With a positive vote on the arena, Council can get back into the driver’s seat

City Council probably could have done a better job of handling the arena issue this year. I asked Councillor Sohi about this a couple weeks ago, and he agreed. “In hindsight we should have been in the driver’s seat rather than letting the Katz Group drive the process,” he told me.

How much have things skewed in the Katz Group’s favor? Some would say a lot. Here’s what Paula Simons wrote about Council’s vote to purchase the land for the arena:

I am honestly awestruck at Katz’s audacity — and his brilliance. The city takes two large parcels straight off his hands, at his cost, allowing him to assemble and flip the land, with no expense or debt. The city pays all the upfront costs of the arena but still agrees to let the Katz Group choose and hire the architect, come up with the design, and keep all the revenues. We actually pay the team to promote the city. And, at Katz’s behest, we slap a tax on his business rival. It’s the most stunning power play in Oilers history.

The entire article is worth a read. It may have been a brilliant move on the part of the Katz Group, but I think it also opened the door for Council to gain some leverage. There are two key things to consider here – the land, and the design.

Purchasing the land that Katz assembled is a good deal for the City. Underutilized, valuable land is now owned by the City rather than speculative developers. The latest report on the proposed Downtown CRL pegs the cost of the land at around $30 million, a very reasonable amount. “The big piece of land for the arena proper is below market value so that was a no-brainier,” Councillor Iveson told me. Importantly, the City owns that land now regardless of what happens with the arena. “If the deal falls through, it’s a good asset,” Councillor Iveson said. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have the City own that land than a private interest. You might argue that the City could just as easily fail to do anything with the land, but at least we can put pressure on the City to make something happen. A private developer could just sit on the land forever. Getting rid of the parking lots is one of the most appealing aspects of this project.

Moving forward with the design process is an important next step. Conceptual stuff has been done by the Katz Group of course, but a vote in favor of the arena deal this week would really get the ball rolling. As I understand it, the City and the Katz Group would sit down and figure out the necessary retentions. They’d select the design architect, the local architect, and any consultants. An RFP would go out for the construction manager, and once the retentions were in place, the design process would start. According to the latest City report, “the City will fund the cost of design to a 60% level on which the tender documents will be based in order to get the best possible Guaranteed Maximum Price for the arena.” Keeping in mind the $450 million ceiling, the goal would be to produce a design that could be taken to market for that price, and the design itself is an element of that total amount. Importantly though, the City owns this design work (the Katz Group would retain ownership over the conceptual work they completed). “If either party elects not to complete the deal, the City will have ownership rights to the design work undertaken by the City.” You can read more about the budget request to start the process here.

The City needs the Katz Group’s help on this, so I think the collaborative approach makes sense. The Katz Group understands the market and they know what will sell. They’ve done the research and they know what has worked elsewhere around the league. Of course we want the design to be attractive, to comply with the Capital City Downtown Plan, and to support Edmonton’s other priorities, such as The Way We Green. But it has to be functional, too. With the proposed agreement, the City would get all of that design for less than all of the cost.

The design process also presents an important opportunity for Council to re-engage the public. The public consultation that will take place as part of getting to the final design must be taken seriously. It really should be seen as a rare chance to dramatically improve the way the City solicits input and feedback from citizens. We must do better.

Armed with both the land and a ready-to-build design for an arena, Council (and thus the City) will be in a much better negotiating position. Let’s assume for a minute that the deal falls through, perhaps because the province refuses to come to the table, and that Katz or a subsequent owner wanted to move the team. The City could justifiably go to the NHL and say “look, we have land and the design for a building ready to go” which would put the brakes on any move pretty quickly. The league is very unlikely to approve any move if the municipality is ready to play ball, especially in an important market like Edmonton. It gives Council leverage they lack at the moment, and it should put any relocation fears to rest, unfounded as they may be.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Councillor Caterina, for instance: “We could be spending taxpayers’ money…before we even know if an arena is a go or not.” But I don’t think there’s much harm in this limited amount of strategic spending. Everything appears to rest upon another level of government stepping up to the plate with $100 million or more. If that doesn’t happen, at least Council will be in a stronger position to move forward.

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe with this week’s vote on the arena deal, Council can get back into the driver’s seat.

