Green light given for Rogers Place, Edmonton’s new downtown arena

Construction on Rogers Place, the future home of the Edmonton Oilers, will begin in March now that the $480 million guaranteed maximum price has been met. The announcement was made at a press conference today at City Hall that featured a rare public appearance by Daryl Katz.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

The new downtown arena will seat 18,641 for hockey games, and is being described as “the most technologically enabled sport facility in all of North America” (details on what that means are still to come, I presume). The arena is part of a $606.5 million package that includes a community rink, LRT connection, pedway, and the Winter Garden.

The stage today was backed with hockey boards while a face-off circle emblazoned with the Oilers logo sat in front. Giant renderings of the new building flanked each side. Mayor Don Iveson, City Manager Simon Farbrother, Daryl Katz, and Ian O’Donnell from the Downtown Community League (DECL) were the speakers.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

I have to say the press conference seemed a bit over the top for what was announced. It was very unlikely that the guaranteed maximum price wouldn’t be met, and even if it hadn’t been met, that would have been little more than a speed bump. Council would have voted, and construction would have gone ahead one way or another.

Very little that was announced today was new (would it have killed them to talk about the building, even just a little?). Most of the speeches consisted of the various parties involved thanking one another, and extolling how great the new arena will be for Edmonton. And we heard the same old arguments once again. City Manager Simon Farbrother said:

“With this announcement, we are able to announce two very significant goals for this city. The first one this does is helps us on that continued journey of building a great downtown. The second one it does is it supports NHL hockey in Edmonton for the very foreseeable future.”

Nevermind that downtown has been on the upswing for years and that the threat of losing the Oilers was misleading at best.

But those arguments are over and done with – today was about the future, as Daryl Katz said. I suppose his attendance was meant to suggest a sense of finality, but I’m not sure that came across. He certainly didn’t look like he wanted to be there. Sure, he expressed his relief at getting to this point and his thanks to all involved, but he looked and sounded to be going through the motions more than anything else.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

Why was DECL invited to participate? Maybe it was just to play the role of “downtown supporter” in the story. I hope it wasn’t to represent the members of the public that were apparently involved in the decision, because just two or three people on the board were involved. As someone who both lives and works downtown, I don’t feel that DECL represented me in the process (this is a great example of how community leagues are setup to promote “tick the box” public engagement).

But I guess that was the point of today’s event – the process is done, the arena will be built. I’m happy that we’ve reached this point and I do think the arena will have a positive impact on downtown. I have great respect for everyone who has gotten involved, whether it was to support to the project or whether it was to ask hard questions. There are still questions remaining too. Will the remaining government funding be confirmed? What will happen to Rexall Place?

One thing that’s clear is that the arena won’t succeed on its own. It needs a district surrounding it. In his remarks today, Daryl Katz made mention of that development, saying that we can expect to learn more this spring. I have heard the project described as a series of dominoes, with the new City tower following the arena, and more still to fall. I sure hope that’s the case.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

There were a couple of other interesting tidbits of news shared today:

  • Katz Group Executive VP John Karvellas confirmed that the Oilers have an agreement in place to continue playing at Rexall Place until the new facility opens in time for the 2016 season.
  • MacEwan University has come to the table and will be contributing $2 million to the community rink to “increase capacity and improve functionality”.

You can see more photos of the press conference here. The Oilers have audio and video of the press conference available here. The City has made renderings of Rogers Place available here.

Recap: OCL/DECL Ward 6 Candidate Forum

Tonight the Oliver Community League and Downtown Edmonton Community League co-hosted a candidate forum for Ward 6. Held at Oliver School, the forum was moderated by Beth Sanders. Along with a couple of other volunteers, she did a good job of keeping the eleven candidates in attendance on track (there are 13 on Dave’s list, but Bryan Kapitza and Javed Sommers did not take part). The turnout was pretty good for a Tuesday evening in mid-September, with approximately 125 people in attendance.

OCL/DECL Ward 6 Forum

From left to right, here are the candidates who participated tonight: Taz Bouchier, Kyle Brown, Candas Jane Dorsey, Derrick Forsythe, Melinda Hollis, Heather MacKenzie, Scott McKeen, Erin Northey, Adil Pirbhai, Alfie White, and Dexx Williams.

After opening statements in that order, Beth asked five questions from the organizers of the forum, then opened the floor to questions from those in attendance. There was time for five of those before candidates gave their closing remarks (in reverse order).

