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.

History Repeats: An Edmonton Case Study

That history repeats itself is a well-worn truism. Born by both anecdotes and theory, most students of history or society see trends and activities re-emerge and repeat over time.

I’ve been thinking about this as I follow debates on downtown revitalization and other issues in Edmonton. My thinking in recent months has been heavily influenced by Colin Woodward’s book American Nations, which relies heavily on the idea that the founding culture remains constant and dominant over time. That is to say, rather than forcing it to change to their own norms, outsiders tend to conform to the culture instead. Other ideas like Howe and Strauss’ generational theory lend credence to the idea that things stay constant, and tend to repeat themselves in cycles.

I’ve spend some time looking through Google Archive at Edmonton’s old news coverage, and this seems to hold true. Similar themes, ideas, and approaches reoccur. In particular, this comes into play with civic arenas and downtown revitalization. The Omniplex, which dominated Edmonton discourse for close to a decade in the ’60s and ’70s. Last year, Mack wrote a great post that touched on some of the arguments used then that are similar to ones used now.

The Omniplex was touted as a unique project for Edmonton, and its defeat, of course, hurt its chances of landing an NHL team.

Like now, proponents toured what were considered the model sites across North America at the time.

Business and citizen groups treated it as imperative for Edmonton, saying it “would put Edmonton on the map as THE outstanding city in Western Canada” (we have since raised our ambitions to be iconic and world-class, not just best in the west).

Of course, while City Hall touted downtown, the Edmonton Exhibition (Northlands) played coy, noting its support for the project, but constantly reminding people that the Northlands grounds could be a home for it as well.

Eventually, when Omniplex plans fell apart, the Exhibition swept in with a sensible, real plan, which is what will probably happen if the downtown arena doesn’t go ahead this time.

Just like now, pro-arena columnists then were also prone to hyperbole. Of course, Wayne Overland went further, when touting the city’s support for the Commonwealth Games long after the Omniplex defeat, writing:

Naturally in other cities they asked: “How could you good people vote down a good proposal like Omniplex?”

Sound like an argument that would be used against arena critics today?

The similarities continue. People were surprised when the Katz Group requested that the City agree to move into new office space in the arena district before it goes ahead. This, however, is not unprecedented. Construction of the CN Tower went ahead on the condition that the City lease space, and the developers of Eaton Centre made a similar request using this precedent (I don’t believe that tower went ahead). That this happened at the expense of existing buildings (probably the old Civic Block on old Market Square) seemed as inconsequential then as discussion about what would happen to Chancery Hall, Century Place, or whichever building(s) the city would vacate for its new space does now.

Of course, downtown revitalization plans are at least 50 years old. Back then, unique was the operative term, not ‘once in a generation‘:

Given that these stories pick up again in the 1980s, I’m going to assume the planned revitalization didn’t go as planned. Maybe the levy of new development didn’t have its intended effect:

Aside from the arena, recent years saw Edmonton’s civic leaders push for Expo 2017 as a way of boosting the city’s image. This wasn’t the first time either. Nordex 73, a World’s Fair specific to northern cities, was targeted for the early 1970s, and projected 11,000,000 visitors over 6 months. This fair also would have brought untold riches to the local economy:

Civic leaders also saw a way of tying together Omniplex and Expo support from the federal government:

This was far from the only ask. Back then, civic leaders pushed for more funding for rapid transit and infrastructure from other orders of government. 40 years later, the problem still remains unsolved.

One final thing. In August, EEDC and Travel Alberta teamed up to fly The Bachelorette to Edmonton for a weekend. It was justified under the auspices of the incredible value its earned media represents. Original, right?

In the 1980s, enterprising Edmontonians looked to promote the city through game shows (the reality TV shows of the time), using many of the same arguments

These are only a few examples, and of course, this cycle of repetition is not limited to Edmonton, but this does give us a window into the approach and mindset of the city, and what we might expect to come up again in the future.

Edmonton’s Arena Will Likely Happen, But Would it be a Bad Thing if it Didn’t?

