focuses too narrowly on just one, or two, or three, possibilities, it’s closing itself off to what might be the best – if unconventional – outcome.

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3 Responses

  1. I think what people who are opposed to the arena, in favour of other “urban” projects such as a “convention center, entertainment district with restaurants/shops/condos/hotels, usually in some combination”, do not (or fail to accept) the City of Edmonton’s culture. The city does not have an urban dwelling, hip culture such as other cities like New York, Portland, Chicago, etc. Rather, the City’s culture is more aligned to family orientated activities and urban dwelling in the suburbs where people can have their three cars, RV and whatever other toys their income can support.

    My problem with articles like this, is that you are trying to fit a square in a round peg. Just because a small proportion of the City strives to live more in a more uniquely urban environment, does not mean this mentality is indicative of Edmonton as a whole.

    If you start to understand what really makes up the culture of the City, perhaps you will see that the arena really supports the greater good.

    • Hi SP,

      Thanks for the comment. Much appreciated. I have to beg to differ on a couple of counts. First, no city, especially one of Edmonton’s size, can be simplified down to a homogeneous description of its citizens. Yes, there are suburban, RV-driving, three-car owning households. There are also tens of thousands of Edmontonians who live in an urban setting where they can walk, bike, take transit, or have a short commute by car to work, school, and amenities. Those tens of thousands include many families too.

      Second, I do fear you missed the point of my post. It’s not about an urban-dwelling culture. It’s about how decisions are made. Using your argument, if we are a suburban loving city, shouldn’t we be more concerned about all the time, effort, and money going into catering to an urban environment that only serves a small portion of the population. And a lot of this is justified by following the trends of other cities, which I clearly argue we shouldn’t necessarily do.

      And please, explain to me how I don’t understand Edmonton’s culture. I’ve only lived here for 26 of the past 27 years, and grew up in the suburbs.

  2. Alex, as one of the longer term (3 years pre-Katz) proponents of the arena I must point out what looks like a flawed assumption on your part that I or any other proponent are really that myopic.

    1.
    I knew, and I said somewhere around 5 years ago that what downtown needs is “balance around the clock”, as at that time (and indeed presently) we were overbalanced in the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, with nothing to counterbalance the office towers and MacEwan University at any other time of day or week.

    What that meant to me was downtown needed:

    – our major year-round evening destinations (including our arena and major theatres and exhibit halls) (to fill in the evenings)
    – About as many people residing downtown as working downtown (to fill in the nights)

    Thus in turn being able to share virtually all the infrastructure and supporting spaces in a much more efficient way, and enable essentially more fun at a lower cost to boot.

    Why do we need empty parking lots at Northlands and WEM during the day? Why do we need parking lots to be empty downtown during the evenings? Why not use the same parking lots?

    And the same sidewalks?

    And the same food service?

    And the same shops?

    And the same roads and rails and toilets and everything else?

    The current divide between the “Evening Edmonton”, the “Night Edmonton” and the “9 to 5 Edmonton” is precisely why this city doesn’t have any focus at all.

    2.
    Another perspective of the same elephant which I voiced was that if we could only get back what downtown had between 1910 and 1920 I could be satisfied with our own generations’ place in our own City’s history.

    For clarity, what downtown had in the 19teens that I want back:

    – a downtown arena/convention hall (The Thistle Rink, which hosted the Provincial Legislative Assembly before the Legislature was constructed, among other non-ice gatherings)
    – an urban rail hub connecting all parts of the City (streetcars)
    – Interurban transportation access (CP Rail to Calgary, CN to Winnipeg and Vancouver)
    – 3 Grand theatres (“grand”meaning over 1,000 seats, i.e., The Capitol (nee Allen), The Strand (nee Pantages), and the 1,700 seat New Empire Theatre.
    – Around 20,000 units of housing (I estimate)
    – All the shops, restaurants, and hotels it took to fill in the gaps

    I apologise if that’s myopic to you, but if you really want, well whatever.

    3.
    I think where you might get the impression of myopia is that it was also discussed at the time that obviously the arena was going to be the toughest battle politically. (Although it has paled in comparison to the airport thing – some of the airport’s supporters have even become the most “dedicated” arena foes just out of spite.)

    Yet things proceed on the whole vision, and unsurprisingly the arena has been the bow of the icebreaker, while:

    – EDACC
    – NLRT
    – SELRT
    – Enterprise Square Gallery
    – Jasper Ave renos
    – 108 Street renos
    – LED streetlighting
    – The Walterdale Bridge
    – The Quarters Hotel Demolitions
    – tall condo approvals
    – at least 4 new downtown parks
    – MacEwan University downtown consolidation
    – NorQuest College downtown consolidation
    – and the new RAM

    follow practically unharmed in its political wake.

    Make no mistake, any of the above list would have been their own needless political battle from the people content to watch Edmonton decline (they opposed the stainless steel ashtrays on posts, for crying out loud), had they not chosen to focus on the arena. But on whichever of those projects those defeatists put their energy I would just as quickly counter.

    I assure you Alex, for whatever my assurance may be worth to you, the heart of the “arena propping” has never simply been about an arena

    It’s merely the tallest lightnening rod in town.

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