“Star-chitecture:” Not as glittering as it seems? by: The Prof

As reported, the Katz Group is trying to win support for the public funding of a proposed downtown arena and the district around it by combining the word ‘star’ and the word ‘architecture’ into a new concept called star-chitecture. But, come on! Is this concept something that demands my support? Is it something that ought to, as they believe, define our city?.

Let’s think about it. As the Katz group notes, “You want to make it something that drops your jaw.” Yes, I suppose “jaw dropping” is one way to look at it. But I happen to think “money-dropping” is really the issue, and here’s why.

Hockey writer Stan Fischler of New York says it clearly. “The salaries of players are insane and, as a result, the owners have to compensate any way they can with the amenities.” “They’re trying to keep up, make a buck,” Fischler says. How do you pay off a guy like a Dany Heatley (who makes upwards of $7.5 million per year) or Shawn Horcoff ($7 million), Lubomir Visnovsky ($5.6 million), or even Sheldon Souray (at a mere $5.4 million)?

Those kinds of salaries – which we have come to almost accept without question – make the Oiler’s total budget $55, 708, 000 – more than I will ever earn in five lifetimes of being a University of Alberta professor. Such a budget, Fischler says, demands a certain higher level of money making. As Fischler adds, it’s dollars and cents (or sense) that are missing and needed. If you are going to pay the salaries, you’ve got to get the income. As a result, the owners are exploring all sorts of ways to “make their money.”

This is me whining, but let me ask two questions: Is this making money? And, is it their money? How different is what the owners are doing with these so-called “star-chitectures” than a panhandler on the street asking me for “spare change?” Certainly, any new arena with all the bells and whistles reeks of luxury, while the panhandler might reek of something else – but we should not lose our focus. In many ways, the activities share the same goal – to shake free your money and my money so that someone else can gain more money (the players) – even in a time of recession.

Is this really only a question of amenities and luxury? Or, are deeper questions involved? And, if so, what are those questions?

I am gladly part of the problem – I love my Oilers. And, it is not like I don’t have a choice. Obviously, I can pony up or not. But, let’s call the new arena project exactly what it is – an opportunity for rich people to get richer. The money that they make is my money, and yours.

And, while I don’t necessarily want to stop this project or any other from going ahead, I don’t want the builders of this “star-chitecture” arena to be so fast and loose with other people’s money. I don’t want them to feel so entitled as it seems they might. So, don’t just expect all of us to pony up so that you rich folks can become even richer. Appreciate, in real ways, that the money you make was first money that most of the rest of us, with far smaller incomes, first made with probably more expended labor than those of you who will be receiving it.

There are two sides debating the issue, and I don’t think they yet understand each other. On one side are those, like University of Michigan professor Mark Rosentraub, an expert in arena districts, who wrote a report on successful arena districts for the Edmonton arena committee and Patrick LaForge, Oilers’ president and spokesman for the Katz Group. Basically, both are saying that, to draw people into arena districts, cities need to build sensational arena structures, such as the all-glass Sprint Center in Kansas City.

In Rosentraub’s words, “You build something that is like a star.” It’s exciting architecture, and the last thing you want is bland. LaForge adds, “The arena side of the development is the opportunity to create something very special for the people who live in Oil Country” – their stamp, their icon. “We (Edmontonians) could use it, I [LaForge] can tell you that.”

In other words, on the one side are those buying us a gift with our own money; on the other hand are most Edmontonians. And, public opinion surveys have consistently shown that Edmontonians have little appetite for publicly finding a new, $400-million-plus downtown arena. Why is this? Oilers’ president Patrick LaForge says that, before any decisions about the project are made, people should first see the plans, and that these plans will be innovative – a visual icon. Implicit in this statement is that we will all be persuaded by the glitz of the new. As he notes, star-chitecture is part of the deal.

Compare this with a recent survey that showed that the University of Alberta is Edmonton’s most important institution when it came to civic pride. The difference seems obvious – world-class education or dazzling colors?

LaForge is quoted as saying: “They [interesting use of the word “they” – not “us”] haven’t seen anything else that has come around that's got this kind of chutzpah.” Look up the definition of the word chutzpah: it means “boldness coupled with supreme self-confidence” and “impudent rudeness combined with a lack of respect.”