City Council approves downtown arena land purchase, postpones final decision on the project

The downtown arena project took a big step forward today as City Council voted to purchase the land proposed as the site for the project and the Katz Group made some concessions in order to further the negotiations. With options on the land expiring at the end of the month and a decision required by October 21, Council had to move quickly. They decided to postpone a final decision on the arena project until October 26, however.

City Manager Simon Farbrother provided an update on this week’s meetings in New York and the ongoing negotiations between the City and the Katz Group. You can view his presentation in PDF here. The highlights include:

  • There was no change in the maximum price approach (still $450 million), nor in the user fee (ticket tax) of $125 million, nor in the City’s contribution of $125 million ($45 million to come from the CRL).
  • There was no change in the location agreement of 35 years.
  • While the Katz Group reconfirmed its commitment of $100 million to the arena, the funding has been restructured as a $5.5 million lease for 30 years.
  • The LRT connection now has an estimated cost of $17 million.
  • The cost for the pedway over 104 Avenue (also known as the winter garden) will be split evenly between the City and the Katz Group, with the City contributing a maximum of $25 million.
  • The City will now operate the community rink.
  • The design process will now potentially commence before the province has confirmed any contribution.
  • The City will spend $20 million over 10 years to market itself through advertising at Oilers games (this is over and above the $450 million and will be introduced in a future City budget).
  • And the biggest change, the Katz Group agreed to waive the requirement for a non-compete clause with Northlands.

With Council agreeing to purchase the land and the Katz Group agreeing to waive the non-compete requirement, the project certainly feels like it is back on track. Terry Jones called Mandel the MVP and Katz the first star in the arena project. There is still the outstanding $100 million, however, and both parties will continue to pursue provincial funding for that.

For more on today’s meeting, check out David Staples’ column and Paula Simons’ blog post. And don’t miss The Charrette’s look at 311 call statistics.

Today’s Council meeting was the talk of Twitter, as expected. This graph shows the frequency of tweets posted over the four hour meeting:

Here’s a word cloud of all the tweets posted in Edmonton during the meeting:

The non-compete clause was definitely a big topic of discussion. For its part, the Katz Group issued a simple statement from Executive Vice President John Karvellas after today’s meeting:

We respect the City’s process and appreciate the time Council and Administration devoted to the arena project in today’s special meeting. We have the basis of an agreement that will enable us to move this project forward, subject to the approval of City Council on October 26, 2011. We continue to believe, as we have from day one, that this project represents a great opportunity to help revitalize our downtown and ensure the Oilers’ long-term sustainability in Edmonton.

The next step will be a non-statutory public hearing on October 24/25, with Council set to make its final decision on the arena project on October 26. As I mentioned earlier, if you want to voice your opinion on the deal one way or the other, the number one thing you can do is email your City Councillor.

Edmonton’s Downtown Arena on the precipice

Today is another big day for Edmonton’s downtown arena project. City Council will be meeting this afternoon to once again discuss the project, with a particular focus on the outcome of this week’s meetings in New York with Gary Bettman.

My sense is that the project is in danger. And I’m still trying to understand how we got here.

I used to think the arena was basically a done deal. It seemed like all of the right pieces were in place. The arena was listed as one of the catalyst projects in the Capital City Downtown Plan and that document was successfully approved. Edmontonians got engaged at public meetings and open houses. The City embarked on a high profile public consultation process. The Katz Group met with anyone who would listen (and they continue to). Council had questions and they got answers. Surveys showed significant support for the project, up from previous surveys. Organizations started becoming more vocal about their support, with letters from the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and Yes 4 Edmonton. In May, the “agreement framework” was approved. In August, the Downtown CRL concept came forward and seemed to be well-received. The latest stats on calls to 311 suggest that more people support the project than oppose it.

Certainly there have been challenges along the way, but it seemed to me that most of those challenges were related to the details. For a while now it has felt like the arena was going to be built, it was just a matter of how and when.

But now? Well, it doesn’t look so good anymore.

The meetings in New York were taken by many to be a sign that negotiations between the City and the Katz Group were about to go off the rails. Mayor Mandel hasn’t been his usual optimistic self lately either. Two new websites launched this week to try to push the project forward, Heart of the Capital and Build the Arena. And my preliminary analysis of tweets about the arena shows that lately, the majority of tweets are about supporting the arena rather than opposing it. Edmontonians seem worried. The October 31 deadline is inching ever closer, but it feels like we’re getting further and further away from the goal line for this project.

