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A mall isn’t right for the northeast Coliseum

The most recently talked-about rejuvenation scheme for the former home of the Edmonton Oilers is something that may have exceeded expectations 20 years ago. But it’s not the sort of development Edmontonians may want or need 20 years from now.

Residents around the Coliseum arena in northeast Edmonton want it to be activated again, having it sustainably improve the area. Many Edmontonians see it as an iconic Edmonton landmark, symbolizing the glory days of the Oilers. So how should the site be used?

There have been proposals ranging from reusing the site as a hockey academy to tearing it down and starting fresh. The Agora Borealis proposal presents another possible answer. It plans to reuse the Coliseum’s concrete tub structure as an indoor mall-esque housing complex and develop the surrounding area out.

But the site affords an excellent opportunity to produce a vibrant walkable and transit-oriented community, akin to what’s being developed at Century Park, Bonnie Doon, and Belvedere. Edmonton doesn’t need another mall. Many are closing down (Century Park and Bonnie Doon both were and are currently malls on the decline). A lot of big box retail is moving closer to the outskirts of the city or beyond.

This proposal isn’t total hogwash. The sea of open space that surrounds the Coliseum would be developed as “lively outdoor market square” with nearby healthcare and community facilities. The Agora strives to “re-stitch” and “activate” the surrounding neighbourhoods by building bridges over the LRT tracks.

But it’s important to take notice of what is and isn’t in the picture.

In video animations, the bridges to the west are steep and without sidewalks. On top of this, there’s no general vision around how the development connects to the east.

Internal vehicular streets are seemingly wide enough for four to six lanes of traffic. There’s plenty of description of how easy it is to drive and park your car around the site, but there’s no mention of how pedestrians would circulate. Bikes aren’t even mentioned in the plan.

The proposal only fleetingly mentions the importance of transit, even though the site is basically on top of an LRT station and close to strong east-west bus routes on 118th Avenue.

Although these are persnickety details, they speak to what’s at top of mind for the developer: reusing the Coliseum as a mall, not as a pedestrian-oriented space. The Agora’s focus on the automobile and the indoor doesn’t maximize the area’s potential.

What’s coming into the core and mature areas of Edmonton are pedestrian-oriented streets pocketed with mixed-use developments. 104th Street, 124th Street, Whyte Avenue, and 118th Avenue are experiencing a remarkable bounce back, while malls in the middle of the city continue to become vacant or specialize.

The more times people rehash using the Coliseum, the more I realize that I don’t think that there’s any saving it. The site could be developed more easily if it was wiped clean. This would result in it being easier to place density closer to the station, to develop more coherent connections through the site, and to reimagine the area in alignment with Edmonton’s future.

But where there’s a will (and a lot of capital) there’s a way. Something will go in there eventually, and hopefully, it’s something that will serve Edmonton’s future, not it’s past.

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