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.
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!