Edmonton’s downtown is being held hostage by the arena

Edmonton’s downtown hasn’t gotten its fair shake when it comes to capital funding over the last decade. There’s now a pretty pie chart that magically appeared to illustrate that (I’m not sure where the data comes from specifically, but it seems more or less accurate to me). I am totally on board with the idea that we should be putting our money where our mouths are. If downtown is so important to Edmonton, and I believe it is, we should be willing to back that up with dollars.

I think it’s fair to say I’m one of the biggest downtown supporters in the city. I talk about it all the time. I’ve organized plenty of events for downtown. I seeded the I <3 YEGDT campaign. I built and operate the website. I work downtown. Sharon and I chose to live downtown and purchased a condo here.

With all of that said, I want to support what the newly formed Downtown Vibrancy Coalition is trying to do, but I’m finding it very difficult to get on board. Here’s what their backgrounder states:

“If we lose the arena – over a missing $55 million – approximately $3 billion in downtown revitalization projects will be shelved or scrapped. The arena represents only one-sixth of the proposed investment. But if the arena fails, Edmonton’s downtown will lose $2 billion of private investment in the related entertainment district – new hotels, office towers, retail shops, clubs – as well as downtown parks, a river valley promenade and Jasper Avenue streetscape enhancements.”

Every single time I read that, I can’t help but think: bullshit. Is downtown important or not?

This all stems from the August 2011 decision to make the proposed arena the centerpiece of the Community Revitalization Levy. I wrote in that post that I was worried we’d be doing more harm than good for downtown by tying the two together. Now, as we’re about the lose the arena, the impact of that decision is becoming clear. We’ve put all of our eggs in one basket, or at least that’s what it looks like.

But I see no reason why downtown revitalization has to die along with the arena. The notion that you need an anchor or catalyst project for a CRL to work is false (as proven by the existence of CRLs for The Quarters and Fort Road). Furthermore, we know that programs like housing incentives work and lead to the outcomes we want. There are ways to ensure downtown gets the funding it deserves with or without a shiny new arena. Why would everything need to be shelved or scrapped?

I would love to see a new arena built downtown, and I do agree that $55 million seems like a surmountable barrier. But I don’t like that MSI funding is being used to help pay for the arena and I really don’t like that our downtown is being held hostage by it.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and of ONEdmonton.

  • Pie charts are deceiving. Okay, all charts can be deceiving .. but pie charts especially. They suggest that they are all encompassing – in this case, that the Capital Budget is the only source of funding relevant. I don’t know if that’s true, but my guess would be no… things are usually not that clear cut.

    I’d also be interested to see a similar pie chart with population. I’m guessing (again, no expert here) that much capital budget is dependant on population and where people live… downtown is one neighbourhood of many, you know? What % of our population lives downtown?

    I agree that “no arena=no revitalization” seems like a very alarmist thing to say. I lived on 104st when the Cecil Hotel was still there. That was only 10 years ago. Lots can happen without a huge anchor project.

    • Even population isn’t so cut and dry. The population of downtown has grown much faster than the rest of the city in recent years, so why not direct funding to an area experiencing rapid growth?

      Lots is ALREADY happening without a huge anchor project, exactly!

      • Nathan Mol

        I would also add that a significant segment of the population either works downtown on a daily basis, or uses the infrastructure, services, and amenities downtown on a disproportionate basis relative to any other neighbourhood.

    • I take a little issue with the logic that we should spend money where people live. Downtown’s are a little different. For one, people work there. But also, if we’re going to build an arena, it’s silly to build it specifically because people live there (arena in Terwillegar anyone? 😉 )
      That being said, more people living in more dense areas downtown can only be a good thing

  • I am also a huge supporter of Downtown Edmonton. I’m not going to call it revitalization because we already have some bustling hot spots no matter their size (Have you been to Remedy on Sunday night at 9 pm?) I prefer to call it development because you’re right, we have something here already, we just need to keep moving forward with it.

