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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

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).

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: 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:

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).

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.

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: Small Investments, Big Returns

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably gathered that – while not inherently opposed to mega-projects – I am often skeptical of their value and actual vs. promised benefits. I tend to think that smaller, more creative investments can often yield greater returns. Having seen successful catalyst/anchor tenant projects in other cities, I think the key is for them to be built in scale with the surrounding environment, rather than overwhelming it. But I also believe, as I said, there are creative, cost-effective ways to improve the livability of an area as well. If you think of Whyte Avenue, High Street, and 4th Street Promenade – to my mind Edmonton’s three most successful examples of (re)development in the city core, you’d be hard pressed to name an anchor tenant or single driving project for any of the three. Rather, the sum product of various small(er) businesses and amenities is what makes each area so great.

Andy’s suggestion of chess parks in Edmonton got me thinking about such small investments. There are examples, both permanent and temporary, in downtown Edmonton of such small investments, and creative use of space. The Alley of Light, and the upcoming Blink pedway pop-up restaurant event come to mind.

Pocket Parks, and Target Activities in Parks
Having evolved, and been built (and rebuilt) over decades, not everything downtown fits into neat lines or parcels. That means that there are going to be underused spaces, or properties that don’t fit an obvious, conventional use. The aforementioned Alley of Light is one example of turning a dead space into something functional, and this can be built on.

Pocket parks are one way to fill this void. The 7th and Penn Parklet in downtown Pittsburgh is one of my favourite examples (it was created after demolishing an adult bookstore).

7th & Penn Parklet

As the Parklet, with its focus on public art, shows, there also need to be things that will get people outside and using them. My observation is that unless there is a specific event happening, most of downtown Edmonton’s parks go unused even on nice days. Why not try putting chess boards, or a bocce ball court, or something that will make them stand out and draw people in? The basketball hoops that go up in Churchill Square every summer are a good example of where this is already being done. Twitter exchanges with Andy and others quickly identified the following possibilities for a chess park downtown: the area behind Milner Library, the space just north of Scotia Tower, Beaver Hills Park on 105th and Jasper, along Rice Howard Way adjacent to patios. And that’s just off the top of our heads. There are numerous creative things we can do with public space that will encourage more use, and pedestrian traffic, in good and bad weather.

Art in Unexpected Places
Murals and statues are popular forms of art, but I enjoy seeing art in other places and forms, in particular when it transforms something that’s otherwise mundane.

Power and Colour

Throughout downtown Victoria, many of the power boxes are painted, bringing colour and life to otherwise unremarkable (aesthetically-speaking) objects.

Flora in Creative Places
Like with art, this is a way to bring character, and colour, to a street or building. A couple of my favourite examples:


The plants growing on this building in Boston (somewhere between Newbury Street and Storrow Drive) make it stand out amongst a row of identical brick buildings.


The potted plants along the edge of the parkade (background) add life to an otherwise sterile building in Chicago’s Loop.

Heat and Fire to Extend the Patio Season
It amazes me how little Edmonton businesses do to extend patio season. While only the heartiest Edmontonians (probably not enough to create a value proposition for business owners) would use a patio in -20 weather, I think a combination of heating, warm clothes, and alcohol to warm the blood would make patios a viable proposition when it’s around freezing, if not even a bit colder.

Cadillac Ranch
This patio at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant in downtown Cleveland has a fire pit to keep guests warm. This was taken on a November day, when weather (with the wind chill) was probably around freezing.

A couple of examples from San Diego. Yes, San Diego, with average low temperatures of 10 degrees celsius.


The heat lamps above each table at Fred’s Mexican Cafe on 5th make the patios hospitable late into the night, and allow guests the option of whether or not they want to use them.


Davanti in Little Italy not only has outdoor heaters for its back patio, but the patio itself is a creative use of space. They expanded and took over the back alley in order to add this section.

It just stuns me that they do this effectively in San Diego, yet neither business owners nor consumers are promoting this in Edmonton.

Improving the livability of downtown, and making it more interesting and amenable to spend time in (especially along the street) is a key, cost-effective way to make downtown a more interesting place to be. I noted some initiatives already underway, and I hope we continue to build on them, and pursue other initiatives of this type to improve our downtown.

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.

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.

Thoughts On the Great LRT Debate

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban development. Not just because it’s one of my main interests (and has been for a good decade and a half), as well as a key function of my day job, but because of the debate surrounding one of the biggest issues facing Edmonton – LRT routes.