Here are the five questions asked by the organizers:

  1. If elected to Council, how would you continue the momentum of building Downtown as a centre of commerce and culture and a destination for all citizens of the city?
  2. Do you feel that the decision on the redevelopment of the Molson Crosstown site was the correct one? What would you do as Councillor to improve the City’s engagement process?
  3. As Councillor, how would you work to address the spike in violent crimes in recent months in the Oliver/Downtown neighbourhoods?
  4. Is there an adequate balance of housing options in the Oliver/Downtown core? If not, what deficiencies do you see and how would you work to address them as Councillor?
  5. If elected to Council, what important issue facing Oliver/Downtown would you give the most attention to and what would you do to ensure that it’s adequately addressed?

Each candidate had one minute to answer the question. The order was random – names were drawn from a hat. For the most part, the candidates kept to the time allotted and stayed on track with their answers. The five questions asked by citizens in attendance included one about the need for public washrooms in the core, one about supporting the arts, one about P3s, and one about regional cooperation. The only question that every candidate had the opportunity to answer was the one that received applause from the crowd: How will you make yourself more accessible?

On the question of improving the City’s engagement process, there were far too many non-answers along the lines of “I believe citizens need to have their voices heard.” This is an important issue that I’m confident will be repeatedly asked throughout the election, so I hope all of the candidates give it due consideration. Adil’s answer was that he’d hold numerous Town Halls, which isn’t a bad idea if you went about it the right way (hello technology!).

I was a little surprised at how many candidates were happy with the Molson Crosstown decision. More than a couple mentioned that they were happy to see the development going forward so that something could be done with the parking lots. Scott probably gave the answer the Oliver Community League members were looking for, saying  that “developers too often plan for Edmonton’s past.”

Far too many candidates completely bombed on the housing options question. Some, like Taz, took it to be a question about homelessness. Others offered nothing beyond saying diversity is good. Drawing on her own experience, Heather made a strong case for more diverse housing options in the core.

It was really interesting to hear what candidates felt the most important issue was. Dexx mentioned the issue of parking being unavailable for residents because non-residents use it all. Melinda claimed that the Municipal Development Plan isn’t actually a plan, and said she’d want to do something about that. Candas talked about the need for consultation. Scott mentioned the arena. Some mentioned housing, others mentioned tackling crime.

The vast majority of the answers tonight were “I believe” or “I think” answers, lacking substance or concrete ideas for action. I suppose it’s difficult to go much beyond that with just a minute to answer, but it still would have been nice to hear some specifics. I did not feel a great deal of confidence that the candidates up at the front of the room tonight have a solid understanding of what being a Councillor would entail.

OCL/DECL Ward 6 Forum

Here are my notes on the closing remarks:

  • Dexx highlighted his passion for the ward and reiterated that he’d work hard to ensure residents’ concerns were addressed.
  • Alfie admitted that this was all a new experience for him, but that he hoped to be able to represent the ward.
  • Adil expressed his distaste for projects like the arena, Indy, and EXPO 2017, and then went on to suggest that Council hadn’t said anything about the post secondary cuts. I guess he missed the State of the City Address.
  • Erin also admitted that this was a new experience and suggested that she’d be happy to just learn and make connections.
  • Scott praised the strong field of candidates, and said that Ward 6 could become the ward that slows urban sprawl.
  • Heather said responsiveness to the community and attracting more people to the core are both priorities.
  • Melinda said she’s passionate about the ward, and that city must grow responsibly, taking care to maintain the uniqueness of each neighbourhood.
  • Derrick focused his closing remarks on improving public consultation, and said a commitment to work with communities is needed.
  • Candas said that cities need to have big dreams, but also need to know how to pay for them.
  • Kyle said the ward needs someone who can represent the diversity you’ll find within it.
  • Taz highlighted her experience in community development, and said she’s familiar with legislation, bylaws, and the orders of government.

There were an awful lot of repetitive answers tonight, which is no surprise given the large number of candidates running (already there are five more declared than officially ran in the last election). I have no doubt the field will narrow in the weeks ahead (or at the very least some clear frontrunners will emerge).

Instead of picking “a winner” for tonight, let me simply mention the candidates that I thought did well. The two names most often mentioned as frontrunners are Scott and Heather, and I thought both did well. Scott only mentioned his journalism background a couple times, and had strong answers for all the questions. Heather cited her experience as a school board trustee a few times, and though she generally read from her notes, gave strong answers as well. Candas did well and had some of the more thoughtful answers of the evening. I think Dexx impressed me most tonight – he delivered a good amount of passion and was articulate in his answers.

Monday is nomination day, after which we’ll know exactly who’s running. The official Ward 6 forum will take place on October 9, so mark your calendars.

Thanks to the organizers of tonight’s event and to all the candidates who participated!

Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown: Evolving from urban fresh to neighbourhood store

On August 15, Sharon and I walked past the Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown as we do nearly every day. On that day however, something was different – the windows of the Sobeys were completely covered by a vinyl fruit-and-veggies-on-white design. I promptly tweeted my dislike for the change, and made a note to follow-up.

Sobeys on 104 Street
You can see the vinyl coverings, and on the left, that they actually create quite a lot of glare

Over the next couple of weeks, it became apparent that a lot of people disliked the new window coverings. Dozens of residents (myself included) contacted DECL to complain. Some took matters into their own hands, like Mark Gitzel who staged a sidewalk chalk protest. The existing thread complaining about Sobeys on Connect2Edmonton reignited with people complaining about the windows. Chris Buyze, President of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, sent a letter to Sobeys on August 17, one of many messages that Sobeys received during that time. While the vinyl window coverings themselves caused a bit of an uproar, I think for a lot of people the issue was seen as the last straw. Their urban Sobeys had slowly evolved into just another grocery store, out of touch with its customers, and now it was physically separating itself from the street.

The Sobeys on 104 Street opened as Sobeys Urban Fresh in May 2008, a “hotly anticipated grocery boutique.” With six Red Seal chefs, a sushi bar, a café featuring coffee from local roaster St. City Roasters, a sizable selection of local and unique products, articulated walls and large bay windows in the café, it was not your average grocery store. It was the first grocery store to open downtown since Woodward’s Food Floor closed (the Save-on-Foods on 109 Street is technically in Oliver). It wasn’t perfect, but people were excited by the new store.

Sobeys Urban Fresh
The Sobeys on 104 Street in May 2008. You can see the clear windows and the articulated wall on the right open with people sitting in the outdoor café space.

All of that is now gone. The sushi bar is gone, the local selection has disappeared, the café sits empty, and the windows were rarely open this summer. The signage still says “Urban Fresh” but it has become a lot like other grocery stores. For a resident like me, it raises the question of whether or not the store will still be there in the future.

It was in this context that I sat down with Mike Lupien, the Director of Communications for Sobeys West, this week. We met at Credo Coffee, just down the street from the store.

I first asked him about the windows. “It caught me off guard personally, I didn’t realize it was happening.” Mike told me that when comments first started coming in, he thought it was related to the bright orange signs advertising Sobeys’ new lower prices. He quickly got in touch with DECL however, and organized a meeting for the end of August to discuss the situation. “It was a great opportunity for us to tell them why we did it, but also for them to tell us their concerns,” Mike said. “We got a good understanding of where they were coming from.” I asked Ian O’Donnell, Development Chair for the Downtown Edmonton Community League, why they pushed for the meeting. “DECL has an inherent responsibility to engage and respond to situations that arise within the downtown boundaries. Part of our mandate is to ensure that changes that occur in or to our downtown are positive and continue to improve upon what we already have as a community.” Ian agreed the meeting was a productive first step.

DECL presented three primary complaints. The first is that the the vinyl windows violate elements of the Jasper Avenue Main Street Commercial Zone (JAMSC) bylaw and the Urban Design Framework for Downtown Streets as set out in the Capital City Downtown Plan. Secondly, because the vinyl diminishes the store’s internal/external visibility, it would seem to go against the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) guidelines. And thirdly, the vinyl is ugly. It creates a physical barrier and doesn’t fit with the rest of the aesthetic on 104 Street.

Sobeys on 104 Street

Mike told me there were four main reasons the vinyl went up on the windows. The first was visibility of the store. “When people are driving down Jasper Avenue, they never notice the store,” Mike said. “You only see the sign if you’re going west.” I told him I would confidently bet that the majority of the store’s customers are not driving to the store, and he conceded that was probably true. The people who shop at that store either live or work in the area, for the most part. Even if someone was driving home and noticed the store, they’d have to find parking if they wanted to stop, and with 25 Sobeys and 4 IGA stores in the capital region, chances are there’s one with a big parking lot closer to home.

The other three reasons make more sense. The sunlight streaming into the store has had a negative impact on the produce department, at times the cashiers have had problems with glare on their screens, and the addition of shelves and boxes along the east side makes for a less appealing view from the street as you look in the windows.

At the meeting in late August, the group discussed potential solutions. It sounds like DECL got their point across, because Mike confirmed that taking the vinyl down completely is what will ultimately resolve the issue. “We’d like to work towards that,” he told me. As David Staples reported this week, they’ve taken the first step and have cut the white around the fruit out of the coverings. “We’re also looking at what we can do inside the store to deflect the light,” Mike told me, confirming he has started discussions with a designer that Sobeys has engaged in the past.

