Where to build Stadium?

Best bet – where not many people usually go

Five years ago the City of Winnipeg rewrote the downtown zoning by-law.  As part of the process, the planning department reviewed the range of building and land uses that would be appropriate in the city’s centre.  This review was carried out amid an international consensus that more diverse types of use are best for downtowns – and that blanket restrictions prohibiting certain land uses should be implemented only with great restraint.  The authors of the new zoning bylaw noted that an asphalt plant would not be permitted in our downtown, and that only extremely noxious, or obnoxious, land use would be prohibited.

The relaxation of use restrictions is probably a good thing for urban centres.  A fairly permissive environment makes it easier for entrepreneurs to initiate projects, and for unexpected uses to appear as the marketplace explores new directions.  This represents a sea change in planning attitudes – a welcome change to the overly predictive and restrictive zoning most cities had for the preceding 50 to 60 years.  Yet as this new laissez-faire consensus has become law, we may want to determine what projects really do deserve prohibition.  What kinds of development really are destructive to the economic and social health of our cities’ downtowns?

One obvious candidate for such prohibition in a lively downtown is large-scale surface parking.  Another is a stadium.  Manitoba’s senior federal minister, Vic Towes, announced this spring that Winnipeg’s new stadium should be built “downtown”.  In this context, downtown was defined, rather surprisingly, as Point Douglas, and the announcement was made with the apparent belief that any government largesse should, in principle, be located in the city centre, and that it would inevitably lead to an downtown growth.

It is a truism in city planning that there is a significant difference between arenas (hockey, basketball, boxing, mid-scale rock concerts) and stadiums (football, mega-concerts) in relation to their impact on urban surroundings.  The emblematic arenas in North America are probably Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden – mid-scale urban venues that have a large number of diverse events year-round.  Our arena, MTS Centre, now has over 250 events each year – an astounding five per week.  This level of relatively constant and steady use fosters, over a period of years, a certain equilibrium between users, local infrastructure, and local spin-off commercial activity.   The general experience has been that arenas like ours prove to be positive urban generators of business and city life.

A stadium, however, is a different animal.  The number of events in stadiums is limited by their size, and they often showcase only 15 to 20 events per year – each attended by a massive and sporadic influx of audience members. It is difficult for normal urban enterprises to coexist with such a variable presence.  The Hubert Humphrey Stadium was built in 1980 in central Minneapolis as the home of the Minnesota Vikings.  Even though the stadium was covered, and thus able to house more events than an open-air facility, the sporadic-massive-influx characteristic of large stadium was inevitable.  The only neighbours to survive the powerful presence of the stadium are surface parking lots and sports-oriented drinking establishments – and even these have to survive on intense, occasional business opportunities.

Chicago’s Soldier Field might be considered “downtown” because it is on the lakefront and central to greater Chicago; however, it is a good distance from any area that might be considered downtown, or mixed-use, or urban.  Because it is in a large park, far from any urban environment, the massive sporadic influx of users in Soldier Field has had little negative impact on Chicago’s downtown, and the relationship, if not one of spurring urban development, seems to be non-destructive.

Montreal’s Percival Molson Stadium sits in urban surroundings in ways that are very similar to Soldier Field – it is centrally located but is not an integral part of downtown – and it is surrounded by mixed-use, populated urban areas.  Montreal’s stadium is tucked away in a corner of Mount Royal at the north side of the McGill University campus.

Cincinnati has built two massive new stadiums in its downtown over the past decade.  Both are architecturally handsome, and both were meant to contribute to the rebirth of Cincinnati’s centre.  They were constructed side by side along the Ohio River, isolated from downtown by urban expressways, and surrounded by large parking lots.  One has simply to look at an aerial view of Cincinnati on Google Earth to understand how misguided the two large projects were in terms of creating downtown vitality, and how sad it was to turn the city’s back, once again, on the river that was the community’s original raison d’être.

The new Winnipeg stadium, wherever it is constructed, will not have a roof. This is because caveats were placed against the stadium in order to protect the MTS Centre from competition.  An uncovered stadium will have fewer, and necessarily more sporadic, events than a covered facility.  And the impact of this restriction will be to heighten the “black hole”, or vacuum, impact of the stadium on its surroundings.

If stadiums are a necessary part of large cities, where are they best located?  I suspect that Chicago, Montreal tell the story rather nicely:  Such facilities belong in areas that already endure sporadic incursions of large numbers of people. And they belong in areas in were there is no adjacent existing fine-scaled urban fabric or mixed-use.  In Winnipeg the location of our existing stadium in Polo Park seems to fit the criteria for good location rather well.

Land values also have a bearing on the location of a stadium.  Car dealerships and large-scale athletic facilities are both attracted by large parcels of low-cost available land.  As land values rise these facilities tend to search for lower-cost locations, where their relatively low-per-square-foot earning power is more closely related to land value.  Might it be that the high land values in the Polo Park area (possibly the highest in the city) may be too financially attractive to waste on sporadic athletic use?

If this is the case, we may wonder about who would benefit from the sale of the current stadium lands – and whether the idea of moving to riverfront lands in Point Douglas is driven more by the search for easily expropriated, relatively cheap land than by dreams of a revitalized urban core.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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