As far as surroundings and amenities go, some might say that Edmonton isn’t a serious consideration for large numbers of people when it comes to being a relocation, or tourist destination. Our universities are top-notch, but loads of our graduates move onto other cities when they’re done. Sure we’re close to boreal forests, but topographically we’re basically flat. Of course, we have a beautiful winding river valley, but not much to draw people to its shores. With the exception of some seasonal anomalies, our winters are harsh; our summers mild. We don’t have the mountains in our backyard, and you can’t look out your window and see the ocean.
Roughguides, an online travel guide, describes Edmonton as follows: “in the teeth of its bitter winters – it can seem a little too far north for comfort […]. The city tries hard with its festivals, parks, restaurants and urban-renewal projects. Yet, given the somewhat unfinished feel of its downtown, it’s perhaps appropriate that the premier attraction for the vast majority of visitors is a shopping centre, the infamous West Edmonton Mall. Edmonton lacks the big set-piece museums of Calgary or Vancouver.”
It’s tough not to wince when reading the above paragraph; be that as it may I guess we have to accept our fate that Edmonton is too northerly, not quite urban enough, and certainly lacking the vision that a capital city should have.
Whoa. I hope you got the sarcasm in that. While we may be situated far north of the 49th the cold hasn’t impaired our ability to think big, and we certainly don’t lack vision. Sometimes, however, we just lack the fortitude to see that vision through.
Take 1968 for example. In October of that year a proposal to develop an all inclusive space replete with a hockey rink, elevated football field, conference centers, and theater space, among other things, was put before Edmontonians during a municipal election. The proposed project was to be called Omniplex, and its purpose, along with plans for the development of rapid transit, was to stimulate the revitalization of the downtown core. More than 70 percent of all of the voters were in favour.
For a variety of reasons, the plan to see this bold vision through to fruition failed. Omniplex never got off the ground. However, out of the ashes rose two well known Edmonton facilities: Northlands Coliseum and the conference center on Grierson Hill now sponsored by Shaw; the former is now considered seriously out of date, and only one of them could ever really be said to have had an impact on downtown.
Fast forward four decades, and we’re again being presented with a bold vision aimed at revitalizing the core: the Edmonton Arena District (EAD).
The brainchild of Edmonton businessman Daryl Katz, the EAD is being posited as not merely a new development with plans for hotels, retailers, residential housing, a significant public space, as well as a new home for the Edmonton Oilers, but a complete reinvention of Edmonton’s downtown. And if you’ve ever looked for a cup of coffee, a bookstore, a shop-anything other than a restaurant or bar downtown after 5:00 p.m., you’ll agree that reinvention isn’t too strong a word.
“From the beginning, we have pursued a vision that we believe will benefit all Edmontonians by creating jobs, by providing a significant investment into our urban core, by shrinking our environmental footprint and by developing a world-class entertainment and sports district in our downtown,” said Bob Black, Executive Vice President of Sports and Entertainment for the Katz Group.
“Edmonton is the gateway to Northern Alberta, a region that has become a global energy leader. There is currently $120 billion of committed investment in Northern Alberta with much more to come. A new downtown arena district can represent Edmonton’s potential, its capacity to be bold and think big and its future as a leading Northern city. Edmonton’s need for a new arena provides an opportunity to create a major catalyst in the ongoing revitalization of downtown which will contribute to a positive sense of momentum in our city that is worthy of our potential and our place in the world.”
Like most others in the Katz Group, Black has investments other than just business to consider when discussing the revitalization of downtown Edmonton.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son playing minor hockey in Edmonton,” he said when asked how the EAD might affect the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association. “I coached in the Edmonton minor hockey system for almost 10 years. The district will include a community rink for minor hockey and public skating. I’m sure the amateur hockey community would welcome a new sheet of ice in a central location.”
Over the long term, Black is confident that the EAD will contribute to the city’s success. “We believe this project can bring economic growth and development, increased tourism, the ability to attract more corporate head offices, increased density to make our environmental footprint smaller and our streets safer, civic pride and the kind of cultural life that will make Edmonton an even greater northern city and help us attract capital investment and the best and brightest people.”
This thinking isn’t relegated merely to the Katz Group and the other locals that support the idea of the EAD. In a 47-page report written by Dr. Mark Rosentraub of Cleveland State University, it suggests that, in part, due to our city’s mundane natural environment, and sustained suburban sprawl, we must seriously consider redeveloping our downtown core with an arena district as its focal point if we want to reestablish Edmonton as a viable destination for tourism, relocation, and study.
“Sprawl [has] left many areas without a concentrated critical mass of activity that could establish a region’s image through central meeting areas with unique architecture that also offers unique social and cultural experiences at theatres, museums, and at facilities that host sporting events,” says Rosentraub’s report, which can be found on the City of Edmonton’s website.
Rosentraub, who was a contributor to Mayor Mandel’s leadership committee, argues that the development of malls outside the core have effectively neutralized city centers, but that it’s the downtown experience, not the suburban one that differentiates one urban center from another; in the end, to a large degree, it’s a vibrant core that makes one more city more desirable than another. This is further amplified when a city’s surroundings are fairly plain compared to a more topographically blessed neighbor.
“Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco each have suburban areas, but they insured that downtown areas remained vital through the provision of unique experiences that could not be replicated in suburban malls. After decades of growth, cities like San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, and Los Angeles began to wonder what their image was and how it could be sustained without a vibrant core. These areas, similar to slower-growth regions in America’s Midwest, began to focus on strategies to build or rebuild downtown areas to establish an identity and to advance the region’s overall development. This process was even more critical for cities reliant on traditional industries or lacking physical features that made them among the most desirable places to live and work.”
It can be seen that the significance of Edmonton as a whole is not found in one or another community, but in the destination areas where we congregate, celebrate, and partake in cultural experiences as part of a larger group, and with our city expanding outward at an ever increasing rate this becomes more difficult to do, especially in the middle of winter.
What holds us together as the community of Edmonton: The City of Champions; The Gateway to the North? Where do we go to come together?
The answer lies in the center of town with a rink at its heart.
“This game connects us. It’s woven into the fabric of our city and our country,” said Black. “I enjoy live theatre, art or music as much as anyone, but it seems like hockey is our most common of bonds. This all underscores to me that we are pursuing a worthy cause.”
The Katz Group has been both lauded and criticized when it comes to the proposed Edmonton Arena District. Opinions vary, but the crux of the matter is that talk of the need to revitalize our downtown has been ongoing for decades. Now we have a guy that’s willing to contribute millions of dollars of his own money to see it through. Only time will tell if we have the fortitude to see it through with him.
This article appears courtesy of Hockey Edmonton Magazine and originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue.
Additionally, the City of Edmonton is currently seeking the public’s opinion regarding the proposed development via an online questionnaire that can be found here.