Thursday, April 26, 2007


In Defence of Northlands

***Note*** I have a rather shy friend. He/she reads this site, and has lots to say, in private, about the arena. In fact, he/she supports building a new arena, but doesn't think it should go up downtown. In an effort to be completely unlike the Edmonton Journal, and actually let opposing viewpoints be heard, here are some thoughts from what I am now deeming a "New Northlandite."

Here are some questions I would bring up that I don't think are being addressed, at least in the public debate:

1. If the feds actually turn over the downtown land to the City or to Northlands, or whoever administers the new arena, what is this entity going to pay in terms of taxes or rent to the City of Edmonton? If it's subsidized below market value (as the Oilers' deal at Rexall now is), what is the opportunity cost in terms of revenue that the City is giving up by using this land for a hockey arena and not for other purposes?

2. What's the traffic impact going to be on the area? This needs to be examined both from the aspect of passenger traffic, and truck traffic that will be servicing the arena for concerts and the like.

3. The assumption of a downtown arena is that people will loiter and patron the bars and restaurants in the area before or after the game. Do we have evidence of this? Furthermore, do we know if people are already doing this or not, and if there will actually be a positive net economic impact on the region, or if you'll just be moving business from one area to another?

4. Do we know where the fans attending Oilers games and concerts are coming from? Will they be more likely to use public transit to get to a more central location, or are they going to continue to drive in mass numbers to the game? Dealing with this and the previous question, what do we know about the current Rexall clientele? What will the impact be of moving their business downtown? On a similar note, will moving the arena change their behaviour or change the clientele of the events offered at the arena?

5. How many nights of the year do we anticipate the new arena being used? What are the intended uses - i.e. is it just the Oilers and possibly concerts that will make use of it, or will the Oil Kings, Rush, CFR etc. move over as well? According to Northlands' site, last year they hosted a record 31 concerts. Assuming all of those move over, and the Oilers play on average 50 home dates a year (counting playoffs and pre-season), and you're left with 80 days of the year filled up. If you assume that the Rush and the Oil Kings also move over, that's an additional 50 or so games (the Rush played 8 home games this year and the Dub has an 80 game season), but those will see attendance of closer to 10.000 than a sellout. I don't think you can count something like CFR because it will have an economic impact regardless of where it's held.

So let's say it brings an additional 80 events drawing 15,000-20,000 people downtown, and an additional 50 events drawing 10,000. That's an average of about 2.5 events per week in a best case scenario, and 1.5 per week if the Rush and Oil Kings go under or don't move with the Oilers to a downtown arena.

More importantly, during the summer months, when people are more likely to want to spend time loitering at a restaurant or pub before or after an event, there's going to be a dearth of activity. There are only 14 events scheduled at Rexall between now and the end of September. That's a whole lot of evenings that our arena is going to be an empty block of prime downtown real estate.

This brings up the question of what becomes of Rexall if a new arena is built downtown? Will it be knocked down? The rest of Northlands isn't moving with the arena, so it limits what you can do in terms of redeveloping the area.

Now, since it's easy to be a naysayer and complain, I've also come up with a plan for what I think should happen. Here's what I'd do:

1. Leave the Stationlands area alone.

2. I would build a new arena on the existing Northlands ground, perhaps even resting partially on the current building location, like what's happening with the new Yankee Stadium.

Here are the advantages as I see it:

• You don't have to pay or give any concessions to acquire the land.
• It respects the history of the Oilers, in that Gretzky Drive will continue to lead to where the Oilers play and the Gretzky statue will continue to stand by the home of the Oilers.
• It remains close to two major freeways (Gretzky Drive/Fort Road and the Yellowhead), so there's no need to expand the current infrastructure unlike with a downtown location.

Also, if we're serious about using the arena as a catalyst for street and economic activity, I think the current location is the best one to do so. Downtown doesn't need the arena - it's already on a serious upswing, and will only continue to improve as more residential development such as the Icon Towers on 104th and the Aurora development north of Grant MacEwan are completed over the next few years.

The location with the most opportunity for revitalization is the area surrounding the Northlands grounds. Part of this is because they are some of the most depressed areas, and have nowhere to go but up, but there are other factors, too. Now, you can argue against the economic impact of an arena, but I think we can all agree that given that what else you can do with the current Rexall site is limited, it certainly won't help to take the arena out of that area. However, the advantages of keeping it in that area are as follows:

• Two of the adjacent areas (Alberta Avenue and Fort Road) are already designated Business Revitalization Zones, and businesses and local residents and government are already working on improving the safety, image, and economic activity in those areas. Alberta Avenue in particular is becoming a more popular area for the arts community since they are being priced out of Old Strathcona and some areas of downtown. Fort Road is a bit more removed, but there are planned in-fill redevelopments for the area, and it's a short train ride to the Northlands grounds.

