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Saturday, February 27, 2010

does downtown edmonton need a katz arena district?

The Katz Group launched a new website last week reframing their campaign for a new downtown arena as the centrepiece of a new "Arena District" north of Edmonton's downtown core. The new website features a video interview with Katz Group President Daryl Katz. In the video, billionaire businessman Mr. Katz spoke emotionally about the potential for downtown Edmonton and the need for a conversation about the future of a revitalized downtown Edmonton. The website provides different types of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to start this conversation.
I expect that this website is the beginning of a larger political campaign that will unfold before the 2010 Edmonton City Council elections. In October 2009, the Katz Group retained the services of Peter Elzinga, former MP, MLA, and Chief of Staff to Premier Ralph Klein from 1998 to 2004, for activities related to a "downtown Edmonton redevelopment project." Until December 2009, the Katz Group had also acquired the services of lobbyist Joan Forge, who served as Premier Ed Stelmach's communications shop during the 2006 PC leadership race.

While I liked the video, Mr. Katz avoided the most important question of the exercise: money. It is no secret that the Katz Group would like the City of Edmonton to loan upwards of $400 million towards a new downtown arena, likely making it the largest non-transportation-related one-time investment that our municipality will have ever made (Councillor Don Iveson recently explained the funding request issue more articulately than I ever could here and here).

Aside from the political spin, I welcome a wider public conversation and am excited about the potential for a real debate about downtown. There are those people who are stuck in the 1980s and 1990s mentality that downtown Edmonton is a barren wasteland of warehouses and closed down rail yards, and then there are those Edmontonians who have moved on and seen the evolving character of our downtown core. The Katz Group campaign could generate competing ideas and a real discussion about what kind of face Edmontonians want our downtown to wear.

Downtown Edmonton (what I describe as the area between 100 Street and 124 Street) is a drastically different place than it was ten years ago. From the time when I first lived downtown in 2003 to when I moved back in 2009, I am excited by the changes that I have witnessed. New condo developments in the Oliver and Grandin have created a new identity in those neighbourhoods. People are moving into the core of the city and enhancing its diversity. Walk down Jasper Avenue west of 109th Street on a summer night and you will bump into many people coming in from the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The 104th Street Farmers' Market is a perfect example of the vibrant new identity of Edmonton's downtown core.

The business district of downtown Edmonton is like many other commercial business districts: employees leave work and it closes down at 6pm. This is the purpose of a commercial district dominated by office towers. An arena is not going to change this. An arena district north of downtown developed on clear urban development concepts could help revitalize a rougher part of the downtown core.

I have heard many arguments about how a downtown arena could revitalize the area, but I have not been convinced that our current arena, Rexall Place, is as bad as its detractors would characterize it. Admittedly, I have only been inside Rexall Place about a dozen times over the past ten years (mostly during the Canadian Finals Rodeo). While this is the case, I don't fully understand why it needs to be replaced so badly. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, 'because it is old' isn't a very good argument.

Although the idea of a downtown "arena district" intrigues me, any new development must be based in solid urban development concepts, and not in emotional appeals from politically and financially motivated individuals.

I welcome a real conservation about downtown Edmonton. Let's start it!


Anonymous said...

I agree we need a conversation on downtown Edmonton. As a resident of what you describe as "downtown" myself, I've been pleased with how far we've come but appreciate that there is still a long way to go.

The arena debate reminds me of what GM Place did for Vancouver when the Canucks' moved from the Pacific Coliseum - a relative contemporary of Northlands, situated outside of the core in, well, a less desirable part of town.

What do world class cities have that the others don't? World-class facilities. Tomorrow, it will play host to the biggest ticket event of the last 8 years for Canadian hockey fans - the Gold Medal match between Canada and the USA. It takes bigger thinking than Edmonton has been acustomed to in order for that to happen.

GM Place has been a remarkable addition to the downtown Vancouver core, stimulating development in adjacent Yaletown. Why wouldn't a similar dividend be paid out to surrounding downtown neighbourhoods?

Bottom line, is to create a vibrant downtown, we need to do more than what's been done. There's the old saying, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."

I sense Edmontonians are ready for something more. At least I am.

Anonymous said...

Downtown Edmonton needs to expand the city centre airport.

Anonymous said...

It seems pretty arrogant to say "let's start the discussion" there, Dave. Maybe you have Sarah Palin's reading habits, but this issue has been discussed to death already at

The vast majority of posters there, and on other civic forums, have said no to this proposal. And it's not because they hate downtown redevelopment or even Mr Katz "vision" for the city core, but because of his insistence that this project be realized on the backs of taxpayer dollars.

This isn't a fight for or against a downtown arena. This is a fight against the way the richest man in Edmonton wants to use public dollars to finance a private enterprise.

If the city builds the arena, then they (or an armslength affiliate like NorthLands) should own and operate the arena. And the proceeds of said operations should flow back into City coffers, until such time as the cost of construction is recouped AND a reasonable profit has been made.

