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Money For Nothing

15 Jan

I was happy to have a chance to talk about the downtown arena, and in particular some of the questions asked in the City of Edmonton’s recent poll of Edmontontians, on the Rob Breakenridge show tonight. Audio is here.

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Think Small

3 Nov

“But profound change is more likely to result from a deeply considered idea that alters an essential component of an urban environment than from an elaborate master plan that requires abundant resources and considerable political capital.”

A Place Is Better Than a Plan, Andrew M. Manshel

Good Design, Bad Design: Library vs. Arena showdown [Winnipeg Edition]

29 Aug

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Urbane Adventurer, a blog written by Zoe Todd. Many thanks to Zoe for allowing me to post it here.

One of the things that immediately caught my attention when I first visited Winnipeg this summer was the downtown Winnipeg arena (the MTS Centre); with all of the debate going on in Edmonton about the Downtown Arena, I was keen to dig a little into the history and narrative of the MTS Centre, which is sometimes pointed to as an example of a successful catalyst for downtown revitalization. As an Edmontonian eager to see our own downtown managed in a way that most benefits the city, I was curious to deconstruct the powerful discourse around this Canadian arena.

Now, this post will begin with a caveat: I am not an architect, nor am I a city planner. I don’t have all of the technical language or training to assess the success of the building as a revitalizer of the Winnipeg downtown core from a professional perspective. However, I do feel that I have the tools to assess how the building affects people on the street like me, and my experience living in a city so similar to Winnipeg gives me some insight into how this could translate to an arena project in Edmonton. So, in my last few weeks in Winnipeg I decided to document how the MTS Centre interacts with the people and buildings around it.

You can find some background on the building here.

This article by Nick Ternette in the ‘Uniter’ highlights the tension between the claims of the pro-arena stakeholders and the reality of how the arena has impacted downtown Winnipeg. As the author notes: “The real reason that downtown revitalization has failed is urban sprawl, the lack of people living downtown (13,000 as compared to 45,000 just 15 years ago) and the closing of businesses after 6 p.m. Just look at how empty the area is after business hours.”.

I think these are words for Edmonton to weigh heavily. The lesson is that no one amenity can revitalize a city’s core–to claim that an arena in our downtown core will deliver all of the things that are being promised is wishful thinking at best. What is really impacting our ability to attract people to the city centre is the overall structure of our city, and decisions we’ve made over the last few decades regarding where and how people will live. While my preference would be to reuse the existing arena, I am also somewhat resigned to the fact that even if overwhelming evidence suggests that the downtown arena is not a good return on investment, it will still be built. Therefore, my hope is that if our city is going to invest such a large sum of money into the building (money that could easily have huge and immediate impacts in a plethora of other city areas and initiatives) that we can find a way to build an arena that is thoughtfully designed, conscious of the negative impacts it can have and does not divert money that would be better spent elsewhere to achieve revitalization and urban renewal aims.  However, with the power balance between the proponent, the legislators (city council), and tax-payers being what it is, I fear that we will cave to the demands of a group co-opting the trendy notions of urban revitalization to their advantage to get their hands on prime real-estate in a city core in rapid transition.

I think that we need to separate the two threads of the pro-arena argument, because ultimately two major ideas are at play in the arena debate. One aim is to keep the Oilers in Edmonton. The other aim is to revitalize downtown. These two things may have commonalities, but at the end of the day they are two separate ideas:

a) the arena itself is a sports facility. The main aim of the facility is to house an NHL team, one that the city is emotionally and mythically invested in (and one whose main aim is to make money, period).  The ultimate claim that propels this project is that the Oilers group feels that they need more seats. That is a fair concern–however, is it really worth spending $400 million for 2,000 more seats?  Surely there are more economical ways to address capacity concerns in the existing facility.

