Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, in two parts, March 1, 2014 "The high cost of keeping up" and March 8th, 2014 "City can't be banker for lengthy wish list"
By Richard White, March 8, 2014
I think many of us are guilty from time to time of trying to “keep up with the Jones.” It seems to be an innate human trait. This attitude is even more pronounced when it comes to the “group think” of city building. For centuries, politicians, religious figures and business leaders have been building bigger more elaborate churches, palaces, office towers, libraries, city halls and museums than their predecessors and their neighbouring cities, states, provinces or countries.
The thinking goes like this - if Winnipeg builds a new museum (Canadian Human Rights Museum), we need one also (National Music Centre). If Hamilton, Regina and Winnipeg can build new football stadiums, why can’t we? Vancouver and Seattle have great central libraries so we should have one also.
Edmonton has a new, uber-chic public art gallery, Vancouver is planning one and Winnipeg has had one for decades so what’s wrong with Calgary? We don’t even have a civic art gallery.
When it comes to convention centres, Calgary’s Convention Centre is one of the smallest and oldest in the country - we must need a bigger one. Cities around the world are building iconic pedestrian bridges so we better build two (Peace Bridge and St. Patrick’s Island Bridge). The same logic is used for investing more in public art, downtown libraries and arenas - everyone else is doing it so should we!
Needs vs. Wants
Cities are more than just the sum of its roads, transit and sewers. Imagine Paris, New York or London without their museums, galleries, concert halls, libraries and theatres, as well as their grand public places.
But can Calgary - or any city for that matter - really afford to “keep up with the Jones” when it comes to major facilities like arenas, stadiums, museums, galleries, public art and convention centres? Maybe pick one or two, but not everything!
How do we prioritize our needs vs. wants? Deerfoot and Crowchild Trails both need billion dollar makeovers, the northwest’s sewer system can’t handle one more toilet and we need billions of dollars to build a North and Southeast LRT.
How can we balance our wants with our needs? Can we identify synergies between existing urban development and future mega projects? Who will champion these big projects? Are we willing to take some risks? Can we learn to say “No” sometimes?
Do we need a new stadium?
Let’s strike this one off the list quickly. How can we justify spending $200+ million to build a new stadium, which will host eight home games (attended by 20,000 season ticket holders and another 10,000 to 15,000 people/game who attend depending on the team playing and the weather)? The stadium can’t be used for much else other than the odd concert or two and maybe a major event like the Olympics every 25 years or so. Yes it is used by university teams and amateur teams from across the city, but these games attract at best a few thousand spectators; this could easily be served by stadiums like Hellard Field at Shouldice Park. Let’s renovate what we have and live with it.
Do we need a new arena?
It is amazing how quickly arenas become out-of-date these days. I recall someone telling me a few years ago all arenas are out of date in 15 years. The good thing about an arena is that it is a mixed-use facility used for both junior and professional hockey, lacrosse, ice shows, concerts and other events. If built in the right location and right design, it can be a catalyst for other development around it. Many cities have created vibrant sports and entertainment districts in their City Centre.
That being said, it is hard to accept we really need to spend $400+ million to build a new arena that will seat about the same number of people and probably be within a few blocks of the existing Saddledome (which would probably be torn down if a new one is built)– that just seems wrong. I am also told the post-flood Saddledome is like a new arena with much of the building’s infrastructure having been totally upgraded.
Do we need a new/larger Convention Centre? Civic Art Gallery?
Hmmmm….this could be a tricky one. The current facility is significantly smaller than facilities in other cities our size and stature. Studies have shown there is support for a larger facility in Calgary given its strong corporate headquarters culture and regional and international hub airport.
However, one has to wonder in this age of social media and virtual reality, would a large convention center soon a become white elephant. Convention Centres are also hard to integrate into a vibrant urban streetscape, because they are large horizontal boxes with large entrances for the huge number of people who enter and exit at the same time (not great for street restaurants, café and retailers) and they require huge loading docks and emergency exits are at street level; this means most of the street frontage is doors and docks.
However, there are examples of downtown convention centres that are not just big boxes, but are part of a mixed-use complex adding vitality to several urban blocks – think Seattle and Cleveland. Could a large new convention centre be a catalyst for creating something special in Calgary’s city centre?
Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone! The Glenbow is also in need (want) of a mega-makeover. Could we create a modern convention centre using the existing Glenbow space and the existing convention spaces allowing the Glenbow to move to a new site and new building, becoming both a museum and civic art gallery in the process (something many Calgarians want and some even say we need)?
Conversely, could we expanded the Glenbow and create a Civic Art Gallery using the existing Convention Center spaces and moving the convention centre to another location? This options lead to the question - Is there a logical site for a new convention centre? Should it be on Stampede Park? Are there synergies with the BMO Centre (trade show special event facility), the new Agrium Western Event Centre and the existing Saddledome? We could create the first downtown S&M District (sports and meeting).
Another idea floating around is perhaps a good use of the huge surface parking lots along 9th and 10th Ave would be a create mixed-use complex over the railway tracks to connect the Beltline with Downtown. Could a new convention centre span the tracks in combination with a new hotel, office, condo buildings and maybe public space development? Perhaps a private-public partnership would be a win-win for both sides.
Calgary seems to be at a “tipping point” in its evolution. And let’s face it, with over five billion dollars of debt, the City can’t afford to be best at everything – transit, roads, arena, stadium, convention centre, library, museum, art gallery, public art, recreation centres, parks, pathways, bike paths. What to do? We are already committed to the National Music Centre, $150M, an new central library $245M and looks like plans are proceeding to retrofit the old Science Centre into a public art gallery. While the project is still the very early conceptual phase the budge could very well be on par with the Alberta Art Gallery i.e. $80 million.
Can the city really afford to champion any more mega projects? The city already faces a long list of capital projects that clearly are the sole responsibility of the city. We already have a history of significant cost overruns and delays on projects e.g. the Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant, as well as projects that seem to cost an excessive amount for what is achieved – the airport tunnel and the Travelling Light sculpture.
Perhaps now is the time to get back to basics of municipal governance and focus on the little things that will enhance the quality of life for all Calgarians. I recall a senior urbanist once saying at an International Downtown Conference that great cities, “do the little things right, as well as the big things.” Have we been too focused on the big things?
It should be the role of individuals, groups, or the corporate sector to champion the projects that they want? And by championing the project, that means finding the necessary funding to build them. It is always easy to develop grandiose plans when using someone else’s money.
Q: What should the City’s role be in these projects?
A: It should be the facilitator, not the banker.
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