This is not the attitude I want from my Oilers. I, for one, want more respect – not less. I want the Oilers to win the Stanley Cup; and I want the organization to flourish. But, I also don’t want those in control of the Oilers simply to expect us to hand over our money because it is their right to have it. This is not a question of entitlement; it is a question of how a community works together to build something important and strong.

So, if I don’t simply give in to your requests, it is not that I don’t care about my Oilers – it is that I want you to care more about your community.


Well argued, the Prof.

If this project is to go ahead, the arena district must take off or there's little in the deal for the citizens of Edmonton.

September 22, 2009 at 12:42 PM comment-delete

I don't like taxes, and being a young guy (actually on a UofA transfer program) I don't want to start by funding an arena.

Well argued, great read. I learned something from this well versed topic and I love it.

September 22, 2009 at 11:52 PM comment-delete

I disagree. Not a great read. I hear this in your article: players make more money than me, I don't like it. Everything associated with hockey and money brings out my frustration.

I think this is the root of much of the "against" opinion.

I'm sorry, but Edmonton needs some downtown development badly. Edmonton is also getting close to needing a new arena as well. Sticking our collective heads in the sand and ignoring the issue hardly shows vision or leadership. I expect that from City Council.

In most cities, arena and downtown redevelopments have government participation and rightly so as large portions of citizens and tourists visit these areas. Users are users, whether they are drivers on an interchange or patients in a hospital. And according to Northlands, there were 2,000,000 bums in the seats last year. That's a lot of users and doesn't include people who use downtown facilities, which could be attracted to new facilties.

Besides, if the city fronts some money to the project but taxes it back out of business revenues, who is really paying for it?

Banks use this model every day. You wouldn't call a mortgage public monies would you? So why call a loan - which is what the City is doing here - public money? It's a loan to generate development and further revenues. Call it an arena bond issue if you want and the City buys up all the bonds. In my mind, it's only public money if the front money causes cuts in other programs - I'm pretty sure that's not the case.

The only real question is the amount of risk the City has to take on. Is it reasonable or not?

I challenge you to get over your frustration at millionaire hockey players and ask if a redeveloped downtown is important to Edmonton or not. That's the real issue. Not players' salaries.

September 23, 2009 at 11:03 AM comment-delete

@ MR. Oiler

As quoted from your response: In my mind, it's only public money if the front money causes cuts in other programs - I'm pretty sure that's not the case.

The key here is in your mind, which is exactly what The Prof chose to express in his article -- his opinion. Trust me when I say that more of us than the Prof are frustrated with the salaries of the players, but his article is the first to admit that he can choose to purchase a ticket or not.

We don't know at this point where the money is coming from -- no one does other than that a $100 million dollar committment has been made by the Katz group. So when you say you're pretty sure no other cuts would come into play, where does that come from?

From what I understand, part of the reason Laforge wants to create this design plan before looking for the required funding is to convince those that have to pony up, that such an extravagant building is required, a cost which far exceeds the $100 million already in play.

I'm all for a new arena downtown, but understand I don't need the nicest building in the NHL to support our team and attract business to the downtown core.

September 23, 2009 at 1:19 PM comment-delete

There's a difference between supporting the team and supporting the owners of the team. Remember that just because you agree with the viewpoint of a journalist doesn't necessarily mean the paper he/she writes in is a good paper. Just because Pavel Bure was at one time a player unmatched in speed and skill doesn't mean that the Florida Panthers were a good team. Just because The Prof supports the Oilers and the Oilers players doesn't mean he has to support giving away free money to the Oilers as a company, not as the team itself.

I think the most appropriate method of the Municipality of Edmonton giving money to the team would be in the form of a loan, not in the form of free cash.

September 24, 2009 at 1:00 AM comment-delete

The last five arenas in Canada were payed for without a stitch of public monies.

Theres no argument, it Van, Tor, Ott and even Montreal get one without public funding why should we?

Hell, Balsillie is going to refurbish Copps Coliseum without public funding.

September 24, 2009 at 10:00 AM comment-delete

Balsillie is also balls rich, though.

Consider that Katz is working with the city to not only build an arena for the Oilers, but to leave a stamp on the city.

He intends to revitalize the whole downtown.

If such is the case, I may have to reverse my opinion on the public funds.

November 19, 2009 at 12:06 AM comment-delete

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