    I am exhausted from the Arena being the all encompassing saviour here. Praise be to the Arena! We could build that arena, use it to give the city a make-work project for a few years and then have it die if it’s not properly used, developed, infused with the right businesses. Just like in any other area of the city. People are going to still watch hockey (if our team showed some oomph). People will still go to the big name concerts at Rexall even though the sound is worse than my 1987 Walkman on reverse.

    If we want to get things accomplished, clearly we can’t rely on Federal and Provincial funding. It’s not going to happen no matter how much we tweet to the Premier.

    If the city wants the arena, the city finds a way to get ‘er done. I’m not talking about City Council either. Edmontonians all around. And if you find they just don’t care either way – guess what, if you build it, they still might not come.

    Those that want a 7-day a week downtown open past 4pm will still be here, doing what we can with the funds we have.

  • MC_bot

    If an arena makes or breaks an area then the area around Northlands should be the most vibrant in the city rather than the dump it is. People make areas vibrant, not buildings…buildings can help draw the people…nothing more.

    • True, but Northlands wasn’t ever designed or intended to integrate with it’s neighborhood and community. It’s bordered by big roads and industrial areas (to the North).
      An arena brings the people. The people mean businesses will open and developers will build residential property. Businesses + homes + people = vibrancy. But you do need a catalyst as developers are short-sighted and won’t take a huge (multi-billion dollar) gamble without someone giving them some good odds
      People alone didn’t work at Northlands because Northlands is explicitly designed NOT to allow non-Northlands businesses to open. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I could open a restaurant on Northlands property, and being across the street is useless. But I could totally open a restaurant across the street downtown. Or a block away where people will have to walk past me to go to their hockey game or concert.

    • The current arena DID help to spur development; it’s just that very
      little of that development spilled over into the surrounding residential
      neighbourhoods. Since the rink’s completion in 1974, Northlands built
      the Agricom and then expanded it into what is now the Edmonton Expo
      Centre, it renovated Northlands Park, and also expanded its parking
      capacity by paving over a residential neighbourhood. Northlands also got
      an LRT station when the original line launched in 1978.

  • It’s slightly misleading to say that downtown Edmonton doesn’t get its fair share. Fair share of what?

    According to the 2012 census, the population of Downtown Edmonton was 12,199, which amounts to 1.5% of Edmonton’s 812,201 residents. Yes, due to the significant commercial district downtown the area does generate significant tax revenue, but most people who work downtown pay property taxes for residences elsewhere in the city. The city should spend the most money providing services in areas where people actually live, right?

    Downtown Edmonton has a lot of potential to be much more than it is, and it has improved significantly over the past 10 years. Let’s invest in Downtown Edmonton and let’s remember that the area is much, much more than one big hockey arena. Let’s stop pretending that NHL hockey is the only good thing this city has going for it (because the Oilers haven’t made it to the playoffs in almost a decade and we’re doing fine as a city).

    • Except that as you know, we don’t tax people based on what it actually costs to service them. Property taxes paid by someone living on the edge of the city are not enough to cover the cost of delivering services to them. That’s where commercial areas like downtown are important, because the taxes generated there make up the difference.

      I agree downtown has already improved significantly will continue to do so!

    • “The city should spend the most money providing services in areas where people actually live, right?”
      No, they shouldn’t only spend money where people actually live. That’s a terrible policies. Cities are about so much more than the residential areas people live in.

    • Where do people actually “live”? One might think you live where you own/rent your residence. Are you not “living” when you are at work? At play? Running errands? This is worth pondering, I think. If you spread your “living” out all over the place, are you really “living” all that well anywhere?

      I live intensely in my neighbourhood.

  • adamsnider

    Wait, there’s a Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and a Downtown Vibrancy Coalition? And they’re two different groups? This could get really confusing…

    • Yep. The DVTF is part of the Coalition, technically. I’d be shocked if the Coalition survived the arena issue, but the DVTF will.