Paved Paradise?

The arena promised to bring people downtown, and it did – and they’re all driving.

Photography Paul Swanson

Rogers Place opened less than a year ago, and has already welcomed more than two million visitors through its turnstiles. According to Susan Darrington, the Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG)’s vice-president and general manager of Rogers Place, that’s ahead of projections.

That means more visitors, more vehicles needing to be parked and more people on the streets. It means more traffic, but it should also mean a boom for local businesses.

But, truth is, we’re all still working to figure out just how the arena fits into Edmonton’s revamped downtown. Some businesses are seeing wild swings in their rush hours – busy before and after games and concerts, but unnervingly quiet when the band is on stage or Connor McDavid is making yet another spirited dash down the ice.

According to Scott McKeen, the councillor for Ward 6 that includes downtown, “Rogers Place has been a neutron bomb of issues, concerns and positivity.”

And, the biggest issue, the one he says the city is “still playing catch-up” on, is parking.

The Lingnan is located just north of the arena, a few steps from the eerily empty MacEwan LRT station (on P.52). When Rogers Place opened, drivers going to games or concerts would leave their vehicles in the free spots in front of the restaurant, leaving no spaces for restaurant patrons.

“Oilers customers don’t come to us,” said Miles Quon, who manages the 70-year-old eatery. “They park their trucks back here and then walk to the game.”

Miles and his sister, Mandy Quon, met with the OEG’s Stu Ballantyne and the North Edge Business Association to hammer out a solution. In the end, the city put a two-hour limit on the parking spots – long enough for someone to eat at the restaurant, but not enough time for someone going to a concert or game to leave their vehicle behind.

“Both parties helped us a great deal,” Miles says. “Ballantyne was very supportive and looked for ways to assist us.”

Darrington says that meeting with neighbours has been a priority for her staff, whether it be businesses, residents or the nearby social agencies.

“One of the things we want to do is be part of this community and really establish ourselves for the long-term play,” says Darrington, who previously oversaw Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home to Major League Soccer’s Sounders and the National Football League’s Seahawks. “We want to be an integral part of bringing people to downtown Edmonton. The first thing you do is go meet your neighbours and say ‘hi, we’re moving in’ and getting to understand what they’re looking for, what you’re looking for, and building those relationships. We’re going to be here for a long time.”

And, along with the city, OEG is encouraging its patrons not to hunt for free parking that infringes on others in the downtown core.

“We sought to find ways to protect the neighbourhoods, especially to the north, because no neighbourhood should be treated like a parking lot for events or for employees of a nearby institution,” says McKeen.

It’s not that there’s an issue with parking availability close to the arena. There are several underground lots that offer $10 flat rates, a bargain compared to what it would cost to park close to Vancouver’s Rogers Arena or the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. There is street parking and a large surface lot near Rogers Place. It’s the fact that many visitors don’t want to pay a single dime for parking, and will look for nearby residential or commercial areas for it.

McKeen says he’s received complaints about parking from as far away as Riverdale, located in the valley below downtown.

“I don’t think we, and I mean ‘we’ as in Edmonton the city, have really reached a point where I think we can say that we’ve solved the issue. It probably will evolve over time.”

The Businesses

According to Miles and Mandy, there has been a slight uptick in business at the restaurant since it opened. But the parking issues early on, and the fact that businesses to the north are literally walled off from the arena district by the LRT line, have had impacts.

“It’s working for us, but it is challenging,” says Mandy. “They don’t promote MacEwan, they don’t promote using that LRT stop,”

South of the arena, in the 104th Street district, the Blue Plate Diner has seen its business change.

“In general, we have seen an increase in business,” says co-owner John Williams. “A moderate increase, not the huge one that everyone thinks there is. On event nights, the normal amount of business we have for an evening is compressed in the couple of hours before the game or the event. When the event starts, the restaurant is slow. There are regular customers that we have on a normal night who won’t come on an event night if they need to drive downtown. People who aren’t going to the arena will generally avoid driving downtown on event nights.”

The “dead when the game is on” issue is one that will hopefully be addressed as more people move downtown. What McKeen hopes is that, when more residences open, the people living downtown who aren’t going to the games and shows realize that these are great times to go out and support their local restaurants. When the game is midway through the second period, they can get into a lot of great restaurants with no lineups.

“That could be a large silver lining. If people live downtown, there is far less likelihood that the sidewalks will get rolled up at five-thirty or six o’clock,” McKeen says. “The arena opens up downtown as a safe place to come back at night. Rogers Place is the best marketing strategy for downtown.”

Parking vs. Urbanization

The idea of making sure lots of parking is available downtown, and wanting residents to walk the streets more, seem at crossed purposes, but they are not. According to Darrington about, 50 per cent of Oilers guests come from outside of Edmonton.

“It’s a learning curve,” says Darrington. “There’s absolutely an adjustment. Industry-wide, about 20 years ago, everybody started building stadiums and arenas outside of downtowns. I think Rogers Place, being downtown, is a bit of a shift but that’s something that’s a positive experience. And I think if you work through that change well, that’s really the important part.”

McKeen says we need to recognize that, for most of those who come from outlying areas to the downtown, they are going to use their cars and pickups and SUVs to get here. They need parking.

“Edmonton is different and the major employment centre isn’t downtown like it is in some other major cities,” says McKeen. “So, when you have Nisku, and a lot of light industrial in southeast Edmonton, you’ve got the university and the west end the way it is, with West Edmonton Mall, it’s hard to serve that kind of city with transit. So how do you get someone who lives in the West End to Nisku? These are the challenges. It’s not a bad thing the majority of Edmontonians still drive a lot. And, as a city, we want to accommodate that downtown.”

As McKeen notes, the Oilers are committed to building an underground parkade, and there are actually plenty of spots in the area. (Note: I park under the YMCA – flat rate for non-members, $10 – for arena events, two blocks from Rogers Place. It’s never full.)

“If you want to talk about a huge culture shift for people, in many ways, it’s gone really well,” says McKeen. “The Katz Group is investing a pile of money in an underground parkade. And we’re having them ensure that people aren’t using the neighbourhoods to try and find free parking. There’s a ton of parking downtown. The argument from the Downtown Edmonton Community League, which I subscribe to, is that we’re overparked downtown.”

What do you think of the downtown parking rates?

19% – They are fair, price of being in a big city

28% – They are pricy, but I will pay them 

10% – I’ve always used transit

11% – They have convinced me to use transit

24% – I go downtown less because  of the parking rate 

8% – Other


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