Edmonton

Alberta Avenue businesses call on new council to invest in area, 4 years after Coliseum closed

Edmonton's Ice District is a shining example of the City of Edmonton's redevelopment efforts over the past several years, but that focus is leaving one area in north-central Edmonton feeling neglected. 

City has long-term vision for Exhibition Lands

The Coliseum or Rexall Place has been closed for four years as the city spends $1.5 million a year to keep it heated and secure. (David Bajer/CBC)

Edmonton's Ice District is a prime example of the City of Edmonton's redevelopment efforts over the past several years, but that focus is leaving one area in north-central Edmonton feeling neglected. 

Residents and business owners along Alberta Avenue wonder what the plan is for their area — as vacant buildings litter a once vibrant neighbourhood and the former home of the Edmonton Oilers, the Coliseum, looms large over the area as it sits empty.

Diana Varvis, daughter of the founder of the Coliseum Steak and Pizza restaurant on 118th Avenue and 80th Street, said it feels as though the neighbourhood has been abandoned. 

"Hockey's downtown, so we don't need you anymore — forget about 118th," Varvis said in an interview last week.

The city needs to reinvest in the area like they did with Rogers Place and the Ice District, she said.

Varvis said the restaurant continues to feel the hit since the Coliseum closed nearly four years ago and now she feels residents and businesses are in the dark about its fate. 

"The last thing we want to see is just let it sit there and crumble for the next few years or get demolished and just have it sit there as an empty pit."

Martin Bundred, past president of the Parkdale-Cromdale community league, said he feels the city has left Alberta Avenue stranded as it focused on the shiny new hockey arena at Rogers Place. 

"There was so much spotlight put on the new development that they forgot about the old development, they've bolstered one part of the city and sacrificed other parts of the city," Bundred said. 

"So we're looking for them to turn that around — with this new council."

The city pays about $1.5 million a year to maintain and secure the empty Coliseum. The city plans to demolish the building despite a push from community groups to repurpose it.

Dozens of groups have pitched proposals to the city over the past few years, including former mayor Stephen Mandel who pleaded with council in November 2020 to take another look at turning it into an amateur sports venue. 

Others want to incorporate it into the future neighbourhood as a housing complex, as proposed by a group called Agora Borealis. 

Oilers agreement

Because of legal agreement between the city and the Oilers Entertainment Group in 2018, the city can't use the Coliseum for sports or entertainment events. 

It's a deal that Tony Caterina, who served as councillor for the area for 14 years, remembers voting against. 

"I think many many people would love to have it repurposed," Caterina suggested. "There's been some great ideas on it." 

Caterina believes it could be repurposed for Farm Fair and rodeos. 

Tim Shipton, a spokesperson for the Oilers Entertainment Group, said there's only room for one major arena in Edmonton. 

"That is why we wanted the Coliseum closed – we don't want another arena competing with Rogers Place," Shipton said in an email. "However, if the city wishes to repurpose the Coliseum structure for non-competitive uses we are prepared to discuss that with the city."

Exhibitions Lands Strategy

The city isn't planning to reinvent the Coliseum but is focused on redeveloping the nearly 200-acres of the Exhibition Lands. 

Lovey Grewal, the project lead of the Edmonton Exhibition Lands, said the city previously explored repurposing the Coliseum, in collaboration with several community groups. 

"This work ultimately found repurposing the facility to be prohibitively expensive," Grewal said in an email.

On the edge of the Coliseum LRT, the Exhibition Lands strategy includes building a variety of housing around commercial and retail space, for thousands of future residents. 

It's estimated to take 25 to 30 years to complete. 

Diana Varvis helps run the family-owned Coliseum Steak and Pizza restaurant on 118th Avenue and 80th Street, down the road from the former Rexall Place. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

Speeding that up is a priority for Ashley Salvador, the new councillor for Ward Métis, who also thinks the Coliseum should be demolished. 

"It's definitely a long-term vision," Salvador said of the Exhibition Lands development. "I think that being able to do it in bite-size pieces is a really big part of the conversation." 

Salvador said the project is an important one for the area but it's also important to make sure it's done properly. 

"City building takes time and we can definitely try to accelerate things, absolutely," she said. "So yes, we will be pushing. That's what I intend to do but at the same time, getting it right so that everyone is able to benefit."

Varvis said if that's the fate, she wants the city to move more quickly. 

"If the idea is to redevelop the land, let's get it done. Let's not wait 20 to 30 years and have it sit there and just decay." 

@natashariebe

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