Katz current proposal amounts to little more than legally sanctioned theft.

Brad said...

Between (about) 1965 and 1975, as a small town kid from Saskatchewan I visited all of the major Cities in Canada, and it seemed to me that there were only 3 that had a downtown that cooked 24/7 - Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary.

I still visit the major Cities of Canada from time to time on business, and my opinion in that regard has not changed.

I have now lived in Alberta for the last 32 years, 10 years in Calgary, and 22 years in Edmonton (the last 20 in Edmonton).

Don't get me wrong, I love Edmonton, and would not want to live anywhere else, but I did live in Calgary for most of the 80s, and I can say without a shred of doubt that downtown Calgary is far and away more vibrant and fascinating than downtown Edmonton.

Now, I hate the urban sprawl of Calgary (and of Edmonton for that matter), and I really hate driving in Calgary (I'm doing that about every 3 or 4 months and it's worse every time I'm there than it was the previous time). And the velocity of money in Calgary is so much beyond that of anywhere else in Canada that it's almost obscene.

But downtown Calgary just keeps getting more and more fascinating. Sure, strictly speaking the Saddledome is not in downtown Calgary, but it is within walking distance (as is GM Place in Vancouver). Rexall Place is most assuredly not within comfortable walking distance of downtown Edmonton - especially during hockey season.

While their downtowns are larger, Molson Place and Air Canada Place in Montreal and Toronto respectively are right downtown.

So, from my perspective, the Katz proposal, at least in terms of the vision of what downtown Edmonton could be, is bang on. The only issue is who is going to pay for it and how are they going to do that.

Now I'm not real keen to see my Edmonton property tax increase (interestingly, adjusted for inflation, I pay almost 50% more in property taxes in Edmonton than I paid in Calgary in the 80s), it does seem to me to be a relatively fundamental concept that "if you want something, you have to pay for it" - at least in a capitalist society.

As much as I hate the use of jargon, it does seem to me that what Katz is promoting is a win-win situation - for him (certainly) and the citizens of Edmonton. Whereas it also seems to me that what the naysayers are proposing is a win-lose scenario - a scenario in which Katz loses. And in that scenario, he has no incentive to proceed - why should he?

As an aside, it never fails to amaze me (I guess, as a small town kid from Saskatchewan - you know, "The People's Paradise")) when the strongest proponents of the capitalist ethic in Canada (Albertans) stand up in outrage when a capitalist wants to do what capitalists do - make money.


Anonymous said...

I don't see what the problem is with "urban sprawl". Cities grow!

Unknown said...

The thing that all "world-class" (whatever that means) cities have is an excellent public transit system. And as to the arena proposal, instead of all the emotional appeal and the "we believe" rhetoric, could the citizens of Edmonton be treated with respect and approached on a business level with realistic numbers. Would Mr. Katz's corporation ever invest in something based solely on emotional appeal and "what if" numbers? Don't think he got to be so successful doing that.

If developing all around the proposed arena site is such a good idea, why isn't it going ahead independent of the arena? And what happened to the $100 million that Mr. Katz said was going towards building a new arena? Things that make me go hmmmmm.

Along with this arena downtown development proposal there needs to be a plan for what will happen to the Coliseum. I live in the Eastend and we are already blessed with the vacant Safeway store on 118Ave & 66 St and the derelict Cromdale Hotel on 82 St and 118Ave. An abandoned Coliseum will just make it a 118 Avenue hat trick.

And Brad, there is nothing wrong with making legal money, I just think that Edmontonians don't want to be marks in this deal. This is no win-win situation. This is taxpayers footing the bill for a special interest group yet again.

Party of One said...

I'm not in favour of using taxpayer dollars for any initiative that DOES NOT include public facilities, such as a public sports and recreation space (as in Commonwealth Stadium), and some sort of public ampitheatre for performances, as well as something, anything, to replace the loss of The Sidetrack as a privately run music and entertainment venue.

I'm very concerned that City Council will get stars in their eyes over vague promises of development that never actually materialize. We gave a lot of concessions to Triple Five Corp. in the eighties in return of similar promises regarding the development of office and residential towers associated with the (then) Eaton Centre project, and all we got was an underutilized shopping mall and a smallish Delta Hotel...a far cry from what was "promised". We can't FORCE development if the economics just aren't sustainable! We also got sold a bill of goods with respect to the "old" Bay Building, and it took forever before the University of Alberta developed "Enterprise Square". Remember the "Port Edmonton" project that went nowhere in that space?

I would say to Mr. Katz, "By all means develop your office towere, and surrounding facilities("Wintergarden", etc), we can give you a tax holiday on land committed to arena development, and once those things are in place, we can take a serious look at building an arena, even with some sort of public participation". If there IS actually demand for office and residential towers, he can and will build it. Personally, I don't think the demand or need is there.

