Call me sentimental but I am a little wistful about Edmonton City Council’s decision, taken shortly before last Christmas, to approve $35 million in funding for the demolition of Northlands Coliseum. By the way, for those who like numbers, that is double what it cost to build in the early ‘70s. I have always called it that, even if some remember it better as Rexall Place or even, briefly, as Skyreach Centre. When the old arena finally comes down, likely sometime in 2025, Connor McDavid’s Oilers may have already hoisted a Stanley Cup – hey, a fan can hope – in their shiny downtown starship, meaning that generations younger than mine won’t give a damn about the sad end for a storied franchise’s first NHL home. But no matter what happens to bring forth cheers and joy in the ICE District, that spot on the north side of 118th Avenue will always remain a spark to memory for me.
It was here after all, in fact just a few rows away from his then-fiancé Janet Jones, that I watched the Great One’s last shifts as an Oiler, game five versus Boston one glorious May evening in ‘88. There were other games, too, many featuring excellent Edmonton teams (both in the NHL and World Hockey Association) and plenty played by lousy ones.
I won’t forget the classic concerts of my youth in there either: Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, the Police — all of them at their peak. There are other things to remember about the place, too, if not exactly miss. Like the ice cream pail thumping Charlie Watts wannabe busking outside the rink or just inside the doors of the nearby LRT station after almost every game and concert. Or that long wait for a cop’s all clear to dash across Gretzky Drive near the Forum Inn, followed by the hurried walk to a frozen car left on some darkened street half a dozen blocks east, beyond the restricted parking zone.
Lovey Grewal caught his share of live music and hockey at the Coliseum, too, but he also recalls going to the circus and to Super Dogs shows held there during Klondike Days when he was all of five or six years old. So he gets the nostalgia some of us feel.
“I am definitely part of that group of people,” he says.
Grewal, who now works with the City’s Real Estate Branch, is project lead for the Edmonton Exhibition Lands Development Plan. Adopted by Council in 2021, it envisions the arena site along with the old Northlands Park race track (closed since January 2019) and Klondike Days grounds immediately south as home to a large, mixed use, urban quarter bordered further south by a rejuvenated and enhanced Borden Park.
“It’s not very often we get a site of this size and scale to do something like that,” notes Ashley Salvador, Councillor for Ward Métis, which includes the Coliseum and neighbourhoods around it like Eastwood, Montrose, Bellevue and Parkdale-Cromdale. She is glad to see the City finally proceeding towards something that in her view should have happened several years ago. Vacated by the Oilers following the 2015-16 season, the arena was officially closed in January 2018. Salvador notes that the maintenance costs to taxpayers of simply keeping the mothballed rink standing run to $1.5 million annually. “It had an iconic presence in our city but most folks, especially in the neighbourhoods surrounding the site, recognized it was time for us to move on,” she says.
There is no question the area surrounding the coliseum and exhibition grounds badly needs some TLC. The deserted horse barns and other structures around the old race track have become a target for graffiti and other vandalism. Neighbourhoods on both sides of 118th Avenue, east and west of the arena, experience more than their fair share of property crime and street violence. It can be a sketchy part of town to venture through at night by vehicle, much less on foot. Changes here will be good.
“I am excited to see a part of our city which traditionally has been a place for Edmontonians and folks from surrounding areas to come together for a variety of events, but which has lately been dramatically underserviced and underused, turned into a well-planned infill neighbourhood with great amenities for community members to either live, work, shop, play or what have you,” Grewal says of the City’s plan for the area.
The arena site itself is set to become part of a large transit plaza. It will be traversed by a lengthy pedway, with the old Coliseum Station moving to a spot between 119th and 120th Avenue and a second stop built at 115th Avenue. The Expo Centre will remain where it sits on the exhibition grounds, midway between the two stations, and parcels of land around the plaza will be sold off. Grewal describes the City’s preferred role in this venture as development facilitator. “We’re hoping to remove barriers or any encumbrances on site to make private land development in the area as easy and achievable as possible.”
Sounds great, but neighbourhood resident Rick McAdie is clearly from Missouri when it comes to the project. McAdie is president of Bellevue Community League and he has been a homeowner in the area since 1986. He points to the snail’s pace of development at Blatchford (the new neighbourhood on the old Edmonton Municipal Airport site), which he assesses as a “colossal failure,” and worries about the same thing happening here. The skeptic in him pictures an abandoned arena sitting on a giant parking lot turned into a giant parking lot sans said arena, and then left that way until… well, whenever.
“Is there a plan to do the infrastructure [needed for development] at the time it’s being demolished?” McAdie wonders, sounding unconvinced.
And even if there is such a plan, and the required budget, in place for utilities, other subsurface work and roadways, he anticipates a lengthy wait before anything much more than that happens. Developers typically move with caution, especially in an uncertain economy.
“My big thing is what is it going to look like in the next 20 years until they actually transition to something,” he says. Or to put it another way, mangling an already misquoted line from a movie about a different sports venue: If you unbuild it, will they come? Until they do, McAdie would rather see the arena site turned into green space that the locals can use than simply left as an enormous concrete pad.
Savvy AF. Blunt AF. Edmonton AF.