b) Trying to roll a whole bunch of other facilities into the plan in order to ‘sell’ the project is risky–once a project tries to be all things to all people there is a huge chance that it will only achieve many things at a mediocre level. Furthermore, urban revitalization needs to be separated from the discourse around the arena. True urban revitalization needs to focus more holistically on the deep-down culture of city planning  and development in this city–and we need to tackle sprawl in meaningful and effective ways. We need to ask ourselves why the downtown core is seen as unsafe or unappealing to so many Edmontonians–and also to question how disparity plays into our narratives about what parts of the city are valuable and which are not.  Why is it that downtown is seen as a place that can be continuously torn apart and built again? Would we ever consider marching into Wolf Willow or Terwillegar Towne or Glenora and telling the people who live there that what they really need is a huge, culturally homogeneous multi-million dollar project to improve their lives?  And why is our downtown–one of the city’s assets in terms of how dense it already is compared to our suburbs–always acted upon and problematized while the suburbs that are contributing so much to the environmental and economic unsustainability of the city are allowed to continue so haphazardly?  I think we need to be bold and courageous in building and creating things that define our city as the vibrant place that it already is. And we need to deconstruct ideas that tell us that the downtown is a place that needs to be invaded by these types of large-scale projects that ultimately benefit a powerful few but don’t necessarily nurture the small-scale and diverse interactions that make a city resilient and strong.

So, with that in mind, let me take you on a tour of the MTS Centre, as seen through the eyes of one young twenty-something with a passion for urban issues.

The building itself is fairly conventional: it resides on Portage Street (which is a lot like Jasper Ave).  It takes up an entire block, and offers a handful of restaurants (a Moxie’s, a Tim Hortons, an Arby’s). There are some vendors that were closed at lunch hour when I visited, but appear to be open during events in the centre.

There is also parking in the back of the building, and a second building to the West of the arena houses a bar and the CTV offices. The arena is surrounded by a number of office buildings and stores, including a Mountain Equipment Co-op, a Dollar store, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network headquarters, ‘The Bargain Store’, a church, the Radisson Hotel, the Millennium Library, the City Place Mall, and is connected to a number of buildings that surround it via pedways elevated above the street. There are three major malls in the Winnipeg downtown core: these include Portage Place, City Place (directly connected to the arena via a pedway), and Winnipeg Square (located beneath the street and accessible via the infamous intersection of Portage and Main).

One thing that I noticed immediately were the number of empty buildings that surround the arena, six years after its construction.  To be fair there are a number of vacant buildings throughout the entire downtown core:

The black and white building picture in the left of this image used to house A&B sound.  It is directly across the street on the northeast corner of the arena. It is being leased by the company that owns the MTS Centre to house the Body Worlds Exhibit this year, and is slated for demolition after the exhibit ends in order to make way for a hotel.

The beige building in the centre of this image, which is directly across from the northwest corner of the MTS Centre, used to house an RBC bank, but the bank moved to the new Manitoba Hydro building a block west of the arena. The building is now empty.

The method:

I visited the building between 11 AM and 12:15 PM on a Sunny Monday (August 16).  The weather was a touch cool (+15) that day, compared to the week of blazing temperatures that preceded it. I wandered throughout the building with my camera, observing how people were moving through the space, and also trying to document what facilities exist in the building and how the facility interacts with the streets around it.

As I moved through the building (or at least the parts that I had access to) I was struck by how few people were in the space.

There are some nods to the fact that the building is on the site of the historic Eaton’s building:

It was also interesting to see how little activity there was in the restaurants in the arena. I saw about 20 people dining in the Tim Hortons and Arby’s area:

There are a number of restaurants that appear to be open during events, but were closed during lunch hour when I visited:

When I stepped outside, I noted how little interaction there is between the building and the sidewalk: on all sidewalks that ring the building there was very little pedestrian activity, especially the south, east and west sides of the building.  The portion of the building facing Portage avenue offers more activity, but the building is not designed to encourage people to enter or explore the space from this main drag, other than to attend specific ticketed events or to squirrel yourself away into one of the food establishments buried inside the complex. It is possible that the cooler weather influenced the lack of pedestrian activity around the building. However, the form of the building does not really engage pedestrians or encourage them to interact with the building, either. The one restaurant structure (a patio) that does emerge onto Portage avenue is lined by a tall, partially frosted glass wall that stops patrons from seeing or engaging in street life (and, probably very intentionally, prevents people on the street from interacting with diners).  The perimeter of the building is marked by blank walls, doors designated for ‘staff only’, and parking infrastructure.