On Friday, City Council is slated to make a decision on alignments for the Southeast and West legs of the LRT network, complementing the existing and planned lines to reach other parts of the city. The Southeast leg appears to be heading for approval with little dissent; the west, on the other hand, elicits strong feelings from many parties.

The route following Stony Plain Road is the recommended one, but previously considered routes along 107th Ave or 87th Ave could be brought back for consideration. There are points in favour and against all three options, and their projected ridership is all in the same range. In the end, it comes down to which of the three options is most amenable to your goals for the city. The planners did their job on the issue; it’s now up to the public officials to make the ultimate decision.

That being said, the debate amongst the public has missed some key issues, in my mind. Leaving aside the hyperbole on both sides, I’ve been surprised by how many people treat as self-evident some notions – particularly the idea that light rail will automatically spur a lot of redevelopment, and that it is an economic driver (the fact that the land development opportunities evaluated for this process is based largely on projects already approved or going through the application process also isn’t well understood). I’m going to give that idea a cursory examination.

The O-Train
The O-Train at the Bayview station near downtown Ottawa.

I am a strong proponent of light rail and of a well-designed urban form, but as with every issue, I think the most important thing is that it’s done properly, and that an informed as possible decision is made. This is especially true with light rail, since it’s a pretty much irreversible decision. It’s not easy to pick up the tracks and move them 5 or 10 blocks if you realize you made the wrong decision.

Here follows my contribution to the debate.

Does LRT Contribute to Redevelopment?
There are many instances where light rail has contributed to redevelopment; it certainly appears to be a better use of public funds than sports arenas or any number of other mega-projects. But there are also cases where the investment hasn’t followed, leading one to believe that light rail is not a sufficient condition.

For example, this forthcoming study on light rail in the Phoenix area shows that that region saw property values around light rail stations increase when the areas were rezoned to allow for greater density. Property around stations that saw no rezoning didn’t increase – around one station property values actually decreased.

Second, and most importantly, looking purely at the impact of light rail ignores the fact that some development likely would have occurred even in the absence of light rail. For example, in Dallas, property values for commercial property around light rail stations have risen 24%; for residential properties the increase is 32% this decade. However, city-wide, property values went up 11% and 19%, respectively, in areas not served by light rail. Minneapolis constructed a new light rail line at the beginning of this decade. Between 2000 and 2004 (when it opened), property values around the new stops rose 83%; the city-wide average for that time frame was 61% (stats from the report found here). Now, there could be other factors driving the difference as well. For example, it’s possible that light rail was built in areas that are desirable for other reasons, or that other desirable amenities (good schools, appealing public spaces, etc.) are also now present. But light rail is certainly a factor.

What I wonder is whether development spurred by light rail would have largely occurred anyways, perhaps in other areas of the region. This becomes germane when we consider Edmonton’s situation. There are already revitalization efforts underway in The Quarters, Alberta Avenue, and the Fort Road area, to name three. Is Transit-Oriented Development in the west going to attract development that would not have happened otherwise in Edmonton, or is it simply attracting development that would likely occur elsewhere in the city (and making it on average 20% more valuable than it would otherwise be)? When looking at the economics, let’s also remember that light rail comes at a significant capital cost as well; the operating costs, however, can be lower if it’s popular and widely-used.

What is undeniable is that light rail is a city shaper. Done properly, it can affect where development dollars flow and alter the built form.

Transit Mall
The MAX Light Rail stops by Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.

What Gets Built Matters

This ties in to my penultimate point from the previous section. The development that comes with light rail has to be the type of development there is a market for. Ideally, to my mind, it would be an under-served market. As I alluded to before, there are several areas making a push in the multi-unit market targeting empty nesters. In addition to Fort Road and the Quarters, downtown still has a good amount of vacant and underutilized land, Century Park is still being built, and there are an assortment of condo and high-rise projects in the works throughout the city.

I think supply has shaped Edmonton’s development patterns as much as anything, but I also think there’s a limited demand for 1-2 bedroom condos. Most people, if they have a family, want a space amenable to children. Many empty-nesters want single-family homes as well. Unfortunately, we tend to build the former in older neighbourhoods and in redevelopment projects. If we continue to, families are going to either look elsewhere to live, or suck it up and live in a low-density, outlying area where they can actually get family-friendly housing. Family-friendly housing would also be in concord with the goals of many of the communities that will be served by LRT – west end communities along Stony Plain Road are concerned with preserving their schools, and in attracting families. Development in this area should largely respect this.