Tweets about the arena in Edmonton for the first twelve days of October

I share the Katz Group’s growing impatience, even if I don’t agree with the way they have gone about things. I don’t envy Council’s position, but I’m confident they’ll make a decision that is in the best interests of the city (though likely not today). At this point, I just want some certainty. If we’re going to build the arena, great, let’s do everything we can to ensure it is a success. If we’re not going to move ahead with the project, fine, let’s refocus and get back to work.

For a decent overview of where we’re at, check out the Journal’s summary. You can follow this afternoon’s discussion on Twitter, or you can connect to City Council’s streaming audio and video. If you want to voice your opinion on the deal one way or the other, the number one thing you can do is email your City Councillor.

Edmonton’s downtown revitalization: now linked to the arena more than ever?

Back in May, the City of Edmonton and the Katz Group agreed on an agreement framework. A month later, City Council asked a number of questions about that agreement, which Administration answered in a report (PDF) that went back to Council on July 20, just before the summer break. Unsurprisingly, a few of those questions were related to the Community Revitalization Levy (CRL). The answer was that Administration would return to Council with more information, including the new CRL boundary, with a target date of August 31.

Today, that date became official, not to mention a whole lot more complicated. Here’s what a media advisory titled “Proposed Downtown CRL could fund revitalization” said:

A vibrant downtown is a key ingredient of a great city. Gary Klassen, General Manager for Sustainable Development, will be available to speak about a report on an option for a boundary for a downtown Community Revitalization Levy which could fund revitalization.

That media conference will take place tomorrow at noon (right in the middle of the I (heart) yegdt BBQ taking place right outside City Hall in Churchill Square). The report itself will be made available at 11am.

The gist of it is this: the City is proposing a larger, downtown-wide CRL to fund not only the arena but also a number of other “catalyst” projects in the downtown (as outlined in the Capital City Downtown Plan). I can’t confirm this just yet, but my understanding is that the proposed CRL is big – as in $320 million big. It’s a smart piece of political maneuvering, when you think about it. How do you get councillors who are opposed to or on the fence about a CRL for the arena to support one? Add in a whole bunch of other stuff they would likely support. It’ll be especially interesting because with the summer break a number of the councillors have no idea this is coming.

I think there are two ways to look at this proposal.

One perspective is that the proposed CRL is a good thing because the catalyst projects will finally receive funding. Projects like the Jasper Avenue New Vision, At-Grade LRT, the High Profile Bikeway System, and the Warehouse Campus Central Park all sound great, but don’t have any funding attached to them. The proposed CRL could be used to fund all of these in addition to the arena. Some projects would certainly benefit as they’d sort of “catch a ride with the arena” and would get their funding without too much added trouble. And since they are all part of the plan to revitalize downtown, the CRL is a good fit. That’s what it was intended for, after all.

The other perspective is that the proposed CRL is a bad thing because it basically holds downtown revitalization hostage. You could see the proposed CRL as a message that either Council agrees to fund the arena, or the other projects don’t receive funding. The 2012-2014 Capital Budget is coming up for discussion later this year, and some of these projects (or elements of them) would have been part of the budget discussions. Now it seems they would just come along with the arena, or….what? It’s not clear what the alternative might be. Additionally, projects funded through the CRL might not actually receive any money for years (a CRL takes time to approve), whereas if they were funded through the budget process they could receive funding as early as January.

Take the Alley of Light project, for instance. It was slated to be up for discussion as part of the Capital Budget, with a line item of $500,000. Now it would fall under the Green & Walkable Downtown catalyst project. In a way this is a good thing – the Alley of Light might receive the funding under the CRL without too much debate. On the other hand, don’t we want Council to be clear about what they’re funding? I want Council to stand up for the Alley of Light, to say that it is absolutely worth the $500,000, and that it will have a positive impact on our downtown. I don’t want it to get funded “under the radar” just because the arena did. Likewise I don’t want the arena to get funded just because we want the other projects.

Not to mention that the proposed CRL is especially risky given that The Quarters CRL is immediately to the east. How likely is it that the required development will take place in both areas to generate enough tax “lift” for the CRL to work?