Edmonton Arena District Open House
Flickr/Mastermaq

The proposed downtown Edmonton hockey arena took a hit today. City Council discussed the matter in private, and its motion ex-camera reveals that Oilers owner Daryl Katz asked for more public funding. It’s unknown at this point whether that would have come in the form of an increase to the $450 million budget, a decrease of his $100 million contribution over 30 years, or both.
David Staples has details on the requested changes.

In any case, this is a setback to getting the project, which has dominated discourse about how to revitalize Edmonton for six years (except for the Expo 2017 diversion), completed. I still think it will go ahead. The money will be found either from the province (likely at the expense of other public works for Edmonton), a reduction in the overall budget (perhaps combined with a commensurate increase in ticket taxes or city contribution), or through some additional surcharge or levy should the proposed City Charter give Edmonton the authority to do so. If nothing else, should Calgary move ahead with plans for a new arena, I can envision enough combined pressure from the two municipalities to forge a deal for provincial support. So, while today’s news is a setback for arena advocates, it remains to be seen whether this affects timelines by six weeks, six months, or six years.

All of the above is irrespective of whether or not the arena would actually be a good move. I’m with the economists, who agree that there’s no net economic benefit. I worry about the inherent risks that The Atlantic and many others have written about. And I’m with Jane Jacobs on the idea that mega projects are not the way to revitalize neighborhoods. If one is to be built, it shouldn’t be done so under the auspices of revitalization.

Future Development
“Future Development” near Nationals Park in Washington, taken four years after the project broke ground.

Anyway, back to the present. Nearly six years after the idea was first raised, it’s never been less than $100 million short in funding, and is an unknown amount more at the moment.

What I will continue to give the arena credit for is boosting investor confidence in downtown, but this could be achieved in many ways. As for the economic claims, the next major boosts to downtown’s employment are likely come either from further growth in the energy sector (which will happen whether the arena is downtown, at Northlands, or in Spruce Grove) or from new companies and emerging industries being incubated at places like Startup Edmonton. Further increases in services and amenities are best supported by getting more people to live in the area, rather than visiting on occasion.

Finally, for all the talk about it being necessary for Edmonton’s quality of life, let’s remember that the initial exploratory phase came out of discussions between the City, the Oilers, and Northlands, not a citizens’ push. If it was essential, one might wonder why it didn’t come up in the early stages of the downtown plan’s development, or that the Next Gen report and initiative, launched in 2006, didn’t flag it as a key concern. While the report isn’t online, my recollection is that the cities it looked at as case studies were college towns like Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin – neither of which has a franchise in the big four sports leagues – as well as Phoenix, Arizona, whose hockey team in suburban Glendale…um…probably isn’t the example arena proponents want to use.

So, if the project got delayed, downtown would see its investor confidence shaken in the short term, but creative organizations and entrepreneurs would find a way to forge ahead. And as I said on Twitter, imagine if key decision-makers devoted even a fraction of their efforts that have gone into this project into supporting small-scale ventures that could yield big results (I put forward some ideas here).

Market
The City Centre Market, small-scale revitalization that works.

Finally, remember these two things. Edmonton has often suffered when it’s chased after the latest trend, and some of the best things Edmonton has to offer came about because of decisions that bucked prevailing trends. A few examples in each.

Where Edmonton Has Failed in Chasing the Latest Trend

– By embracing the trendy shopping power centres of the late 1990s and 2000s (while other cities were moving to more compact developments), the city accelerated it’s decentralization and car-orientation at a period of significant growth. It took years and several iterations of these developments to start to see even some elements of mixed-use incorporated.
– In its zeal to embrace latest trends, much of its built history has been erased. It happened to the Edwardian buildings that first dotted its city centre, and now its happening to post-war Modernist gems, which will probably be fashionable again and missed by the next generation. Just one example of the former. The Greyhound depot on 103 St, slated to be replaced in the arena district development, itself replaced a 1920s 8-storey warehouse 30 years ago. The demolished Marshall Wells building, of which Edmonton lost many contemporaries, is precisely the type of space that is coveted in Edmonton (think a larger Mercer Building), and has contributed to urban revitalization across Canada and the United States.
– No discussion about massive downtown Edmonton redevelopment projects would be complete without this story on the history of the Eaton Centre development.

