Rogers Place arena will serve as the lynchpin of a new strategy to spur growth in Edmonton's downtown core. Image: City of Edmonton

Edmonton's downtown arena begins construction after years of financial wrangling

“It has to be downtown.”

Those words, written in a 2008 report commissioned by the City of Edmonton, kick-started what would become seven years of debate, disagreement and occasionally even despair over the prospect of a new arena. Negotiations between city council and the elusive Daryl Katz, billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers, nearly fell apart several times. There were only two types of Edmontonians during those years: those who wanted a new arena, and those who wished the whole issue would disappear as quickly as the Oilers’ playoff hopes. (Better luck next year, Oil fans.)

But shovels finally hit the ground in March after the city and the Katz Group reached their guaranteed maximum price of $604.5 million just one month earlier. The deal includes not only the $480-million Rogers Place arena, but also a Light Rail Transit (LRT) connection, a pedestrian corridor, a community rink and the Winter Garden, a multi-use space spanning 104th Avenue that serves as the facility’s front door and a gathering place in its own right. Overruns are off the table, and everyone involved couldn’t be more relieved to set aside money matters for the actual work of building the project.

“I will say plainly on behalf of the Katz Group that having worked as hard as we had to work to come to an agreement with the City of Edmonton on funding, we’d like to not have any further funding negotiations as to how to manage an overrun,” laughs Bob Black, a senior executive with the company and executive vice-president of Edmonton Arena Corp.

PCL is construction manager

The city and Katz Group worked with Edmonton-based construction manager PCL Construction Inc. to set the final price, with the exterior envelope, mechanical, electrical and structural steel subcontractors also providing input. If the project comes in under budget, the savings will be split between the owners and PCL. Cost overruns will fall entirely on the construction company, however. Scope changes and unforeseen incidents like damaging storms are the only exceptions.

Still, for some citizens (and city councillors), no project, however grand, can compete with the glory of a freshly filled pothole. Rogers Place—with those dynamic curving lines and an ice-smooth exterior designed to evoke the sport that will fill its seats—defies those who prefer their public projects modest. Rick Daviss, executive director of the arena district project for the city, acknowledges the ambitious arena had to grapple with deep skepticism early on.

“When the first renderings came out and were made public, that changed almost overnight,” he says. “All of a sudden people were looking at it and saying this is special. Nothing looks like this.”

Indeed, the 820,000-square-foot Rogers Place certainly strikes a contrast with its 497,000-square-foot predecessor. Comparatively, the new arena offers only a minor increase in seats: 18,461 versus Rexall Place’s 16,839. It also provides only 56 suites, while the older building has 64. Instead, Rogers Place will emphasize its 1,100 loge seats—designed in groups of four to six around tables to create a sports bar feel—which will likely appeal more to Edmonton’s small- and medium-sized corporate base than pricey luxury boxes, Black says.

Designing to fit with Edmonton is crucial to the facility’s success, which is also why the arena is aiming for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification. According to city rules, new municipally owned facilities must be LEED certified. Daviss suggests the city could very likely have been convinced to waive that rule for Rogers Place, given the difficulties of building an arena that meets the environmental requirements. But Katz Group embraced the challenge, and will be able to boast of building the first LEED silver NHL arena in Canada.

The company found energy savings in the smallest details. There are water-usage controls on the plumbing. Low-emissions paints and adhesives are used, and LED lighting will be installed. Construction waste will be minimized. There are even plug-ins for electrical vehicles. “It’s going to be a very, very efficient building that will minimize carbon footprint,” Black says.

The project, massive as it may be, needs to make sure it steps lightly. Hemmed in by the city’s expanding LRT to the north, busy 104th Avenue to the south, an apartment building to the west and a casino to the east, the arena needs to take advantage of every square inch. “We have no allowance whatsoever on any side,” Daviss says. “The arena is built property line to property line.”

No one wants to have construction occurring next door for 30 months. Imagine if a busy arena with major concerts and rowdy sporting events followed that two-and-a-half-year headache. The situation required a great deal of discussion with the apartment residents and property manager to find a solution, Daviss says.

Any truck leaving the site—and there is one rumbling by every three minutes during the eight-week excavation period—will pass over cattle gates to shake off excess dirt. Wheel washing will also be available as a backup. The road has been divided, with one side dedicated to construction vehicles and the other to residential traffic, which will be given priority.

Once finished, the arena will also have two separate loading bays on the east and west sides to divvy up truck traffic. One will handle food and beverage deliveries, while the other will take care of the dozens of big rigs that can accompany a major touring act. Both will be indoors in order to block the irritating beeping of trucks backing up, Daviss explains.

Catalyst project

Residents will likely have to adjust to more activity if the arena project succeeds. The Katz Group has signed on for a 35-year lease, and it wants the facility to spur an entire new wave of development in Edmonton’s core.

“We think that the downtown is going to change in remarkable ways over the next decade, and we certainly intend to be right at the heart of that,” Black says.

Early signs are positive. Condo projects are already sprouting up in the area, bragging of their proximity to the new arena. Just a few blocks down the street, work is already underway on the new Royal Alberta Museum. MacEwan University will be bringing another 4,000 students to its nearby campus with the recently announced Centre for Arts and Culture. The first new office tower for the arena district—to be developed by Katz Group and WAM Development Group—will begin construction in June. The City of Edmonton will lease 60 per cent of the 27-storey building.

But the arena remains the lynchpin for the downtown growth strategy. Edmontonians may complain about the terms of the final deal or worry about the Oilers’ ability to fill a larger building. They may grouse about traffic delays during construction or on game day. But the success of the city’s capital plan will now ride on this project, like it or not. Fortunately, that’s a burden everyone involved is willing to accept.

“In light of the downtown location, we’ve worked really hard in partnership with the city to design a building that we believe will be enduring,” Black says. “The reality is that it has got to be a great building from day one, but it’s got to be a competitive building for a long time.”

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