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Save the Saddledome: Let’s try harder

Is this the end of Calgary’s signature postcard image from Scotsman Hill, i.e. the Saddledome in the foreground and the downtown skyline in the background? 

Part of the deal for Calgary’s new arena (aka event centre), is the Saddledome must be demolished by the City at a cost of about $15 million. 

Many are asking, “Could the Saddledome be repurposed?”  Do we need to try harder to save the Saddledome and find a new use for it that won’t compete with the new arena?

In fact, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have retained their old NHL arenas.

Study looked at Saddledome future uses

The Calgary Saddledome Potential Future Uses Study (June 2017) looked at potential new uses and came up with four options:

  • Operate it without a major tenant
  • Repurpose it into a recreation centre, convention centre, multi-use facility or an Olympic venue (Calgary was still looking at bidding for another Winter Olympics at the time)
  • Decommission it
  • Demolish it

It was concluded transforming the Saddledome into a recreation centre was the only feasible option. The plan was for six ice arenas and three indoor soccer pitches, with the cost to repurpose being $138 to $165 million. 

Ouch! This means spending more money, which the City doesn’t have.

The report also notes that of the 17 other cities (four in Canada and 13 in the United States) that have replaced NHL facilities with new buildings, 11 cities demolished their old arenas and six kept them, but three were later torn down.

Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens was repurposed into a Loblaws grocery store on the main floor and a second floor was added to create the Mattamy Athletic Centre for Ryerson University.  In Montreal, the old Forum was gutted to create a mega entertainment complex with cinemas, shops and restaurants.”

Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum still serves as an arena/event centre within Hastings Park, which includes the Pacific National Exhibition and Hasting Racecourse (horses) and Playland.  Only, Edmonton has opted to demolish its Northlands Coliseum as part of a mega redevelop the entire Northlands Exhibition site.

In all of these cases the new arenas were located some distance away from the old arena rather than just a block away. And what works for one site and one building won’t necessarily work for another.

It should be noted that the Saddledome building is also on the city’s list of historic resources, though it’s not protected.

Call for Saddledome repurpose ideas

The Saddledome is a unique building on a unique site.  So, is there a unique opportunity to save it? Perhaps we could have an international call for proposals to repurpose the Saddledome.  It would be interesting to see what ideas are generated. 

In fact, some Calgarians have already proposed some interesting ideas.  For example, @desmondBLIEK’s suggested on Twitter that the Saddledome could become “a massive indoor waterpark with pool, beaches, slides, hotel, restaurant and retail.”  

Other ideas shared with me include a farmers’ market, a Stampede Museum, Olds College Calgary campus and an incubator for agriculture based start-ups.  Could it be a conventional grocery store or even a downtown Costco? What about home to the Calgary Stampede Headquarters which will surely move as part of the new Stampede Park vision? Could a second floor be added to double the space, so there could be a diversity of uses?  

It has even been suggested it would make a great parkade!  Given it is the iconic shape of the building’s exterior that is most valuable, perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea. 

In Houston, their old arena the Compaq Centre was leased in 2005 to the Lakewood Church for $753,333 (US) per year. In 2010, the City agreed to sell the building to the Church for $7.5 million, considering the Church had invested $95M to renovate the building to converted it into a place of worship for its 40,000 weekly worshippers.

Indeed a mix of uses would help make the building viable, as well as add to the vision of Stampede/Victoria Park as a year-round cultural and entertainment district.

Have we tried hard enough?

Barry Lester, retired VP with Stantec and engineer – who is very familiar with the Saddledome’s architecture – shared with me in an email “with the lower bowl of bleachers removed – a relatively easy task because they’re not an integral part of the building – what remains is a 300 foot diameter floor (65,000 square foot) a clear span space useable for just about anything.”

He goes on to say, “Come on people! This is essentially a “free” building. Let’s not see it destroyed. It could be home to soccer, rodeo, water park, community hockey, Nashville North, livestock shows and auctions etc. Somebody just isn’t trying hard enough.”

Perhaps we’re being too sentimental

In another email, Chris Ollenberger, former President & CEO of Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), a respected urban development champion and an engineer shared with me “I think the repurposing discussion will likely be driven by non-profits who will need additional funding, subsidies and grants to repurpose the Saddledome,” he wrote.

“I can’t foresee a fully private user looking to buy it or operate it on their own with NO subsidies.”  

He added:  “I think we can do something much better with the land after new arena exists. Something that adds true (tax paying) vitality to area. Nostalgia is nice, but in the case of something as big, difficult and expensive to operate as the Saddledome, it’s not a good reason to keep it around.

Last Word

I say, where there is a will, there is a way. We’ve got a few years before the wrecking ball strikes, so let’s put it to good use.  Let’s organize that international call for proposals and see what ideas come forth.

Let’s try harder!