Ever since the beginning, the Katz Group has made it clear that this project is about downtown revitalization. To them, downtown revitalization doesn’t really happen unless the arena happens. Now with the proposal of a downtown-wide CRL, it seems that the City has bought into that idea wholeheartedly. Next Wednesday, we’ll find out if City Council has as well.

UPDATE: The report is now available. Details: “over the 20 year term of the levy is expected to generate an additional $1.18 billion in new tax dollars (net present value of $600 million) of which $788 million is based on appreciation of the existing assessment base (net present value of $385 million).”

The Katz Group won’t build an Edmonton arena outside of downtown

The Charrette has a good discussion of the recent arena news. You’ve probably heard by now that the Katz Group is now on record saying they would consider alternate locations if the downtown arena doesn’t move ahead:

“We continue to believe that the best solution for the city and the Oilers is a downtown development and we remain committed to those negotiations. However, to the extent that we cannot be certain of the result of those negotiations, we are open to alternatives to find another long-term home for the Oilers in the Edmonton region.”

At this point a statement like that is nothing but political maneuvering. The Katz Group has never indicated they would look to build elsewhere prior to that statement, so I find it hard to believe it’s true. Here’s a look back at what I mean.

The Katz Group issued a press release on March 25, 2008 voicing its support for a new downtown arena complex. John Karvellas, Rexall Sports President, said:

“Rexall Sports shares the Committee’s view that a downtown arena complex can help revitalize Edmonton’s core and become the centrepiece for a number of major developments in the adjoining area, as similar projects have done for other cities.”

On August 31, 2009 the Katz Group appointed Patrick LaForge as its principal point of contact. He said:

“At the end of the day, we envision a vibrant downtown with new housing, retail, office and public space, hotels, residential housing and other amenities, all anchored by a world-class entertainment and sports venue. We envision a neighbourhood that is well-integrated with public transit, livable, walkable, environmentally responsible and a benefit to downtown, surrounding communities and all of Northern Alberta.”

On September 29, 2009 the revitalizedowntown.ca domain name was registered. The website didn’t launch until February 24, 2010. Here’s what I said at the time:

Annoyed with the domain http://www.revitalizedowntown.ca. Katz is certainly not the only person working to revitalize downtown #yeg.

Here’s what Bob Black said in a speech on February 9, 2010:

“In all of the public opinion research we have done, the opportunity to revitalize downtown is what has people most excited about this project. It is also the reason why the mayor and the city have made revitalizing downtown one of their top priorities.”

In a speech to City Council on July 21, 2010, here’s what Daryl Katz had to say:

“I believe we have a once in a generation opportunity — through the Oilers, and through the need for a new arena — to do something transformative for downtown and for our city.”

In December 2010, the answers to questions from Council were released. Councillor Thiele asked the Katz Group: If no new downtown arena district is built in Edmonton and the Oilers will not play in a renovated Rexall Place, where will they play? The response:

“Our singular focus is upon negotiating a mutually satisfactory agreement with the City of Edmonton that will facilitate the construction of a new downtown arena.  We are confident that this can be achieved.”

And here’s what Bob Black said on May 18, 2011 when the Katz Group and the City agreed on an agreement framework:

“From the beginning we have approached this project with the twin objectives of creating a major engine to drive the revitalization of downtown and of creating a model for the long term sustainability of the Oilers in Edmonton.”

So, after all that, they release a simple statement saying they’re exploring alternatives? I call bullshit.

But perhaps, as The Charrette pointed out, the damage is done. Either they’re lying about looking elsewhere, or they’ve been lying to us for three years about how important downtown is.

Megaprojects aren’t enough to revitalize Edmonton’s downtown

Edmonton’s downtown has been the centre of attention lately, with a number of exciting megaprojects making headlines in recent weeks. As someone who has bought into the “as goes your downtown, so goes your city” mantra, I think the progress is good. But I firmly believe we need more than megaprojects to turn downtown around, and I’m not sure the little things that will positively impact downtown get the attention they deserve and require.