Where Edmonton has Succeeded by Bucking the trend
– It is a global leader in waste management, having embraced curbside recycling and other measures years – if not decades – ahead of many similar municipalities.
– It’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) system is still advanced compared to many similarly-sized cities, in large part because it had the foresight to embrace the technology in the early 1970s, decades before others. It was the first metro of less than 1,000,000 residents to build a line.
– Finally, and most importantly, let’s remember how close Edmonton came to embracing the rampant freeway trend of the 1950s and ’60s. Had the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study been implemented, it would have paved over much of its treasured River Valley, including MacKinnon and Mill Creek Ravines.

As I said at the outset, I still believe the arena will go ahead. But with the evidence and history at our disposal, are we sure it would be a bad thing if it didn’t?

Jasper Ave Blues: Downtown’s Heart is Already Alive and Beating

Edmontonians were abuzz earlier this week when new images of the proposed downtown arena were first released, leaked by Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples, then officially posted by the City of Edmonton.


Overhead shot of proposed new arena and adjacent office tower to the south (City of Edmonton)

Initial reaction to the design was largely positive; I include myself in that group. If nothing else, it exceeded my expectations. Writing about it in the Journal the next day, David Staples called it ‘a sleek, futuristic heart transplant to pump some life into our downtown.’ A critic might call this hyperbole, but at the very least I believe we owe David the right to take some poetic license with his words. Nonetheless, the message behind it points to the thinking and motivation of many arena advocates, and why many – including myself – have been critical. It highlights two different visions – if not inherently opposed, then often conflicting – of how to build a vibrant downtown. One is a big-scale, big-project, top-down approach. The other is grassroots, supporting a series of small, incremental steps that – together – create a large cumulative impact.

“the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like”.

– Jane Jacobs, ‘Downtown is for People

If we examine downtown Edmonton through this lens, we see that the most successful endeavors are coming not from the top down, but from the ground up. Churchill Square struggles to create vibrancy; City Centre Mall turns it back to the community. Meanwhile, new condos are in high demand, 4th Street is booming, and you can’t get a table at Corso32.

Jacobs’ article points to the value of people – both as intuitive judges of what makes a downtown work, and – in my mind – the ones who truly bring value to downtown. I believe the heartbeat of any successful community is its people. People drive business growth, they drive good government and civic institutions. They drive activity, and create places other people want to be. By this metric, downtown Edmonton’s heart is alive and beating.

This is evident in downtown residents like Mack Male and Sharon Yeo, who are bringing activity to the area with events like What the Truck? and Blink Edmonton. In entrepreneurs like the Start Up Edmonton group and my friend Justin Archer (and the rest of Unit B) who are creating vibrant new work spaces in older buildings, and the many other business owners bringing life to downtown with new restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and retail locations. It’s evident in the hard work of the Downtown Edmonton Community League and the 4th Street Promenade Steering Committee. It’s demonstrated by the commitment of civic institutions like the Edmonton Public Library, who are building a downtown more inclusive of the most marginalized citizens through its new outreach office, and Edmonton Police Services, with its efforts to assist vulnerable persons through its downtown division.

To use the heart transplant metaphor, both sides of this debate can agree that the patient – downtown – needs rehabilitation. One side would argue that only a major transplant – a dramatic gesture in spite of all other courses of action – can bring it back to health. The other would point out that incremental steps and changes over time have already made a difference. The transplant is an option, but it’s by no means a guarantee for success, and the process comes with inherent risks (including failure). The incremental approach will take longer, but is ultimately the more prudent course.

