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Editorial: Get past the Calgary arena deal, on to making it work for citizens

My wife and I have a bucket list.

We want to attend a sporting event at the stadium/arena for all the four major sports teams: NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB.  I know, tall task. And an expensive one at that. Thank goodness some of these cross over.

Over the past 12 years, we’ve managed to hit a pretty good number – 14. They stretch across North America; from San Diego and Seattle on the west coast, Phoenix to Denver and Chicago and on east to Brooklyn and Manhattan. (We did see the Tragically Hip play at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg on their final tour, too.)

With Thursday’s announcement that the City of Calgary, the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and the Calgary Stampede had signed a “definitive” agreement for a new Event Centre and pushed forward the Rivers District Master Plan, it got me thinking.

The deal is done.

As much as I love the Calgary Flames, I didn’t agree with public money for a new arena. I don’t need to go into all the actual – not rhetorical – business cases why it may not do everything people say it will do.

It’s signed. Now we must move on. How do we do that?

Influence the ‘placemaking’

Let’s look at how we can influence the new building and the area around it to ensure that it meets the “catalytic” state so many of its proponents talk about.  

Incoming CMLC president, Kate Thompson, speaking to the Event Centre Assessment Committee on Dec. 5.

Incoming CMLC president Kate Thompson said whether it meets that “catalytic” state depends on how the area is developed. She talked about the history of arenas over time as being a rink with a box around it.

“And not much consideration for how it meets the street or connects or brings people in or conversely, takes people out onto the street to kind of prolong the experience,” she told a recent Event Centre committee meeting.

“So how do you activate that community space and beyond the edges?”

It’s a good question. Thompson said they’ve seen and reviewed numerous examples of successful recent stadium executions abroad.

In our journeys, my wife and I have attended games at old stadiums (San Diego’s NFL stadium has duct tape holding electrical work together in the concrete concourse rafters. Oh, and leaks from above.), refurbished arenas like the famed Madison Square Garden and newer arenas like the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn.

You can see the difference between them. Not just in their design, which is obvious, but their planning, too. The old ones are big blocks placed in the middle of massive parking lots with very little for people except tailgating. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. The Buffalo Bills fans, while passionate, are also warm and friendly and make very good smokies.

The new facilities show off a much different street-facing value. The sporting event isn’t confined to just the venue.

How the new arenas and stadiums are different

State Farm Stadium in Phoenix (2006), where the NFL Cardinals play, and the nearby Talking Stick Resort Arena, are placed among restaurants, theatres and shopping. It’s very communal. They have a massive green space adjacent to it where painted buses, booths and games are set up for thousands before NFL games.

The arena in Phoenix is next to the NFL stadium and surrounded by shops, restaurants and bars. GOOGLE

One of our favourite things to do before a Cardinals afternoon game was to sit and eat early lunch and drink a few brews while watching the morning NFL games on the scads of TVs in the nearby sports bar. Then, we just walked to the stadium, five minutes away. It was a whole day thing.

At Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre, there’s a massive plaza where people gather before, during and after the Brooklyn Nets games (and presumably the NHL Islanders).  The subway stop is a block from the stadium for easy access.

While the arena is newer than most, the immediate area is in the early stages of gentrification. You can see it happening. 

That arena is very much street facing. You walk right in from Flatbush Avenue and Pacific Street. There’s activity all around you.

The newer NHL / NBA arenas all have this. Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, and even Edmonton’s new Rogers Place (2016) – they all flow into the streets, no longer surrounded by the parking lot moat.

Photo of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. GOOGLE

(Here’s a cool piece by the Columbus Dispatch on the effect of this kind of arena development.)

Outside view of the Pittsburgh arena. GOOGLE

In other places, like New York and Toronto, where the arenas are a little older and confined by the limits of their downtown neighbourhoods, they’ve adapted the surroundings to create more street facing, communal spaces.

Think Jurassic Park in Toronto.  NBA Finals. It’s about creating a space for people to gather. And not just in the seats.

Calgary Event Centre next steps

Calgarians will get to influence how this is done.

As beloved as the Saddledome is, we can’t let this new arena be a similar execution. It would be an affront to Calgarians and the $290.4 million they’re putting up for this project.

Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Many taxpaying Calgarians already feel that attending an NHL hockey game is a privilege reserved for the few. Inviting the many to participate and engage in the area, regardless of their financial status, is critical for its long-term success.

I’ve wondered myself if I would be able to attend a future Calgary Flames game with my kids, at what will likely be a significantly higher ticket cost. We could still go down and enjoy the atmosphere and spend a few bucks. If that atmosphere is built there.

Public engagement is supposed to begin in early 2020. That’s where many Calgarians will get to express what they expect to see for their tax dollars.

Surely, citizens will expect accessibility for everyone. They’ll expect a variety of options. They’ll expect ease of access, safety, and, to a degree, affordability.

“If we just create a box with a rink in it, we’re not going to be successful,” said Thompson.

Is this what’s meant by a box with a rink? All that grey area is pretty much parking. SCREENSHOT GOOGLE MAPS

I couldn’t agree more.

The deal is signed. We will have a new arena / event centre, with the attached public realm. Likely by 2024.

Let’s not spend our energy looking at the past decision. Let’s focus it on getting this part of it right.

Hopefully my wife and I can add it to our sports arena bucket list.