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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?

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Jasper Ave Blues: What Does $5 Billion Get You These Days?

In Edmonton, the Downtown Business Association released a new report about potential downtown investment. It outlines 36 projects that are approved, proposed, or rumoured to be occurring downtown or in the adjacent Quarters area. Most readers will recognize that not all of these will go ahead – some will be shelved indefinitely, if not permanently and some will be scaled back. Yet, it paints a picture of what downtown might become, maybe not in 5 years (as the report suggests), but perhaps in 15-20.

I’ve grouped the probable, proposed, and rumoured projects into five categories: Commercial (office, retail, service), Residential, Major Facilities, Infrastructure, Public Space:

Commercial
This is the most problematic section. It proposes nearly 3.9 million square feet in commercial space (office, retail, and service), which seems…really high. For example, a City-commissioned report from 2009 anticipated that downtown would need an additional 3 million square feet in 2044, using baseline growth projections. In an alternative, and more positive, scenario, it projects demand to be about 4.5 million by 2044. All these projects going ahead would mean more than 85% of that would be available 5 years from now. This doesn’t add up, especially when – as our Mayor correctly points out – many businesses still don’t want to locate downtown.

(Update: DECL President Chris Buyze is more bullish on the commercial real estate market than I am. At this point, we have to agree to disagree, but he provided this Colliers report in support of greater growth).

Residential
In total, it proposes 2284 units, in addition to however many the Warehouse Incentive Program would contribute towards. Using the $10,000 per unit number from the Capital City Downtown Plan, that would mean an additional 1200 units for a total of 3484, which could translate to more than 5000 additional residents in five years (assuming roughly 1.5 residents per unit). Given that downtown grew roughly 130% in 15 years, growth of close to 40% in 5 years isn’t completely implausible. Note too that the region’s population grew by 124,924 residents from 2006 to 2011, and you can see demand for housing continuing to grow so long as the economy performs well.

Yet, the biggest threat to residential development downtown probably comes from its neighbours. Projects in Oliver continue to move ahead, drawing from much of the same pool of potential residents. Development on the City Centre Airport lands is also likely to start, providing further competition. For development in all three areas to go ahead as planned in the short term, Edmonton likely needs a huge economic boom, or a meaningful reversal of growth in the suburbs.

(Update: Buyze says the 10K grant isn’t happening. Not sure what the money will be spent on, but I can’t see this positively impacting my unit projections).

Major Facilities
The arena will go ahead, as will the Royal Alberta Museum. Based on estimated attendance, let’s say the arena will bring roughly 1,800,000 visitors; based on data from the early 2000s and accounting for growth, let’s give RAM 260,000 (if you think those are impressive, downtown Edmonton’s workforce would account for between 14,000,000 and 15,000,000 just by going to work regularly). In any case, all sorts of caveats apply when considering impact, such as that many attendees will go straight from the train or bus or their car to the venue and back, and many who do go out before or after an event already do so in the downtown area. The rest of the venues are still too much in the project phase to project well.

Infrastructure
The changes to Jasper Ave and completion of Capital Boulevard will help with beautification. The proposed enhancements are all welcome, though dependent on CRL revenue, which wouldn’t begin to be collected until at least 2015 – assuming the arena goes ahead that year and ancillary taxable development is build at the same time.

Public Space
What I said about the proposed infrastructure projects applies here as well.

What It Means for Downtown
All these projects added up provide a window into a possible future for downtown. Yet, it’s by no means assured, and not the only possibility. Many of these plans are just that – plans, with no money attached. Others are just ideas at this point. It’s likely that civic plans will once again be updated before all of these projects (or replacements) go ahead, meaning priorities may shift, if the market hasn’t led a shift already.

Citizens have to think about what kind of downtown they want, and whether what’s being proposed meets that vision. In particular, because it’s estimated that at least $2 billion of this investment (including $1.5 billion of what’s probable) will come from public funds.

For me, I see many projects I like in the report (additional residences, parks, cycling and walking infrastructure). But I also see things that are missing, such as no mention of the LRT (the downtown portion connecting the West and Southeast legs of the unfunded new line).

I will continue to hammer the point about opportunity cost, and it needs to be said again here. In particular when dealing with the public investment side, we need to consider what the money can best be spent on in order to achieve the social, financial, and development returns we hope for. I hope citizens keep that in mind when reading this report and others like it.

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.

Jasper Ave Blues: Bright Lights on 4th

For all the talk about the challenges facing downtown Edmonton, few would dispute that there are success stories. 104th St – being rechristened 4th Street Promenade – is my pick for the biggest one. With two announcements about new tenants in the past two days, things keep looking up.

