The late 20th century rise and speedy 21st century fall of suburban, single-use professional sports venues has left several North American cities — and their teams — with an albatross far from today’s preferred downtown location and associated mix of supporting land uses. Ottawa and Calgary are two current Canadian examples where pressure is mounting to abandon major arenas still far from the end of their structural life cycles and build anew.
From a sustainability perspective, schemes to replace a 30-year-old facility in Calgary or an even newer 22-year-old facility in Ottawa seem out of sync with the philosophy that the greenest of all buildings is the one that hasn’t been built. However, the definition of green is less than black and white when factoring in the potential broader community benefits of the proposed replacements.
“The suburban arenas are more functionally obsolete than they are technically obsolete. No matter how good they are, they are in the wrong location and those locations are very car-intensive,” says Professor James McKellar, director of the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
“Arenas play a social role in sustainability,” adds Mark Lucuik, director of sustainability, based in Ottawa, with the consulting engineering firm, Morrison Hershfield. “People need gathering places for community reasons, and it could play a better social role if it was in a central location.”
Meanwhile, Mark Bessoudo, manager of sustainability and energy research with the consulting engineering firm, WSP, points to two studies that resonate somewhat contradictorily. In 2011, research led by Preservation Green Lab in the United States applied life cycle analysis to calculate the environmental impacts of new construction versus retrofits to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
The researchers concluded that it can take 10 to 80 years, depending on the building type and the climate zone where it’s situated, for the improved energy efficiency of a new building to balance out the negative footprint of its construction. “For those concerned with climate change and other environmental impacts, reusing an existing building and upgrading it to maximum efficiency is almost always the best option regardless of building types and climate,” they advise.
Even so, transportation energy intensity comes into play when almost all building users drive to a site, as is the case with Ottawa’s existing professional hockey arena. A 2007 study led by the U.S. based Congress for New Urbanism found that building occupants would expend approximately twice as much energy commuting to their workplace than would be required to operate a new office building built to 2007 code standards.
“The share of embodied energy (indirectly from construction materials and processes) and transportation energy is only going to increase as buildings become more energy-efficient or get to net-zero energy status,” Bessoudo observes. “I haven’t seen any stats specifically about arenas or stadiums. I think it would be very interesting to do a study and crunch the numbers, but there are so many tradeoffs beyond just the energy aspect or the materials.”
Broader redevelopment vision
Ottawa’s proposed new venue for its National Hockey League (NHL) team is part of a much more comprehensive redevelopment plan for somewhat legendarily vacant lands in the city’s core, known as LeBreton Flats. The National Capital Commission (NCC) currently has oversight of the area, which was razed for what was termed “urban renewal” in the 1960s, but has seen little activity in the intervening years. The newest scheme is a response to the NCC’s 2014 call for proposals, and would begin with the private sector proponents covering the bulk of the costs for the required cleanup of contaminated soil.
An 18,000-seat “major event centre” is just one piece of an envisioned new urban infill community with market and affordable housing, other cultural/recreational facilities and connecting green space. All would enjoy convenient access to Ottawa’s pending light rail transit (LRT) system, now under construction. Other large cities and professional team owners have followed or are considering similar recipes to concoct the symbiosis of a lucrative downtown residential base and amenities to entice and keep it there.
“The new city centres are really driven by culture, arts and entertainment,” McKellar maintains. “In order for a stadium or arena to work today, it has to support more than one team. It needs to be in the city so it can attract a cross-section of people to a cross-section of events.”
Edmonton provides an in-progress example. The new arena on the north edge of the city’s downtown, associated community rinks and an office building housing civic government functions are now complete, while a new commercial office tower, condominium and rental apartment buildings are under construction and scheduled to open in the next one to two years. The 14-month-old home for the city’s NHL team already boasts an extensive slate of concerts and other events, and has spurred hospitality business ventures in the surrounding area.
“It’s really an entertainment district focused around an arena that has about 300 events a year. It’s allowed for concerts that Edmonton couldn’t have hosted without an arena like this one,” says John Frederickson, Colliers Canada’s regional vice president for the Prairies.
Notably, Garth Brooks’ nine sold-out concerts last winter spun off an estimated $42 million to the local economy. Out-of-town hockey fans are also increasingly boosting business.
“The number of people coming from Saskatchewan to games in Edmonton, versus going to Calgary, has gone up,” Frederickson says — and they’re coming to a site where two parking lots, a bus depot and a casino were previously the ranking land uses.
“It’s led to positive economic development,” he submits. “Plus, the timing of it was when the economy in Alberta, and particularly in Edmonton, was slowing. Building a new arena certainly generated a lot of construction jobs, which was good for the community.”
Real estate goals underpin claims of obsolescence
Professional sports facilities could perhaps be called the dogs of commercial real estate since, in recent times at least, they’re purported to age dramatically faster than other building types. Edmonton’s new arena succeeded a 42-year-old incumbent — younger than many of Canada’s super-regional malls and iconic Class A office towers.
“Old arenas in the NHL aren’t necessarily old; they’re just old compared to most of the others,” Bessoudo notes.
“The life cycle of the structure is reasonably 50 years and potentially could be longer, but the design of arenas has changed fairly significantly over the last 40 years,” concurs his colleague, Chris Woit, a principal, in WSP’s structures division.
Toronto’s Air Canada Centre is just three years younger than Ottawa’s scorned Canadian Tire Centre, but their background stories are very different. McKellar credits Toronto’s NHL owners for rejecting prevailing trends of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and the suburban sites proposed when talks of a replacement for the circa-1931 Maple Leaf Gardens first arose.
“They understood that it was better to move deeper into the city than to move outside the city,” he says. “It became a multi-faceted entertainment company. They had the prescience to get ahead of the curve.”
As for Ottawa: “It was a terrible location,” he asserts.
Yet, in many ways, the original developer had the same motivation as today’s team owners. He pitched the arena as an anchor for a new hub between Ottawa’s urban boundary (prior to the 2001 amalgamation) and the developed portion of the suburban city of Kanata, farther to the west.
“What it comes down to is, arenas are all about real estate,” McKellar says. “The owners of the Calgary Flames don’t just want a new arena; they want the land around the arena so they can develop it.”
Getting it right next time
Sustainability isn’t typically in the pro forma. Toronto and Montreal offer examples of more environmentally benign outcomes as the previous homes to their NHL teams served for about seven decades and were then renovated and converted to new uses, but both projects leveraged downtown sites hooked into public transit. Mammoth suburban complexes tend to be weaker candidates for this kind of adaptive reuse.
“The term I would use for this is, wasted durability,” Lucuik reflects. “This is not a good thing from an environmental perspective, but you really have to weigh what systems and elements are in the building now against what we could have in the future for those purposes. The current location is very dependent on its users driving to it, so let’s get it right next time. ”
Thus far, anecdotal evidence suggests many Edmonton hockey fans and concert-goers are willing to leave their cars at home. That’s in a city — like Ottawa — not renowned for mild winter weather.
“There was an expectation from many parking lot owners around the downtown that there would be a spike in parking lot revenue and occupancy, and that hasn’t really happened,” Frederickson reports. “I think a large number of fans are using the LRT. That’s one of the positives from a sustainability perspective.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.