If you’re going to build a major entertainment venue, place it where there is a density of people to be entertained, where public transit can mitigate increased traffic volumes, and in a manner that provides economic spinoffs and community enhancements.
What seems simple in theory seldom is when politicians, bureaucrats and prickly community groups get involved. But if there is sufficient collective will, it can be done.
Take the redevelopment of Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park. This 40-acre historic sports, exhibition and entertainment site, owned by the City of Ottawa, is located smack dab in the middle of Ottawa, along the Rideau Canal.
The site featured an outdoor stadium that was getting old and tired. In fact, it reached the point where the city decided to demolish its crumbling south bleachers for public safety.
Today, thanks to a public-private partnership (P3), Lansdowne has been remade. There has been a dramatic improvement in public green space and amenities on the site. The P3 partnership was able to create valuable mixed-used residential and commercial space.
Best of all, the amortized cost to the city of this new Lansdowne is no more than what it was already paying to maintain the old Lansdowne in its run-down condition.
Of course, the redevelopment isn’t without its downsides. It isn’t on a primary rapid transit route. And it will take years before it can be considered successful, or not, which will depend in part on the success of the sports teams that make use of the stadium.
Nonetheless, it’s a great example of redevelopment done right in the urban core.
Out in the wilds of Kanata
Then we have the Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Ottawa Senators’ NHL franchise. By this time next year, we will have celebrated its 20th anniversary.
It may sound cliché, but it’s true — it seems like only yesterday Bruce Firestone, and then Rod Bryden, fought to get the place built on what many still consider the edge of the wilderness in Ottawa’s west-end community of Kanata. The development faced Ontario Municipal Board hearings as local residents tried to fight rezoning, and financing challenges as the development company was saddled with having to pay for a new highway interchange.
Even then, there was a vocal counter-argument in favour of a more central location.
I remember being in a meeting with former city councilor Tim Kehoe in the early 1990s. He was pushing for the arena to be built downtown on the site bound by Bank, O’Connor, Laurier and Slater.
At the time, most of that block was vacant or underdeveloped. It was a location where the new Montreal Forum (Bell Centre), which was under construction a few miles down the road, could have fit right in. The site was adjacent to rapid bus transit and in the evening, there were 5,000 vacant parking spaces within six blocks.
Talk about an opportunity missed.
That site is taken up today by a BMO office building, a parking garage and the same older buildings that were there 20-some years ago. There hasn’t been much of a spinoff benefit to the immediate neighbourhood.
On the other hand, there were plenty of people arguing against a more central location for the Sens arena due to concerns about traffic congestion, the uphill battle against NIMBYism and navigating Ottawa’s complex, multi-level bureaucracy that includes a fourth level of government, the National Capital Commission (NCC).
And yet, here we are, all these years later, come full circle.
Making LeBreton Flats less so
In response to a request for proposals from the NCC itself, current management of the Ottawa Senators is actively pursuing a plan to locate a new arena where many people say it should have been in the first place: LeBreton Flats.
Despite its prime central location, Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats has largely been a lame duck since I was in public school, and that’s going back pretty far. But it would be an excellent location for an arena. It lies on two rapid transit and future LRT corridors, with the option of adding a third over to Gatineau.
Filling an arena at LeBreton Flats would be easy, and it wouldn’t generate the highway gridlock of the Canadian Tire Centre. It also has the potential to provide substantial spinoff benefits to its immediate neighbourhood, an area of Ottawa that has already been undergoing much-needed revitalization in recent years.
Location, location, location
Other cities, like Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver, have already seen the value of locating new sports venues centrally rather than beyond the urban fringe.
A central location allows you to reduce travel distance for fans, give them better options to leave the car at home (thereby reducing road capacity demand), attract more visitors with money to spend to that area of the city and increase the odds the venue will be used more often.
It’s heartening to see the development community and bureaucrats finally getting on the same page when it comes to giving central Ottawa a boost. If it isn’t a new hockey arena at LeBreton Flats, hopefully it will be something at least as beneficial, to go along with the redevelopment of the old Domtar lands next door.
We just have to make sure the NIMBYists don’t throw a wrench in the works.
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