Other Factors Matter
Travel time on transit obviously matters a lot, and affects the success of a station and any related project. This report makes a compelling argument for the importance of linking destinations in planning light rail. Zoning and the development permit process are also critical. I mentioned the example of Phoenix, where zoning affected the change in land values. The development process also matters a lot. What can be built, and how easily it can be accomplished, drives what ends up being built. As do other amenities in the area. Expecting that running a light rail line through an area will automatically produce benefits is a mistake.

Thoughts On West Jasper and Stony Plain Road

About a month and a half ago, Dave and I went out to Stony Plain Road to take a look at the area prime for revitalization. There are already plans and actions in the works. The area has been designated a business revitalization zone, and a full revitalization strategy has been developed. You can see some progress already – the block between 150th-151st St is improving. The south side features a noted Portugese bakery and Revolution Cycle. The north side features new tenants such as Derks Formal Menswear, The Haven Social Club, and the United Way. There is also a cluster of sex shops, but progress doesn’t happen overnight. As you move west from there, you start to see more pawn shops and payday loans stores.

Stony Plain Road
New tenants such as the United Way have moved in on Stony Plain Road between 150th-151st St.

You can see my photos from the trip here. Walking around the area, it struck me that transit service was one of the smaller concerns. The revitalization strategy seems to back this up. Residents are more concerned with safety, businesses appropriate for the community vision, and

My impressions are pretty straightforward:

– The most crucial challenge is developing an identity for West Jasper/Stony Plain Road. Successful areas have an identity, whether it’s through their design and architecture, residents, activities, or some combination thereof. The identity of the West Jasper area doesn’t really come through. As an example, Alberta Avenue is making strides by tying in with the arts community. Where is Stony Plain’s story going to come from?

– There are some design challenges that aren’t easily fixed. For example, 100th Ave effectively cuts off the neighbourhoods south of the area from the main commercial strip. The communities north of the strip lack connectivity, both with Stony Plain Road (the two areas feel disconnected), and internally, you continually run into dead ends trying to navigate it.

– There is little brownfield space. We’re not talking about redeveloping empty space (ie. Century Park). Most of the area is already occupied. Some of it is underused, and some of it is used by businesses the residents would rather drive out. The piecemeal ownership of the area makes it more challenging to coordinate development and to execute an overarching strategy.

That being said, there is progress being made, and any critiques I make are not intended to slight the efforts of residents and businesses to improve their community. But I still believe that LRT won’t be a magic elixir, nor is transit service the biggest challenge for the area.

Gentrification, or Uplifting of the Whole?
With all the talk of LRT (or anything) as a redevelopment tool, what gets lost sometimes is what happens to the residents if redevelopment is successful? Do they benefit from rising property values, or are they pushed out of the neighbourhood? And what happens if they don’t gain? It’s unlikely that redevelopment will help address the root causes that drive crime – addiction, poverty, to name two. What’s more likely is that these residents are going to be displaced to another area in the city. If West Jasper revitalization is successful, if it doesn’t help give the current at-risk residents a hand up, they’re going to be the at-risk residents at the centre of another area’s revitalization effort 10 years later. Revitalization is good, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease our obligation to address social problems and provide services.

In the End, the Economy Matters
Many of the land development opportunities identified for Edmonton’s proposed LRT corridors are projects where zoning has already been approved (the Strathearn Heights project for the SE, and the Vision for the Corner for the West, to name two). It’s thought that LRT development will spur projects like this to go ahead. That may be true, but something else will – an economic upturn. Both of these projects were approved in 2008, around the time the economy slowed down. Suddenly, the market for housing (especially condos) wasn’t what it was a couple of years earlier when they started working their way through the development process.

And this gets to the heart of the biggest issue for driving and sustaining development. We need to increase productivity and grow our economy. If we can attract and develop business, that will drive the need for more commercial/office space, and therefore more residential space to house new workers and residents. The goal of attracting business also ties into our development plans. What kind of businesses and residents we (want to) attract affects what we need to build. If we intend to have a young work force (or be a city of retirees), we might want to focus more on multi-unit housing. If we want to attract more families, we need to make sure we’re building housing suitable for their needs (be it single-family or multi-family). Similarly, industrial and oil field service companies, for example, are going to want different types of space (and in different locations) than a bank or law firm, and a start-up tech company may very well want something different than the aforementioned four groups.

As James Carville famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid“.

It’s not as simple as building, and waiting for them to come. We need to make sure we’re building to attract and retain people and businesses, and to continue to grow into the city we want Edmonton to be. Light rail should be a big part of this, and can help shape a city, if not deliver the growth some advocates feel it does. But done right, it will get a city closer to its broader goals and ambitions.