Sobeys on 104 Street
Vinyl with the white gone

Turning to some of the other issues, Mike and I talked about the changes the store has undergone over the last three years. Some changes were made for business reasons, others were the result of feedback from customers. “We’ve adapted the selection to what people were asking for,” he said, and that’s why you no longer find products like camel or alligator. “The oyster bar didn’t go over very well,” Mike told me. “We were getting rid of more than we were selling.”

The windows have definitely been closed more lately than in the past, but for good reason Mike said. “We had a wet summer and lots of mosquitoes,” he said. “I know Evan, the store manager, wanted to have them open.” He also said that the construction of Icon 2 had an impact, as the amount of dust in the area significantly increased.

As for the local selection, Mike said they still try to offer local products. “We start as close to Edmonton as we can, and then move out.” In some cases there have been issues with suppliers, but the most common problem is that local suppliers just can’t keep up with the volume that Sobeys needs. He said they’re trying to find ways to address the problem. “We want to help local suppliers get to the point where they can work with us.”

Mike pointed out that there has been some positive changes as well. Prices are lower now than they were, the store now uses the same flyer as the rest of the Sobeys stores, and the assortment of products is larger than when it opened. “We’re going to expand further as well.” He told me they are keeping the coffee bar, but may reorient the space to make room for a few more shelves.

Sobeys on 104 Street

I told Mike that I felt much better about the store after talking to him, though I was still opposed to the windows. “If there’s something wrong, we want to know about it,” he said. “If there’s something missing, we want to hear about that too.” He’s confident that the window issue will be resolved as well.

“It’s a community store, it’s a neighbourhood store,” Mike said. “We want to be here, and we want to be here for the long-term.”

Recap: DBA Annual Spring Luncheon & DECL AGM

I suppose every day is a ‘downtown day’ for me given that I both live and work here, but today felt especially downtown-focused. Of course the arena news was still fresh this morning and most people I came across throughout the day were talking about it. At lunch I was fortunate enough to be a guest of EEDC at the Downtown Business Association’s annual spring luncheon, where some City Centre Airport news was released. And this evening I joined Sharon at the Downtown Edmonton Community League’s annual general meeting.

DBA Annual Spring Luncheon

The spring luncheon is one of two annual luncheons produced by the DBA. Held at The Westin, there was a packed house for the presentation of the DBA’s 2010 Annual Report. Jim Taylor, Executive Director of the DBA, highlighted some of the activities from the past year, and in what has become an annual tradition, presented the Downtown Beat Officers with a new bicycle.

All five finalists in the City Centre Redevelopment competition were present at the luncheon. Mayor Mandel couldn’t be there in person, so a pre-recorded video was played instead. In the video he referenced the “decision” made yesterday regarding the competition, which got a chuckle from everyone (because, of course, they couldn’t decide). Simon Farbrother took the stage and surprised us with the announcement that the list of five had been trimmed to three:

  • Perkins + Will, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Foster & Partners, London, U.K.
  • KCAP Architects, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The final decision will be made by City Council on June 22.

Guests at the luncheon were also reminded that the Downtown Core Crew starts again next week. You can book the team of summer students for tours and other special events!

You can read about past luncheons here, and watch for the annual report to be posted online here.

DECL AGM

Tonight’s DECL AGM was held at the Yellowhead Brewery on 105 Street. It was fairly well attended for a community league AGM! President Chris Buyze presented his annual report highlighting a number of successes:

  • On-going community events such as Al Fresco, CornFest, and the first annual EFCL Day.
  • The completion and passing of the new Capital City Downtown Plan in July 2010 (with the zoning portion passing in December 2010). Chris had personally been involved in consultations for more than 5 years!
  • Participation in various downtown and city-wide issues and initiatives, such as the ONEdmonton Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and the Jasper Avenue Hospitality Committee.
  • Embracing social media to connect with residents!

Chris also highlighted a couple of challenges that DECL met, including conveying concerns with the proposed downtown arena and the development of a new 2-year strategic plan.

DECL AGM DECL AGM

There were also two presentations this evening. We received a brief update on the Alley of Light project, and Alex Abboud talked about Homeward Trust and the work that they are doing in our community. Watch for a new Homeward Trust website next month, and check out Find Furnishing Hope, a social enterprise offering quality, low-cost previously used furniture located at 5120 122 Street.

There was also the official business of the AGM this evening, with a few board members moving on and a few new faces joining the board: Scott McKeen, Sharon Yeo, and Sebastian Hanlon. Questions and discussion covered the arena, the intersection at 105 Street & 104 Avenue, and electronic signs and billboards downtown. We also took a quick trip outside to look at Scott Property where hopefully a park will be built before long!