Scaffold
Workers take a break from renovating the Jaffer Building on Jasper and 104th that will soon house a 7-11 and whiskey bar.

First, it was announced yesterday that the historic Mercer Building will be renovated. Reopening this spring, it will house a tavern, coffee bar, and high-end furniture rental company. A day later, the owners of an under renovation building announced that a 7-11 and to be announced whiskey bar will be moving in.

3 blocks apart, they bookend the revitalized stretch of 104th St (further to the south, the McKay School district feels like a separate entity). The Mercer Building is across the street from MacEwan University, and the proposed future home of Edmonton’s new hockey arena). The Square 104 apartments across the street, and the new Quest condo tower one block to the west should help provide a local consumer base. The Jasper Ave project promises to add another high-end bar to the blossoming pub/restaurant scene in the area.

Astute readers will note that both developers cite the downtown arena as a reason for going ahead. While I remain skeptical about the value proposition from a public investment perspective, and think it could yield more return on investment in other ways, I am thrilled that it’s prospect appears to be boosting investor confidence in downtown.

Oddly, though, I’m most encouraged by the 7-11. One of the risks inherent in revitalization is a theme park-ization of the urban core. That is to say, the development of attractions that draw visitors, but don’t build a permanent base of residents. Arenas, concert halls, restaurants, and bars can all contribute when done well, but if everyone leaves after the encore or last call, you’re not building a neighbourhood so much as a destination – and successful downtown have to be both.

Mundane as it sounds, I see a new 7-11 as a sign that there’s a permanent population that justifies its creation (many new residences have been created on or around 104th). We want our neighbourhoods to have fancy bars and restaurants, but if they’re to be truly livable, they also need convenience stores and dry cleaners.

This week’s announcements make me think that, at least along this stretch of downtown, we’re making progress on both fronts.

Jasper Ave Blues: A Preamble

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Over the next…indeterminate period of time, I’ll be undertaking a series of posts about Downtown Edmonton. Readers will have surely noticed my interest in cities and urban environments. The urban core – in particular its downtown – is at the heart of any successful city/region.

I spend most of my time right now downtown and nearby. I work downtown, and live three blocks west of its technical boundary. When I’m home, I’m downtown at least 6 days of the week – every work day, plus at least one day on the weekend, whether it’s working out at the Y, going to a concert at Starlite or the Winspear, having dinner or drinks with friends, or of course, the market on Saturday mornings in the summer.

On the bright side, interest in downtown’s future and well-being is the highest in the decade I’ve closely followed Edmonton civic affairs. On the media front, CBC AM is in the middle of a series called Downtown at a Crossroads, and several Edmonton Journal writers (particularly David Staples) have focused heavily on downtown. City Council, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce are all active champions. The Downtown Community League is doing excellent work, and I see a real pride among many citizens in what’s happening. On the downside, interest doesn’t automatically lead to progress. Done poorly, it could end up having an adverse effect, and there’s also a danger that boosterism and the desire to see something – anything – happen, may override due process and judgement on what is truly beneficial. This series will be my contribution to the discussion, analyzing downtown’s current state, proposals for new ideas that come forward, and putting forward my own ideas about what can make our downtown even better. I hope others will respond, engage, and contribute.

The title of this series might imply a strictly negative view of downtown in its current state. Nothing could be further from the truth (I just liked the title, thought it was catchy, and don’t have any better ideas right now). While our downtown isn’t the best, or maybe even in the top 10 downtowns I’ve visited in the past few years (to be fair to Edmonton, I’ve been to a lot of cities in that time), there are a lot of positive things happening. Edmonton’s downtown has made tremendous strides in the 15 years or so that my memory extends back. New residences are popping up, ranging from the higher-end Icon Towers to the Mayfair Village affordable housing development. 104th Street has exploded, boasting a roster of coffee shops, wine bars, restaurants, and shops that rivals High Street or Whyte Ave – in quality if not in quantity. Nothing beats spending a Saturday morning during the summer at the outdoor market on 104th. A couple of years ago, none of Moriarty’s, Tres Carnales, Corso32, or Pampa existed. Now, we have a strong restaurant scene downtown. Our downtown would be virtually unrecognizable (in a good way) to someone who left two decades ago and had yet to come back.

Anecdotally, the strongest point for downtown I can say is this. When I moved back to Edmonton 6 years ago and for a while afterwards, I couldn’t imagine I would choose to live downtown over other areas in the city. When I last moved just under 2 years ago, the downtown area was by far my preferred area to end up. That’s somewhat due to having worked downtown for the past 5 1/2 years, and having gotten to know the area better. But mostly it’s because of the improvement I’ve seen in that time. But our downtown can still be so much more. This series is one way I’m aiming to help make that a reality.

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.