A lot has changed in Calgary since 1983. The population has doubled from 600,000 to just over 1.2 million. The city has hosted an Olympics and the local hockey team, the Flames, has hoisted a Stanley Cup. But not a lot has changed around Victoria Park since the now-Scotiabank Saddledome opened its doors in the fall of 1983.
That fact may be one of the key sticking points in negotiations between the Flames and city council regarding a new arena for the hockey club in Victoria Park.
A brief history of nothing much happening
The Olympic Saddledome opened in 1983 in the heart of Stampede Park in southeast Calgary. At the time, the eastern side of Victoria Park was transitioning from being a residential area into being a weird in between area buffering the East Village to the north and Stampede Park to the south. Stampede Park was, and still is, primarily parking lots and a few intermittently-used exhibition halls, while the East Village wasn’t exactly a place people felt comfortable roaming through at any time of day. In the intervening decades, not a lot changed.
The Flames spent their first decade in the building as a mere tenant; the lack of development around the building was probably an annoyance, but it also wasn’t really their problem. Following a 1994 negotiation, the Flames sunk a bit of their own money into fairly extensive renovations to the Saddledome and became the operator of the building. Suddenly, the fact that they were surrounded by a whole lot of nothing became a concern.
The Stampede Board engaged in some land acquisition, culminating in their 2007 master plan and promises to finally develop Stampede Park. An entertainment district was promised, including the opening of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville on Olympic Way. But it never happened, possibly as a consequence of the 2007-09 “great recession” and the 2015 oil price collapse. If you take a look at Stampede Park alone, only the new Agrium building has really been built since the Flames arrived. Even in the surrounding area, only a handful of new major buildings have been built (and most of them are condos).
Throughout all of this, the Flames have probably been Stampede Park’s most consistent long-term tenant, and arguably the primary reason the average Calgarian would trek into the area outside of the 10 days in July where everyone wears cowboy hats.
An even briefer history of actual results
After decades of peering out their back windows and staring at urban blight, the City of Calgary actually decided to do something near the end of Dave Bronconnier’s term as mayor. In 2007 the city spun off the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) – a subsidiary corporation of the City itself, designed to help aid in land development – and set them to work on making the East Village a place actual people would want to hang out. Their consultations resulted in the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan and the City brokered a Community Revitalization Levy to help fund the infrastructure work needed to lure developers. When Naheed Nenshi was elected mayor in 2010, he joined CMLC’s board.
In the past few years, the East Village has undergone a massive turnaround as CMLC and their partner organizations have ticked off boxes from their 2007 plan. The neighbourhood is on the rise and features cool anchor projects like the National Music Centre and the soon-to-be-completed new Central Library.
In early 2016, they turned their eyes south to Victoria Park and 193 acres of unrealized potential in Stampede Park, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Stampede Board to take the reins of progressing development in the park. The Stampede has the land, while CMLC has a clear track record of recent success just north of there. That leaves the Flames as but one voice at a rather crowded table deciding the future of the area – others listed on the CMLC website include Calgary Stampede, Remington Developments, Victoria Park BIA, the Beltline, Ramsay and Inglewood community associations, the Green Line development team, and Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley.
“As well the city would facilitate the development of the additional lands, and CSEC would have an opportunity to participate in that development as well,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi last week at City Hall.
If you’re the Flames and have hung in there in Victoria Park through thick and thin, being one of many voices dictating the future of your neighbourhood probably isn’t the dream situation.
An eye to the West Village
The development of Stampede Park, when it eventually happens, will likely be a product of many, many meetings, compromises and debates. Relationships, biases and views are already probably well-established – in particular with the various municipal agencies and bodies, who have a pretty clear idea of the type of development they’d like given their success in the East Village.
A significant positive attribute for the CalgaryNEXT proposal in the West Village, for the Flames, was the developmental blank slate it provides. Compared to the East Village, the West Village has been a bit of an afterthought; by diving in first, the Flames could bear the positive goodwill of getting it caught up to the rest of the downtown and have the benefit of getting in first and helping direct the type of development that would happen.
Alas, the project never really got off the ground for a laundry list of reasons. As a result, the Flames are back to square one: Stampede Park, once again a voice at an ever-crowded table.
A difference in philosophy
After attending both press conferences last week and parsing the comments from Nenshi and Flames President Ken King, it’s abundantly clear that the chasm between the two sides isn’t merely material – it’s philosophical.
“We’ve seen the Saddledome has not achieved anything in terms of development around it, in terms of helping Victoria Park,” said Nenshi. “We pretty much razed Victoria Park and put up parking lots there. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville never came, the much-promised Margaritaville. So to get this right, the arena can work as the centerpiece for new development, but it has to be done very thoughtfully and has to be done in a way that does not steal from the rest of the city.”
When asked, King shared a certain degree of skepticism in regards to the development potential for Stampede Park.
“We have a development partner, we have retained a development partner to work around here,” said King. “We have to be clearly assured, part of which is through our own doing and part of which is through the City’s doing, that this will be a vibrant area because if we just move 300 yards north and we’re surrounded by surface parking lots and lousy transportation corridors, no services and it’s a good place to come 100 nights a year, we’ve got nothing. We all have to make sure, if this was ever to happen, that it’s vital, it’s beautiful, it’s unique and, God forbid I’m going to say this, like the Ice District or things like that. That it can be compelling and can be cool.”
CMLC also has a development partner involved in the development of the Rivers District, one who probably isn’t the same as the Flames’. Similarly, the City has a very specific idea of what development in Stampede Park should be. Nenshi shared an anecdote when speaking at City Hall.
“I stayed at a brand new hotel in Edmonton recently, the Hyatt Place on the east end of downtown,” said Nenshi. “And I recently read an article that said the Hyatt Place is operating at about 50% occupancy because all the construction that was supposed to go around it has ended. And all of the construction in downtown Edmonton is only in the Ice District, which is not achieving property tax for the city because it’s part of a CRL district. So if for example we had office development, office towers going up around the arena, that wouldn’t help the city at all. That would take our 30% vacancy rate downtown and increase it. So if we are thoughtful with private sector development partners and CSEC and the Stampede on the convention center, then the arena could really work as a catalyst as future development in that neighbourhood. But it has to be done very carefully, it’s not automatic.”
Coincidentally, King mentioned the possible contribution of condos and office towers in the area surrounding the arena – precisely the type of development that Nenshi and the City likely don’t want, preferring more of a “city-scape” model. The City wants to take their time and holistically build a community in the area. The Flames have already taken their time and waited patiently; they probably would just like development of any type to get going already.
Two very different perspectives
The clash isn’t just material, it’s philosophical. The Flames have been there since the ’80s as fundamentally the only anchor tenant in the entire Rivers District – aside some perhaps some drug dealers in the old East Village. They’ve been waiting for development to come to their neighbourhood, hoping to guide it and profit from it. (That’s what CalgaryNEXT was all about.) After biding their time for over three decades, the prospect of being just one voice at a crowded table deciding the fate of Victoria Park probably isn’t very appealing.
But given the success they’ve had with the same approach in the East Village, that’s probably the only way the City wants it to be. That’s the gap that will need to be bridged in order for an arena to move forward.