• These areas are going to become more and more popular for young adults, for many of the same reasons that areas north and west of downtown were for the past twenty years or so (Inglewood, Westmount, Prince Charles, Prince Rupert). For one, they have character and history, which is more important to our age group than it was to our parents. Second, they're either walking distance or a short bus trip from the LRT, which is then 5-10 minutes to downtown. At worst, it's a 15 minute drive to downtown at rush hour, which sure beats spending 45 minutes in gridlock coming in from one of the far-flung suburban developments in the Southwest. Finally, houses are still reasonably affordable, unlike most areas of the city.

• With redevelopment plans, and a potential influx of young adults with disposable income to the area, there's a lot of economic potential. Therefore, if there really is economic synergy with an arena and it's surrounding hospitality industry, there should be a critical mass capable of supporting it on nights that the arena (or other Northlands buildings) aren't in use.

I recognize there are problems, notably the sprawling parking lots and freeways occupying space. Here's how I'd deal with those:

1. Similar to the Big Dig in Boston, I would bury the through-traffic lanes of Gretzky below ground, creating a two-lane road that would feed into the parking area. The through-traffic could emerge above ground again at Fort Road. Next to the disappeared lanes I would put a multi-use trail beginning at the River Valley and connecting with the Fort Road area north of the Yellowhead.

2. Put a significant amount of the parking for the hockey arena underground. Yes, it's expensive, but people will pay for it or else they'll take the train to the game, so you needn't worry about excessive outdoor parking.

2. Redevelop the entire Northlands grounds to include commercial and residential development. This would ensure that there's day-long activity in the area, and a permanent critical mass to complement the surrounding areas and provide economic activity. The Capital Region has a burgeoning manufacturing industry, and the proximity to the freeways would make it an easy location to produce goods and ship them out. A manufacturing district would also fit well with the traditional blue-collar characteristics of the surrounding areas and the blue-collar image that Edmontonians have of their city. With the proximity to the LRT, industry and the growing arts community on Alberta Ave, you have a prime residential location. In an ideal world, this development spills over to increase economic activity east of Gretzky Drive as well.

3. The rent from industry and money from residential developments (whether you sell them off as condos/townhomes or manage them as rentals) will help support any lost parking revenue and the cost of redeveloping the area.

4. I would also replace the Agricom. The new convention/trade space being built towards the south of the grounds can handle the trade shows, and in it's place I would build a small arena (10,000 seats max) for the Rush, Oil Kings, and medium-sized touring acts. This will give those games more of a "college" feel, which is more appealing than playing in front of 10,000 empty seats.

I recognize that this whole scenario will probably be a billion dollar venture, but I don't think it will ultimately be less expensive than redeveloping the Stationlands area of downtown will be.

So, for those reasons, I think that rebuilding on the Northlands grounds is the best decision in both the short-term and the long-term.



Why are you more in favour of a $1billion project than a $400million project....I thought the dollars and tax burden were what concerned you most?

That's not Grabia's piece, it's his friend's.

Interesting proposal but it sounds like A LOT of construction. The Big Dig alone would create havoc around the arena and probably run $1B itself.

I mean this in the nicest way because I agree with leaving the arena at Northlands - you are wasting our tax dollars with your $1 billion plan.... :)

There is no need to build residential on the Northland grounds - the land just north of 118 Avenue between Fort Road & the LRT tracks is already zoned high density. Therefore give a $20,000 per unit subsidy for a 500 unit complex overlooking the bus loop (similar to the $5,000 subsidy that "kick started" the highrises beside 109 Street / Jasper Avenue 20 years ago - this $10 million investment will be filled with U of A students / downtown workers, etc...

They can talk all they want about getting cars off the road - they can talk all they want about getting people to use our (heavily subsidized) public transit - but unless it is easy & convenient; that will never happen.

Put 500 new people living right next door and the impact to the business community will be impressive. Build a U of A student complex & there will be a pool of workers who will take the part time jobs on the grounds - workers who can walk to work...

Put 500 sets of eyes & ears beside the LRT / bus loop - the crime rate in the neighbourhood will drop...

Plus, toss the expensive underground parking lot concept into the garbage - build a three level "above ground" parking lot north of 120 Avenue / east of Wayne Gretzky Drive.