I’m firmly on the side of an incremental approach. I believe people are already voting with their feet for what kind of downtown they want.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, life is a series of successful gestures, so too is a vibrant community. We don’t need a transplant. We need to recognize, celebrate, and support the things that are making a difference. The sooner we recognize that downtown’s heart is alive and beating in the citizens investing in making it a better and better place, and start focusing on supporting and scaling up the things that are giving it more and more life, the sooner we’ll achieve the downtown we all want for our city.

Downtown Development Can and Should Happen, With or Without a CRL

On Wednesday, Edmonton City Council will review the latest report on a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) to support building a downtown arena. The scope of this has grown, though, as no longer is a CRL just suggested to support the arena, rather a CRL encompassing the entire downtown is suggested – which would fund the arena, associated infrastructure, and a host of catalyst projects throughout downtown.

As reports tend to do, this one paints a rosy picture of the future should a CRL be implemented. New hotels will pop up. Land values will soar. Downtown will flourish. I think the Capital City Downtown Plan has many good ideas contained within, and I’m a supporter of a strong, vibrant city centre (I live in Oliver – close to downtown’s west boundary, and support many business and amenities here, and throughout downtown and the Old Strathcona/Garneau area). That said, I have a mixed reaction to the CRL Report.

First of all, it continues to infer that a CRL is new tax money. Copper and Blue does a good job of debunking that. Still not convinced, here’s another thorough explanation of a CRL. On a related note, the idea that a CRL is needed to spur investment in downtown bothers me. There’s nothing stopping City Council – nor has there ever been – from directing investment towards downtown. The report notes that capital infrastructure investment in downtown has fallen 39% since 2002. Few would argue that there haven’t been worthwhile projects Council could have been funding downtown in that time. Were Council’s hands tied in doing anything about this? Investment in downtown is a good thing; it should be happening with or without a CRL, and it should have been happening all along.

There are positives, as noted, in the report. Based on my last post about downtown investment, readers can correctly assume that I’m happy to see promised investment in new housing units, a park for the warehouse district, and dedicated bikeways. I’m a strong proponent of investing in things that improve the quality of life for residents on a day-to-day basis. This will produce more return than occasionally-used facilities. These three things, and the park/gathering place in the McKay area, all enhance the quality of life for residents, and make it more attractive to live and spend time downtown.

City Centre Market
A busy Saturday at the market on 104th Street.

On a concerning note, while the $45 million CRL number has been touted as the cost for the arena, there’s an additional (estimated) $52 million cost for the “arena area”, ranging from pedways to land purchase. This number should be included when we’re discussing Edmonton’s investment in a potential new arena.

Beyond this, I just have questions. Some of the things that stood out:

– Funding for the bikeway initiative is only preliminary, and offers no guarantee of future funding to complete the project.
– There’s an assumed 1000 stall parkade in the arena area. Weren’t downtown arena proponents at one point saying there wouldn’t be a need for a big parkade because of the number of stalls within a 10 minute walk of the proposed site? 1000 stall parkades (unless all underground) tend not to contribute positively to a pedestrian-friendly, street-oriented development.
– The assumptions of office, hotel, and even residential growth seem rosy, and there’s no mention of where this assumed market demand for office and hotel space is coming from.
– Attachment 4 (the last page of the PDF) outlines a potential timeline. Mentioned, in an almost off-hand way, is how development of the CRL regulation has taken 2 or more years in other cases. This, and final approval, need to come from the province, which is not guaranteed (they did approve a CRL for the Quarters, though). Looking at the timeline, this can easily turn into a multi-year process before it’s in place.

That last point concerns me the most. Downtown investment and continued redevelopment should happen with or without a CRL. Just like waiting for resolution on the arena issue puts the north edge (the proposed site) in a holding pattern, so too could pursuit of the CRL for downtown as a whole. Downtown has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 10-15 years. With or without an arena or CRL, I’m convinced new businesses will open, new amenities and activities will draw residents downtown. I worry that on a macro level, though, waiting for approval that may or may not come in a timely manner (if at all), could work against downtown redevelopment, stalling increased investment in the area.