Downtown Panoramic

The most talked about megaproject is of course the $450 million arena:

“I’m elated. This is, to my mind, the start of a dream come true to rebuild our downtown.”
– Mayor Mandel, City of Edmonton and Katz Group reach arena deal (Archive)

Another megaproject is the $340 million Royal Alberta Museum:

“The aspirations of the city to revitalize its downtown, complete (with its) arts district, meshed with the province’s need for a new home for the Royal Alberta Museum.”
– Premier Stelmach, Royal addition to downtown (Archive)

Yet another megaproject is the $275 million redevelopment of the Federal Building:

“A different type of downtown? Step by step, piece by piece, we’re putting the puzzle together.”
– Paula Simons, Federal Building quietly takes shape (Archive)

Another one is the City Centre Airport, which Jim Taylor talked a lot about at the DBA luncheon yesterday. There are lots of other headlines and articles related to these megaprojects, and all seem to convey the message that collectively the megaprojects will revitalize downtown. Or that interest in downtown as a result of these projects is enough. But for these megaprojects to return the fullest return on investment possible, we need to do more. We need to make many, many smaller improvements in conjunction with the big ones. We can’t forget the little things!

To me, increasing the number of downtown residents is the key to downtown revitalization. We need a good mix of residential densities, types, and uses in the core. And we need more of the people who work downtown to choose to live there as well. Just having a new arena or museum isn’t going to be enough to get people to make that choice.

Photo by Jason Bouwmeester

The good news is that there are lots of small things we can do to make downtown a more attractive place to live, work, and play. Here are ten ideas that I have been thinking about, in no particular order:

  • Relax jaywalking laws downtown. I’ve had colleagues from London visit and they’re shocked that people wait at red lights! There and in many other cities, pedestrians are free to cross whenever the street is clear. I will readily admit that I cross the street on red lights all the time when the coast is clear. I think we need to make downtown a better place for pedestrians. It might seem like that’s what jaywalking laws are meant to do, but I think they actually reinforce the idea that vehicles have the priority instead. We need vehicles to slow down, and to come second to pedestrians.
  • Add scramble intersections. These are the intersections where traffic stops in all four directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the street in any direction, including diagonally. Again this helps to make downtown a more walkable, friendly place for pedestrians. This has been suggested for inclusion in the Jasper Avenue New Vision revitalization project, but we need to ensure it happens.
  • Prioritize downtown street cleaning. As soon as the snow is gone, the streets downtown should be cleaned. First impressions make a difference, and visitors are not impressed when they step outside and find themselves in a huge cloud of dust and gravel.
  • More projects like Todd Babiak’s Interventions and the Alley of Light. We need to make better use of underutilized spaces, and we could definitely do with some additional color and flair downtown. Let’s treat more of our blank walls and empty parking lots as canvases ready to be put to use. Maybe we need a community-edited database of available spaces?
  • Make public art a priority. Related to the previous point, development projects are supposed to include funding for public art, but the rules are not enforced. Capital Boulevard is moving ahead without funding for public art, for example.
  • Improve transit information displays. Downtown is already our primary hub for transit, and that role is going to be reinforced by the LRT expansion, particularly with the Downtown LRT Connector. Let’s add digital display boards to the big bus stops. They could use scheduled information for now, and be switched over to live GPS data when that system goes live across ETS. Let’s make the experience of using transit downtown even better than it already is.
  • Get rid of the portable toilets and add permanent ones. Having a place for people to go is better than having no place at all, without question. But why half-ass it? Let’s spend the (relatively small amount of) money to add permanent toilets downtown. There are lots of examples to draw upon, such as the beautiful and highly-effective public urinals that Matthew Soules Architecture designed for Victoria.
  • Add recycle bins alongside garbage cans. You may have seen the nice, silver receptacles that combine garbage, paper, and bottle recycling around the city, but there aren’t many downtown (aside from Churchill Square). We’re already a pretty green city, and this would help drive that message home downtown.
  • Require green roofs on new developments. They’ve done it in Toronto, why not here? There are many, many benefits that come from green roofs. And hey, we’ve already got one thanks to Williams Engineering.
  • Get rid of parking minimums throughout downtown. There’s a five-year pilot project in place for the warehouse district, but I think it’s a no-brainer. If you can sell a condo or rent a space without parking, then why not do it? Otherwise we’re effectively just subsidizing vehicles. This is a good way to spur development and hopefully infill, considering that it can cost developers between $30,000 and $70,000 per stall to create.

I’ve got my share of “bigger” ideas as well, such as doing whatever it takes to make the space behind the Stanley Milner library a proper usable square, perhaps alongside a larger revitalization of the building. Another one would be closing Rice Howard Way to vehicles and extending it to the top of the river valley.