Because (as was pointed out) the large majority of hockey fans come from far, far away - they drive to the game, then get in their cars & drive home afterwards.

Anyone claiming they show up early to shop the take their purchases into the games is an idiot - anyone who states that they come out of a game at 10 p.m during the week then go out for dinner & drinks has the IQ of a fish...

Somebody must expose the "economic impact" lies put forward by the downtown arena boosters before too much money is spent.

Can you believe it? The Journal let Paula Simons take on the anti-downtown arena cause! I think they were starting to get a little embarrassed by the one-sided boosterism, perhaps in part due to this blog and the e-mails we were sending to the writers of the articles.

I wrote a letter to her, assume others did as well.

Again, this is not my article. I won't agree with spending a penny of our tax dollars on a stadium until someone makes a logical, convincing argument about why that is good, and necessary.

It appears that this issue is going to keep more busy. More stuff in today's paper, and I haven't even talked about the stuff in yesterday's paper yet.

Just to join in the chorus, the economic impact of pretty well rebuilding the infrastructure around Northlands seems a lot greater than the economic impact of having an arena in primo downtown real estate that doesn't get used every day.

You'd think more concerts and stuff would come to Rexall in the summer, though: what comfy Florida-based rock star wants to come to Edmonton in January? And surely they don't all try and fill Commonwealth! I'm not a concertgoer, but still.

Hi Everyone!

Thanks for your comments and feedback. I'm going to address some of the points:

you are wasting our tax dollars with your $1 billion plan.... :)

I did a poor job of making clear that the $1 billion figure isn't all public dollars. I have no idea what the costs would be, nobody does. The public costs would be renovating Gretzky Drive, and making any other infrastructural upgrades to the area. Beyond that, it's all unknown what will be payed for with public dollars and what will be privately funded. I picked $1 billion as a ballpark figure for the public (infrastructure), private (commercial and residential ), and P3 (arena) developments.

As for the Big Dig, it's an idea to help the Northlands grounds interact better with the communities to its East. You could probably accomplish a lot of the same things with a couple of well-placed pedestrian bridges.

the land just north of 118 Avenue between Fort Road & the LRT tracks is already zoned high density.

Good point Gord. I think we have the same idea in mind, we just differ on the specifics. I don't think you'd even need to offer developers incentives, that money could be cut from the budget or used to improve streetscape and lighting for example.

Plus, toss the expensive underground parking lot concept into the garbage - build a three level "above ground" parking lot north of 120 Avenue / east of Wayne Gretzky Drive.

That would also work; my vision is to eliminate most of the surface parking to faciliate redevelopment.

I won't agree with spending a penny of our tax dollars on a stadium until someone makes a logical, convincing argument about why that is good, and necessary.

This seems like a good place to talk about the infrastructure upgrades that will at some point be deemed "necessary" to support a downtown arena. Aside from the development of the hidden LRT station, I'm willing to bet that the following things will be proposed at some point:

1. Widening of 97th St and/or 103-104 Ave.

2. An overpass from the aforementioned streets feeding directly to the arena grounds.

3. A new bridge from Gateway Boulevard to downtown.

You'd think more concerts and stuff would come to Rexall in the summer, though: what comfy Florida-based rock star wants to come to Edmonton in January?

I've heard that a lot of acts skip Edmonton because its geographic location takes it off the conventional Vancouver-Calgary-and if necessary-Saskatoon-Winnipeg touring loop. While all of those stops take one day, Edmonton requires two days because of travel time. I'm not sure if this is entirely true or not, but if it is, a shiny new arena won't make a difference.

I certainly like this idea better than the downtown move.

I think the most compelling argument against such a move is simply the amount of down time that is inherent to large arenas. I have a mildly relevant example of this potential problem from a recent trip to Boston this January. I made a mini-pilgrimage to Fenway Park one afternoon and the area in the immediate vicinity is pretty dead in the offseason. In fact most of the baseball shops around there weren't even open. Fenway isn't downtown, but I think the point is that sort of thing isn't really what anyone should have in mind for the downtown core. They've already got that to a certain degree.

At any rate, it seems to me that an arena/stadium is an insignificant part of restoring a neighbourhood. Many of the important things to the neighbourhood mentioned by the original author and some of the commenters here aren't really justified by an arena. Perhaps the arena is a convenient excuse that allows some pork barreling to fix these problems.

Somehow, I think the city is more interested in abominations like South Edmonton Commons than they are in actually doing some good.


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