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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