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface with this list, but the point is that there’s a lot more that goes into downtown revitalization than megaprojects. What are your ideas?

Edmonton’s Downtown Arena moves ahead with agreement framework

The Katz Group scored a major victory tonight as City Council voted in private to approve an “agreement framework” for the proposed downtown arena. The framework is the basis for the two sides to negotiate a formal Master Agreement, which will require final approval by City Council. While not a final binding agreement, tonight’s deal nevertheless allows the project to move forward.

Here is the full motion and amendments as voted on back on April 6 (tonight’s was largely the same – see here):

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The vote tonight succeeded 8-5. Who voted in favor of the framework? Who voted against?

For: Mandel, Krushell, Loken, Leibovici, Batty, Henderson, Anderson, Sohi
Against: Sloan, Gibbons, Caterina, Iveson, Diotte

The document outlines $350 million in funding for a $450 million arena. Where does the other $100 million come from?

Answering questions from the media tonight, Mayor Mandel would only say “other orders of government.” There is no confirmation on where the remaining amount will come from, but it is hoped that the Province will support the project.

How much of the total cost will be funded by a CRL?

The motion only states that $20 million be directed at the arena from a CRL. The remaining $105 million (the City’s maximum contribution will be $125 million) could come from direct tax revenues. However, the agreement framework page states that $45 million would come from a CRL. The final mix is likely to change.

What happens to Rexall Place and Northlands?

The motion specifies that City administration will continue “to work with Northlands to ensure the City understands their financial challenges and how these can be addressed.” Answering questions this evening, City Manager Simon Farbrother said that Edmonton cannot sustain two arenas. It would appear that Northlands has lost its seat at the table.

Will the City own the arena? Will it receive the revenue?

Under the agreement, the City would own the building and land. The Katz Group would be responsible for all maintenance, upgrades, operating and capital expense costs. The City also retains the right to access the facility four weeks a year. As for revenue, the motion only states that the City “negotiate options for potential revenue sharing.”

What will the arena look like?

The City stated tonight that the arena will contain 18,500 seats and 350 parking stalls. The design process will still need to happen once the project moves ahead.

What are the next steps?

The City and the Katz Group will now work to complete the Master Agreement. They’ll also be working to secure the remaining $100 million, likely from the Province.

Twitter was buzzing with the news tonight. Here are a few of the tweets that caught my eye:

#yegcc just came back in public – voted on a motion to approve a framework for #yegarena deal – details to be kept in private. Passes 8-5.

News conference upcoming at City Hall for major #yegarena announcement.

City announces framework to build arena!

City and Katz Group agree on agreement framework to build arena http://bit.ly/ipraRy #yegarena #yeg

The City of Edmonton and Katz Group agree to framework that “sustains NHL hockey in #yeg for 35 years.” #yegarena #Oilers

Mandel stresses optimism, forward momentum, believes holes in plan will come together now that framework of deal in place. #yegarena

This arena will built just when the construction labour and materials market explodes. I’m guessing it comes in at $700 million. #yegarena

This arena situation is just like the airport situation; everyone knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of when. #yegarena #yeg

NOTE: #yegarena dissenters. A friendly reminder; you have until JULY 17th to file your plebiscite application. Just saying.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next! Much more to come, stay tuned.

Will Edmonton be a second-class city without the new arena?

Last week City Council was again discussing the proposed downtown arena. Though Administration provided an update at the Wednesday meeting, it certainly didn’t feel like much new information was brought forward. Details on the proposed Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) were delayed yet again, this time until the first week of April. The meeting did not go well.

Mayor Mandel seemed to be upset that progress had stalled. He wants Council to make a decision in the next month or so:

“It’s enough already. I think we’re going around too many circles and let’s make a decision.”

But there was another comment he made that stood out:

“Either we build a new arena or we become a second-class city, which in my mind we don’t want to be.”

I’ll admit that comment even surprised me. Does Mandel really think we can’t be a first-class city without building the new arena? Is the project really a make-or-break one for Edmonton? Boosterism has long been a part of this debate, something Dave covered back in January. And as our Mayor I think Mandel needs to be Edmonton’s greatest champion, a role he has definitely not shied away from while in office. But is there no hope for Edmonton if the arena project doesn’t go ahead?