By contrast, I stepped across the street and entered the Millennium Library to see how that space was being used at lunch hour:

The library was recently renovated by Patkau Architects and LM Architectural Group; I used the space as a place to work on my thesis this summer and I was really impressed by the number of people who used the library throughout the day, and how the well-designed space invited people into it.

One nit-picky note: the entrance to the library allows enough space for people to move freely and safely into and out of the building. Unlike our downtown library, the main transit stops are located across the street (westbound buses) and across from the MTS Centre (eastbound buses).  I never felt unsafe or crowded when trying to access the library. This was a welcome change from the inadequate space in front of our library for patrons and transit-riders to access the building and transit.

One other thing I love about the Millennium Library is that the Children’s section has a whole ‘Aboriginal reading-in-the round’ section full of Aboriginal books. This is pretty great for a city with such a large Aboriginal population (and benefits both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people).

It is not clear from the photos, but the library was PACKED. There were people all over the place, including the cafe near the entrance.  It is also exciting to note that the library is renovating the plaza behind the building and creating a Millennium Garden that promises to be a really great addition to downtown life.

In my opinion, the library serves as a much more powerful and effective magnet for daytime downtown life than the arena. The arena does indeed draw people into the core sporadically: on nights when there were concerts (such as the Black Eyed Peas show two weeks ago) it was clear that thousands of people were coming downtown, but they also fled really quickly after the events.  In terms of sustainable and manageable downtown street-life, I think there’s something to be said for a ‘sustained burn’ encouraged by a building (and public service) like the Millennium Library instead of a rapid and sporadic influx from a building like the MTS Centre.

Based on my observations I’m not convinced that the Winnipeg arena, as executed, is actually very impressive as an urban renewal tool.  The library fares much better: the stunning architecture, the thoughtful layout of the outside and inside space and the future Millennium garden to further encourage people to interact with the building does a much better of drawing people into the area.

Edmonton should consider this when deciding how to proceed with the arena proposal. Some questions to bear in mind:

  • Will the structure add to day-time street-life?
  • How will rapid influxes of fans and concert-goers be managed?
  • Will it bring people to the city core in a sustained way?
  • Will the arena complex nurture our amazing local restaurant industry or will it further marginalize local entrepreneurs (ie: do we need another Moxie’s in the arena when businesses like Bistro Praha are struggling to find a suitable space?).
  • How will it contribute to community and human interactions (the lifeblood of a resilient and livable city)?
  • Will it be physically arresting or a re-hash of mediocre architecture (something we can do without)?
  • Furthermore, how will an arena district impact socio-economically disadvantaged residents of the downtown core? Will people who rely on services located close to the proposed arena location be displaced? How would this affect non-profits that serve this population–will they be compensated if they need to move to better serve their clients?
  • Are there more effective ways to spend several hundred million dollars to foster a functional and inviting and thriving downtown core?

In any case, I am not convinced that arenas deliver on the hype.  Let’s call a spade a spade: arenas are for sports teams. They serve a very specific market, and are homes for private businesses.  There are ways to encourage public benefits in sports complexes, but ultimately arenas are a pretty expensive way to deliver those benefits.  Investing our money in good public infrastructure and smart investment in local talent and business would be a more diversified (and thus resilient) way to foster a vibrant urban core.  I also think that doing things to curb sprawl (ie: creative downtown infill development, firmer controls on suburban sprawl, doing  a really good job with the airport redevelopment) should take precedent over flashy one-off facilities.  As a citizen I am very concerned about how much public money would be spent on an arena complex, and I hope my observations contribute to this debate in a constructive manner.

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*A note on rigour: I wish I could have observed the space over many days throughout the summer to measure activity and movement in a more rigorous way. Although I was informally observing the space throughout the summer, my schoolwork prevented me from setting up camp and studying the MTS Centre scientifically.  I also didn’t visit the Moxie’s or the bar in the arena complex at lunch, so I can’t determine how busy they were at noon. However, given my overall impressions of the building I think there are some things about it that should be considered very critically by those concerned about how a downtown arena will affect Edmonton.

**One thing I do like about the MTS Centre is the front entrance: