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Ottawa Senators moving to LeBreton Flats is no sure thing

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A look at the two biggest hurdles for the Senators to make the move to LeBreton Flats

Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Confirming what was already pretty widely known, the Senators announced last week that they are submitting a Request for Qualifications to be able to build a new arena on LeBreton Flats.

"Senators Sports & Entertainment (SSE) is confirming it will make a submission to the National Capital Commission's (NCC) Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats. In respect of the NCC and its RFQ process, we will not be sharing any details of our submission or make any further comments at this time."

The Request for Qualifications is the first stage of the process, "to qualify a short list of proponents who have extensive relevant development experience, design expertise, and the capacity to undertake and deliver the project."  From stage one, the NCC will put together a short list of qualified parties who would then be able to submit a full proposal in stage two.

Right off, I think the overwhelming majority of us agree that LeBreton Flats would be a much better location for the next arena than the opposite end of Lot 9. It would provide better access for the majority of fans, and better options for pre and post game entertainment. There's been some questions about the timeline (even a bit by yours truly), but at this point I think those concerns are either underestimating the construction timeline (as I did) or overestimating the lifespan of a modern NHL arena. The Canadian Tire Centre would be one of the younger arenas to be replaced, but still within the window of replace-or-renovate before the new arena would be ready. While they could get a few more years out of the CTC than this timeline would allow, you can't ignore the opportunity.

That doesn't mean it's a sure thing, though, and it really shouldn't be. There are other concerns. Two big ones come to mind.

Competition

The first concern is this: While LeBreton flats is a great location for a new arena, is a new arena the right use for the Flats?

A Google Maps view of LeBreton Flats. The red areas are the two parcels of land specifically up for redevelopment through this process. The yellow areas may also be included, or saved for future development.
Larger version

That's not really a question we can answer right now, as it depends on what gets submitted. This is a one-time deal to get close to half of the remaining space in LeBreton right. Whatever goes in there should be a good puzzle piece to the larger picture.

At the moment, we have very little idea about the details of what else has been submitted. We know that there were five proposals made, and that a proposal for a new Museum of Science and Technology was not being submitted, but past that... There's been the suggestion for an outdoor amphitheatre thrown around, but your guess is as good as mine on if that has the kind of backing for a proposal to be made.  A new central library was mentioned at one point as well, but there's been no talk of that since the municipal election finished up. While there are multiple chunks of land up for development, it's quite possible we'll see numerous submissions that are better use of the land than a new arena would be.

Of course, the competition could also be entirely comprised of proposals for more ugly condos. We just don't know what other submissions the new arena proposal could be facing.

There is also the matter of meshing with the surrounding neighbourhoods.  I don't think this is so much an issue with stepping on toes (there aren't very many toes in the immediate vicinity to step on), as it is an issue of fitting in with the planned redevelopment in the area.  Redevelopment plans are going ahead for Bayview, and the plans for the Windmill development on Albert and Chaudiere Islands have been compared to Granville Island in Vancouver.  How well would a hockey arena mesh with those plans compared to other options?

Rink of Dreams at City Hall
The Rink of Dreams outside Ottawa City Hall.
Photo credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's not just about what else is submitted, but also about the content of the Sens submission.  If all the Senators Sports & Entertainment proposal contains is a private-use event space, essentially the arena as it is now but downtown, that's going to hurt their case.  However, there are things they could include that would improve their chances. The submission may have some element intended for public use, such as another Rink of Dreams location or other recreational space. It could also do a better job than the CTC of incorporating private space that is not event driven that would still draw people to the area when there isn't a game, concert or other major event scheduled. Having retail and dining that was accessible from outside the arena for off-nights was in the original plans for the Palladium, but it hasn't worked out that way. That private space doesn't need to be limited to retail and restaurant use, though. The team could create a space for a museum about the history of hockey (though it's a fine line to tread to not overlap too much with the Hockey Hall of Fame), for example.

These are only a few ideas, there are bound to be plenty more ideas that could be incorporated to increase the use of the area in a way that isn't linked to game night or concerts.

Then we come to what the NCC is looking for.  Given how much negative feedback there has been towards the Claridge condos at LeBreton, the NCC is likely to set a minimum bar.

We envisage a bold, new anchor institution that will welcome the public, serve as an economic driver, feature innovative use of the land, and bring design excellence, animation and a unique public experience to the nation's capital.

- NCC Request for Qualifications

Kristmanson said staff will present a recommendation to the NCC's board at its meeting next Tuesday to seek proposals "based on a major public institution or an attraction of regional or national significance, supported by a complementary development scheme."

. . .

The new building could be a museum or other type of public institution, he said, "with hopefully a national reach."

-NCC eyeing major new capital landmark on LeBreton Flats, Ottawa Citizen

You can make a case for most of those things, though some might be a bit of a stretch.  There are a handful, like "national significance" and "national reach", that seem like very difficult check boxes for the Sens to tick off.  It won't be enough to just hit more of those points than the potential alternatives.  The NCC hopefully will not make the mistake again of just going with the best proposal, even if the best one isn't really good enough.

Paying for it

This is, naturally, the other big concern given the continuing questions around the team's finances. Assuming the NCC goes for their proposal, how are they going to pay for it?

The Senators have mentioned that the potential move would only be possible with "strong community support". This could mean to show support for the proposal in a way that would be noticed by the NCC to help with the selection process, but you could be forgiven if you read it as code for "public money".

For some reason, the use of public funds to build a private venue is contentious. It really shouldn't be - these things rarely turn out well for the taxpayer.  Occasions where the public investment sees enough of a return to balance it out are rare, and rare among those are the occasions where where the return also exceeds the opportunity cost of spending that money elsewhere.  There's even less of a case for public money in this situation, where it would be a relocation within the same municipality and not something that would bring a new team to town.

While Mayor Watson has gone on the record as being open to the idea of relocating the arena downtown, he is also on the record as being against any public funding to build it.  He is only one vote on council, but he also tends to get his way on major city expenditures and isn't the only council member to go on the record against spending taxpayer money on it.  The province or the federal government could kick in some cash, but I doubt they would if the city isn't on board and chipping some in. I don't actually think this is a major concern for the taxpayers, even if it is the intent of Melnyk and company to go looking for government cash. There's little risk of this turning in to a $2.4B boondoggle.

If there's no public money, and the team is reportedly operating in the red, what other funding sources are there that could be used?

Left: CTC (then SBP) on game day (Photo Credit: Vince Alongi, CC BY 2.0)
Right: CTC (then SBP) with no event happening
(Photo Credit: Doug Tone, CC BY-SA 2.0)

One way is through the increased earning potential of a new central location. The main reason for the team to move downtown is to drive ticket sales with a more convenient location for the majority of the fan base.  Anybody who's ever taken any level of economics class can tell you what happens when you increase demand without increasing supply - the cost (of tickets in this situation) goes up.  The location would have the potential to draw additional events that may not have considered the current arena to be a viable choice.  Linking back to non-event specific space, restaurants and retail in the building that have exterior access would have more viable business hours than the ones currently in CTC, and the cost of leasing the space would reflect that.  This sort of thing won't help with up-front costs, but it can pay off in the long term.

One thing to remember is that they own the land where they currently are.  Usually this is used as an argument of why it makes more financial sense to stick with Kanata, but the value of the land is often forgotten when calculating the cost of moving downtown.  The existing building could potentially be re-purposed and find new life in another use - after all, the structure itself isn't reaching the end of it's lifespan, just the end of it's lifespan as a usable NHL venue.  Bruce Firestone, the man behind the franchise's existence and the original grand plan for the Kanata site, thinks the building and property could be turned into retail space at a tidy profit for the Euge.  Even if they can't find a new use for the building, the land it is on is worth a decent chunk of change.  As of 2009, the land around the Canadian Tire Centre was going for prices between $300k and $550k per acre.  Since then, growth in the immediate surroundings should have increased the desirability of the area while reducing the land available, with the prices rising accordingly.  The right land deal won't cover the cost of a new arena, but it could easily cover 10% and go a long way to covering the gap between rebuild-on-site option and the (presumably) more expensive downtown build.

Then there has been talk of other organizations that have approached the Senators to be involved in the submission since they first expressed some interest.  Apparently there were four or five that approached the team as soon as they mentioned being interested in submitting a proposal, from both public and private realms.  Presumably these organizations would be bringing both capital and diversity to the project to help with both the approval and funding. However, we only have the word of those within the Senators organization itself that these outside potential partners exist. I don't doubt that there is outside interest, but talk of how much there is should be taken with a grain of salt until we hear more from independent sources than speculation.

I'm not actually 100% against public money going to a new arena, just against special funding. If it's money being spent anyways, why not?  For example if the team partnered with the city to share some of the costs specifically associated with the aforementioned Rink of Dreams idea, I'm okay with that.  They're already doing that with 20 locations around the region, why would it be taboo if it were part of a new arena development?  The same could be said for other elements that could be included that would have public benefit - if it's something the city might do anyways, and the cost is sensible relative to the public benefit and less than going it alone, why not share the load of that specific element of the plan?  I also don't see a problem with the team applying for government funding through pre-existing grant programs that they qualify for.

What Next?

For now, we wait.  The NCC has their proposals, and they will evaluate them with the aid of an architect and an urban planner.  They will pre-qualify 2-5 of the contenders - that list is expected to be announced in March.  From there, the real fun starts.