“My choice of words probably wasn’t right,” Mandel admitted when I asked him about it. “It’s just that when opportunities come up, you have to make a decision. Edmonton in the past hasn’t made an effort to seize opportunities that have come up.” It’s a good point, I think. You can’t simply wait for things to come along, you have to go out and get them. If we want to take Edmonton forward, we need to make a concerted effort to do so. “You’ve got to fight for things,” Mandel said.

Mandel stressed the need to improve our downtown. “Cities are evaluated by their downtowns, not their suburbs. Edmonton’s downtown has a long way to go.” I asked if that meant we had to have the arena. “There’s millions of ingredients that go into it,” he said. The arts community and our IT sector were just a few of the examples he cited. He of course thinks the arena is one of those ingredients, however. “The arena with a good financial deal will make Edmonton better.”

Stephen Mandel at Candi{date} Sept 29, 2010

When discussions get intense, people say things without fully thinking them through. I think that’s what happened to Mandel last week with the second-class comment, but he’s certainly not the only one who has made regrettable comments. Is it true that “the anti-arena faction is out in full force” as David Staples suggested (archive) a couple of weeks ago? I think it is, and there have certainly been some puzzling comments from them as well. The debate needs people on both sides, to help us tease out the details and ultimately arrive at the best decision for Edmonton. Mandel has decided to support the arena. Others have decided to fight it. A good debate is healthy for Edmonton.

On Saturday, Gary Lamphier writing in the Edmonton Journal reminded us that there are many key questions about the project that have yet to be answered (archive):

Although Mayor Stephen Mandel seems determined to wrap up the Seinfeldian arena "debate" — such as it is — in early April and push the project ahead at Mach speed, it’s hard to see why with so many key questions unresolved.

With weeks to go before a pivotal report on the project is presented to city council — following which councillors may have little time to reflect on it before they vote — it’s puzzling that so many key questions remain unanswered.

Today, Danny Hooper writing in the Edmonton Sun offered some compelling reasons to move ahead with the project (archive):

We are not the arctic outpost some think of us. This is a vibrant, energetic, resourceful, caring, and fun community, yet I don’t think our downtown best makes that statement. And I think it should.

Where some see a downtown that feels dull, disjointed, and at times lifeless, I see a blank canvas. The Katz group have at least brought out the paint and offered their vision of what our city centre could be. Of what it should be. And we’re all welcome to pick up a brush.

Maybe it comes down to perspective, as is so often the case with difficult questions such as this one. Do you choose to see the arena as Mayor Mandel does, as an opportunity to enhance our downtown that we should at least make an effort to capitalize on? Or do you choose to see the arena as those against the project do, as an expensive pet project that will do little to help Edmonton’s core?

There are no guarantees in this debate. Edmonton will not be relegated to “second-class” status if the project dies, nor will Edmonton automatically be world-renowned if it goes ahead. There’s obviously no secret recipe either, or we’d have already turned downtown around. Whether you support the arena or not, it’s important to recognize that revitalizing our downtown and becoming the city we want to be will take much more than any single project.

City’s Standing As Metropolis Declared To Hinge On Coliseum

Recently I have been doing some research on the history of Rexall Place. I thought it would be useful to understand what happened in the past when trying to make sense of our current downtown arena debate. As part of that research, I spent some time at the City of Edmonton archives. I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to approach my research, so I simply asked for anything related to the construction of the Coliseum. Sherry Bell, Reference Archivist at the Archives, was incredibly helpful and came back with a thick file folder labeled “File 1, 1963-1974”. She told me it was the first of many, just the tip of the iceberg.

Coliseum History at the Archives

I read through the entire folder, taking notes as I went. The documents inside, mostly clipped Edmonton Journal articles, tell the story of how the Coliseum came to be, from the push for a downtown arena in the early 1960s through to the construction of what we now call Rexall Place in the early 1970s.

The title of this post comes from an article in the Edmonton Journal published on September 12, 1963. In it, Alderman Les Bodie made his case for the proposed downtown coliseum of the day, saying:

“I think the successful city will be the one with a stable economic base combined with a stimulating economic climate, and the coliseum will be a major factor in attracting interest in our city.”

It was one of many gems I found in the file, some of which I have shared below, and some of which I’ll share in future posts.