I'm NOT convinced that an arena, in and of itself, used for what, at most 60 nights a year as a professional sports facility, is an adequate generator for "revitalization". Certainly Rexall hasn't generated much growth around it, and to those who argue that the surrounding area of Rexall is "undesirable", well, isn't the surrounding area of the proposed arena also currently considered "undesirable"? So there is no certainty that an arena downtown will do anything to change that, is there?

I think "in-fill" development of all our ground level parking lots downtown is desirable, but the economic case for such development has to be sustainable.

Unless we limit further horizontal development into "green-field" areas, and perhaps tax ground level parking lots on the basis of what that space "could" be used for, the provision of public services such as fire, police, sewars, public transit, schools, etc., will become less and less efficient and more and more expensive to taxpayers, and there will be NO incentive to businesses to favour development in the "core" as opposed to building one or two story offices and "crackerbox palaces" further and further afield.

Cities have to grow UP, not OUT, but there is currently no reason to believe that there is sufficient demand or incentive for intensive development in the downtown core. If Mr. Katz wants to risk his own money in developing a more robust economic and residential "core", he should be encouraged to do so, but Edmonton's citizens shouldn't be expected to subsidize it.

Berry Farmer said...

I haven't made up my mind; I am still going over the arguments. But I support bold dreams.


Anonymous said...

We need to keep building out. It's about affordability of homes for average people. We have the land. Let's build.

Anonymous said...

Katz is just like Goldman Sachs and GM: stiff the public on the risky stuff while you keep all the highly profitable stuff for yourself as in the downtown hotels. Oh yes, while keeping the profitable stuff for yourself, make the public think that that is your contribution to the city.

Deceitful. Dishonest. Crooked. Greedy.

What I hate even more is how Katz and the politicians think we are too stupid to see through it. Well, we can see through it, Katz and you will not succeed.

mike w said...

Hockey rinks don't revitalize anything, but Katz wants to confuse two separate issues:

Essential reading:

Mike B. said...

When the Coliseum was originally built, it did not have the sky boxes and the concourse area was wide enough to handle the 17,000 traffic. Ever since the sky boxes were added, the concourse is too narrow and dangerous with all those people leaving at the same time. Seating in general is also too tight and uncomfortable--go to other modern arenas and they have ample room. Plus why does everyone have to leave right away after a game or concert? Where's the GOOD lounges and restaurants?

Anonymous said...

Karen Leibovici, city councillor, has to vote for the arena project if her husband Stephen Zepp is to continue working for the Katz group. We the citizens of Edmonton are at a real disadvantage here because we are not organized and we do not have the money to hire conservative heavy hitters like Peter Elzinga or Ed Stelmach's communications head Joan Forge from 2006.

For the Katz group, it is a no brainer, spend 10 Million on lobbying the politicians (wine and dine them and contribute to their re-election campaign) and he stands to profit billions from all the land developments that could proceed if the new arena does get approved by our city council.

I would support Don Iveson to run for mayor and organize a citizens' opposition group to the idea. Please organize a rally to show that we Edmontonians are not willing nor ready to shell out 400 Millions of our hard earned money to benefit a private company.

I think Edmontonians are finally waking up to see that Edmonton Oilers would have served us better if the ownership had remained within a community group instead of profit oriented private corporation.

If we pay for it, then we should be able to collect all the proceeds from concerts and other events. If Katz wants it built, then he should pay for it. After all, he has the money.


Berry Farmer said...

Who kidnapped Dave... and how much do you want for him?

Vern Redel said...

It may be a good time to mention that Joan Forge, PC spokesperson, not only did communications for Ed Stelmach's PC leadership campaign. Joan was appointed executive assistant to Iris Evans, Minister of Municipal Affairs. Joan spent two years in this political position responsible for communications, issues management, media and public relations, legislative strategies, and managing the Minister’s office. In 1999, she joined the Edmonton 2001 World Championships in Athletics. She is also on the Banff Centre Board of Governors.

Forge is married to long-time Klein pal Rick Lelacheur who served as President and CEO of Economic Development Edmonton (EDE) from August 1992 to February 1998. He was the President and CEO of the Edmonton 2001 World Championships in Athletics. Lelacheur has served on a number of Boards including a six year term as Chairman of the Workers Compensation Board (WCB). He has also served of the boards of Alberta Economic Development Authority, TELUS Corporation, Allied Van Lines Ltd and Prairie Land Corporation . During his six year term as Chairman of the Workers Compensation Board he donated $100,000.00 of worker's money to the 2001games and hired his daughter Christine to work at WCB.
Lelacheur was the engineer behind WCB president Mary Cameron's $99,036 raise in 1999 to an annual salary of $355,700.00.
Lelacheur has ties to Jack Agrios,who is tied to Don Getty, Don Cormie,and Triple five but that's another story.