There’s a whole lot of unanswered questions around the new arena and entertainment district

EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked urban writer Richard White what questions he had about the proposed entertainment district in Calgary, and the possibility of a new arena. We’d like to hear yours too. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below this article.


What happens if we spend hundreds of millions on revamping the area around Victoria Park and the area around the Stampede grounds — trying to turn it into a dynamic, new, private-money-generating entertainment district — and the whole damn thing withers on the vine?

A new arena, an expanded BMO Centre and an expanded and renovated Arts Commons. Fancy new hotels, dozens of funky condos and a street full of bars and restaurants.

City council discussed the proposal last Monday, and then, deciding it needed more information, sent it back to administrators. Obviously, they still have questions that need answers. After years of writing on urban development in Calgary, I have my own.

We need to go into this with our eyes wide open.

Who are the ‘stakeholders’?

The Ernst and Young (EY) report on the project that the city is using as a baseline is a little loosey-goosey for my liking.

First, it says if the city spends money it will have a positive impact on the city’s economy and attract private investment. Really? You could invest a billion bucks anywhere in the city and it would have a positive impact.

Second, we need to know who EY talked to for this report. Who said what?

They only list government agencies as the key stakeholders. Did they talk to residential and commercial developers?

I have no idea what their rationale was for saying the area might attract 8,000 new residential units and 250,000 square feet in retail development. Has someone committed to something? Has there been a formal expression of interest? Or is this more of a hope?

Then there’s the new arena — and we should really stop calling this anything other than an arena.

A Calgary Flames game at the Saddledome. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

As of yet, no one has really shown how a new arena would draw in anything (other than a few concerts) that the Saddledome doesn’t already bring in. I doubt the existing ice shows, monster truck shows or circus shows really care.

The new arena is all about what the Flames want, full stop.

And the question remains: Who, exactly, is going to pay for what they want?

Big money, big risk

Another problem with this plan is that if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound.

The EY report showcases the creation of new, successful, sports and entertainment districts in Edmonton, Columbus, Denver and Nashville.

But — and this is a big but — the reason these areas worked is because they were part of a new cluster of facilities. So, if city council does this, it has to do all of it.

For the project to work, public money from all levels of government would need to mix with the right level of private money.

It’s some very big cash, and thus a very big risk that all the economic factors will line up.

And let’s talk about cannibalizing other development.

Add here, take away there

​Drawing a lot of new development into one small part of town will take away from other parts of town.

There is only so much private development cash to go around. If you’re knocking up a huge condo in the new entertainment district, you’re not going to be putting another in say, Crowfoot.

Thus, a revamped Victoria Park area will be competing with other parts of town. Say, East Village, which is unfinished and already showing signs of slowing development.

Condominiums in Calgary’s East Village community. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The same goes for bars and restaurants. Would new bars concentrated in the entertainment district draw people away from those on 17th Avenue? On Fourth Street? Stephen Avenue?

On the plus side, I think the expansion of the BMO Centre makes sense, as it is a natural evolution of the building and its operations. I love incremental growth.

However, one has to wonder what that means for the future of the Calgary Telus Convention Centre. Does the city need both facilities? If not, then what?

And while it would be nice to have a couple of new hotels near the BMO Centre, these too would potentially draw business away from other, existing hotels.

Then there is the whole design of this plan.

Community and cash

I have been advocating for a while that Victoria Park and the area near the Stampede grounds need to become a vibrant residential community, not just an entertainment/cultural district, which, by the way, it already is.

But are high-rise towers really the answer?

The current rendering in the master plan for the area shows dozens of what look like high-rise residential towers bunched up in Victoria Park.

A rendering shows a view of Victoria Park in 50 years, with condos and a new arena visible — but no Saddledome. (CMLC)

It’s density, but not good density. High-rises don’t make for pedestrian friendly streets.

While there are other development plans for this entertainment district, which look at urban design, it’s unclear how the EY report links to the Beltline plan, the Stampede/Victoria Park master plan, and the city centre plan under review.

Whatever the level of risk, it needs to be made clear.

For those who think Victoria Park is going to miraculously fill up with new residents flocking to be near a new arena and expanded BMO Centre, well, I think we should be cautious about counting on this cash. We’re more likely to drag in some tourists and conventioneers.

While we’re on the subject of cash, it should also be noted the city said no community revitalization levy (CRL) dollars will be used to fund the new arena. We’re told it will be some kind of a mix of public and private funding.

But what are the hard numbers?

Even slow and steady may not win the race

While I am cautious, I am also excited by the plans for the redevelopment of this part of town, which is long overdue.  

I have to remind myself it won’t happen overnight. It will take 20-plus years.

The EY report presents a plan for how three major projects might be phased over the next 10-plus years as a catalyst for development. It’s an aggressive schedule. And it needs to be a balance of building what we can, when we can, at the same time as building enough at once to create a self-sustaining area.

Tricky, that.

But it still counts on so many economic variables. If the plans lead with all of the publicly funded projects first, in the hope that private-sector projects will follow, it could be a recipe for disaster.

I hope come April, when administrators make their report back to council, these questions are all answered and council makes sure all of us in Calgary understand those answers.

We only have so much cash, and we have to be very certain we are spending it right, especially in uncertain economic times.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary’s special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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Sherwood Park

Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area.[7] It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary,[8] generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road).[9] Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.[9]

Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016,[6] Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.

History

Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.
Geography

The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton.[8] The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.

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