In total, I recorded 93 headlines (I skipped some). Here’s the breakdown of the articles I looked at by year:

Lots was written early on in the debate, and less was written as construction got underway and progressed. Here’s a sample of the headlines:

  • Coliseum Site Studied – May 11, 1963
  • City Approves $10 Million Coliseum Plan – June 25, 1963
  • City Has ‘Escape Hatch’ If Coliseum Voted Down – August 29, 1963
  • City’s Standing As Metropolis Declared To Hinge On Coliseum – September 12, 1963
  • Mayor Hits Coliseum Critics – September 24, 1963
  • Coliseums Seem To Spark Growth – September 28, 1963
  • Coliseum Complex Rejected By Almost Half Ratepayers – October 17, 1963
  • Mayor Anticipates Verdict On New Coliseum Proposal – March 1, 1965
  • A Coliseum Or A New Arena? – March 25, 1965
  • Alderman Warns City Taxpayers Will Have To Subsidize Coliseum – July 20, 1966
  • Ex arena to be constructed just north of Gardens – April 22, 1972
  • Oilers won game but public the real winner – November 11, 1974

I was immediately struck by how similar today’s debate is to the debate in the 1960s. In short: a downtown arena is proposed and tied to the future of the city, people argue over the location and other details, but the process really gets stuck on the money.

One of the first documents I found in the file was a pamphlet published by The Hamly Press (which as far as I can tell no longer exists) entitled, “the Coliseum Plebiscite: a test of our Faith in Edmonton as a Great Metropolis of the North West”. Here are some of the statements found inside:

  • “A downtown showplace that will publicize Edmonton as a progressive, positive-thinking city, developing rapidly in all phases of modern city live and endeavor.”
  • “The Coliseum Complex will lead the way in revitalizing downtown activity.”
  • “A Vital Necessity for Downtown Development!”
  • “Construction of the Coliseum Complex will be the city’s first step in the fulfilment of Edmonton’s remarkable plan for the renewal of the downtown city centre. There is little doubt that perseverance with this project now will be a decisive factor in the eventual completion of the entire Civic Centre plan.”
  • And a quote from Mayor Roper: “This plebiscite will be a test of the vision of the ratepayers of our city. How much do we want Edmonton to lead all Canada in bold, imaginative downtown development?”

Edmonton Journal writer Ben Tierney, working in the City Hall Bureau, wrote a lot about the proposed project. In a September 24, 1963 article entitled “Other Cities Find Value in Coliseums” he highlighted what he saw as “three basic benefits”:

  1. Attraction of major sports, entertainment and cultural events that the city could not otherwise hope to obtain.
  2. Attraction of outside dollars to the city through increased convention activity as well as non-local attendance at coliseum events.
  3. Increased tax revenue for the city through construction of new downtown building encouraged by the coliseum’s construction, and a revitalized city centre.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Of course, the initial plan never came to fruition, and subsequent attempts to rescue it failed also. On October 17, 1963 the Edmonton Journal reported the results of the plebiscite that would have authorized the City to borrow $14,250,000 to finance the coliseum:

“The coliseum complex was strongly backed by the former city council, the Edmonton and District Labor Council, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and Jaycees, the Edmonton Exhibition Association, the Edmonton Area Civic Centennial Committee, and the Edmonton Building and Construction Trades Council.”

“55% of voters favored the two money bylaws…but a 2/3 majority was required. Opposition to the project centered on the costs involved.”

Over the next ten years, various attempts to salvage the idea were made, but ultimately the cheaper Edmonton Coliseum was built instead. I wonder how different things might have been had the downtown complex gone ahead?

Yes! For Edmonton Position Statement on the Proposed Downtown Edmonton Arena

Yes! For Edmonton sent the following position statement on the proposed arena to the media this afternoon:

I have been privy to some of the discussions about this, and was opposed to the statement being released because it kind of suggests that everyone who signed up to support the group on the airport issue automatically supports this one too. I don’t believe that is the case.

There are people in the organization who wanted to make a statement on the arena, and that’s fine. The more people who share their thoughts and opinions, the better. But I don’t think it is clear who Yes! For Edmonton speaks for, and that causes me some concern as the group approaches future issues.

It’s not clear whether this position statement will be posted on the Yes! For Edmonton website or what other updates will be made.