The arena formerly known as Rexall Place, owned and operated by Northlands.

City Council needs to get it right on Northlands Coliseum redevelopment

It has been about 10 years since the City of Edmonton seriously began studying the concept of funding the construction of a downtown arena, and 6 years since City Council voted to approve a financial deal with the Edmonton Oilers and its billionaire owner, Daryl Katz, to construct a new arena.

But despite the years of attention paid to the new arena, not much focus was given to the arena that housed the Edmonton Oilers since 1974. When the shiny new Rogers Place arena opened downtown in 2016, there was still no real plan for the future of the old arena, now known again as Northlands Coliseum.

The implications of the Oilers move downtown was huge for the Coliseum and Northlands and a non-compete clause agreed to by the City crippled the already disadvantaged older arena. Without the revenue generated from NHL hockey games or large concerts, the Northlands organization was placed in a dire financial situation.

Better late than never, Northlands released a Vision 2020 proposal in 2016. The plan focused on the entire Northlands property and proposed the Coliseum be renovated into a six-rink hockey arena. The idea was later considered financial untenable by City Council.

City Council has since cannibalized much of the Northlands operations and voted to close the Coliseum.

Now sitting empty and unused, the question facing City Councillors meeting at City Hall this week is what to do with the closed building.

As a resident of the area (I live a 10 minute walk away from the Coliseum in the Bellevue neighbourhood), it is frustrating to feel like this area of the city was an afterthought. But while it is important to recognize past mistakes made by the City on this issue, it is also helpful to look for solutions for the future.

Community input and engagement should play a critical role in determining the future of the Coliseum and the Northlands property. But the engagement should be meaningful. Meaningless buzz-phrases, like we saw included in a recent press release from the City of Edmonton on this issue are not helpful (ie: “tap[ping] into the magnitude of the opportunity for transformation”).

Meaningful engagement is important, because residential neighbourhoods and commercial districts in the area will be directly impacted by any future plans, just as they had by the past expansion of Northlands.

It was only a short 15 years ago that City Council approved the Northlands Redevelopment Plan, which allowed Northlands to bulldoze the four block single detached residential area known as West Bellevue and three blocks of North Cromdale. The 2003 Northlands ARP literally paved West Bellevue into the parking lot that sits on the west side of Wayne Gretzky Drive.

I am not sure what the best new use of the land would be, but I do not know anyone who thinks leaving the Coliseum boarded up and abandoned would be good for the neighbourhood. But an empty and abandoned lot fit for gravel and Used Car Dealerships is also not ideal.

The $15.5 million to $25 million projected cost to demolish the Coliseum may give some Councillors sticker shock, but it is pennies compared to the public funds invested into the downtown Roger Place arena.

As recent city council candidate Kris Andreychuk and University of Alberta professor John McCoy wrote in the Edmonton Journal on Oct. 20, 2017:

“Allowing the Northlands site to sit idle and empty will not only create an eyesore in a storied area of the city — the arena where we became the City of Champions — it will also stimulate a host of community-safety issues and drive away the small business owners who are the lifeblood of the community.

These are not easy times in Edmonton. But what cannot be denied is the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of Edmontonians and their ability to find solutions to our collective challenges. Northlands is a test for the City of Edmonton and local developers — there is much at stake and we need to get it right.”

3 thoughts on “City Council needs to get it right on Northlands Coliseum redevelopment

  1. David

    We have a figure to work with as a starting point – the demolition costs of $15 to $25 million. Common sense would say if we can covert the facility to another good use for less than that, it is worth exploring. If not, perhaps it is time for everyone to just move on. I don’t live in the area, but I also suspect it is best for the area to do something without much further delay.

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  2. Gord

    I am skeptical that the existing facility can be converted to some other effective use. The City does not need another “entertainment” destination that will only see use for certain events. While the demolition price tag seems high, one has to consider not only the costs of converting the Coliseum to some other use, but also the long-term costs of operating and maintaining the facility. These types of buildings usually have a finite lifespan so the question really is, in my view, would the city be getting good value for money by investing in the Coliseum without also significantly extending its service life.

    I don’t live in the area, but personally I think the Coliseum itself and the surrounding areas are a complete eyesore. I hope City Council will not be swayed by sentimentality or a desire to re-live past glories into somehow “preserving” the Coliseum as if it had some historical significance. Far more significant sports venues (eg the Montreal Forum, the original Yankee Stadium) have been given the wrecking ball – why would we try to save a charmless 1970s concrete bunker?

    That said, I completely agree that the transformation needs to be guided and driven from the ground up, in consultation with both the local community but also Edmontonians as a whole. Top-down re-development or renewal schemes almost never work – unless there is buy-in from the grassroots community, the chances of success are limited.

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  3. Yuri

    I totally agree about the coliseum being an eyesore. When the coliseum was operational, it didn’t seem to have an appreciable impact on the surrounding neighbourhood. As a kid, lo about 30+ years ago, I recall the 118 Avenue neighbourhood being rundown … and it remains so today. As the home of the Oilers, the coliseum was a destination people went to and then promptly left once the game was over – very little appreciable benefit to adjacent businesses or residents. When the Hail Mary pass of a retrofit into a Hockey Canada facility was first touted, little in that idea made me think anything would change. People would come to the facility, eat at the facility concession if they needed to, and then leave – again, no benefit to the surrounding community. The plan needs to be a broader area plan, not just a one-off plan for the coliseum and its footprint.

    The city, either by insidious design or wanton negligence (maybe a little from columns A and B), have made the collapse of the coliseum a self-fulfilling prophecy. To me, the whole downtown arena gambit created a backdoor opportunity to finally rid Edmonton of Northlands. The organization had its time and had arguably worn out its welcome and the public trust. The trouble is the city never thought far enough ahead to determine what the organization/site should be replaced with. And here we are.

    Now we have Blatchford and the Northlands site as two supposed infill boons to the city that have stalled out because of a lack of foresight and acumen.

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