Not since I first visited West Edmonton Mall — with its immense, gaudy and expectation-blowing amenities and retail capacity — have I experienced anything close to what’s been built in the $3-billion Ice District project.
The momentum and the commerce that flowed out of Edmonton downtown starting in the 1980s to WEM, and then to the gargantuan suburban power centre South Edmonton Commons, now faces its first serious challenge in the Ice District.
Ice District doesn’t have a water park, but WEM doesn’t have Canada’s tallest skyscraper outside of Toronto. The downtown development doesn’t have a roller-coaster but it’s got Connor McDavid. It doesn’t have hundreds of stores but it’s got a much bigger, more luxurious hotel with state-of-the-art amenities, along with hundreds of condo residences in the two new posh skyscrapers.
Ice District also has a casino, a coming grocery store, huge dining halls and food courts, a third skyscraper on the way, all of it wrapped around an outdoor public plaza and in the shadow of the cool and curvy downtown arena.
Downtown is back with a vengeance. Ice District could well supplant WEM in the public imagination. It has the allure to draw back the severely normal Albertans who have forever flocked to the mighty mall.
“We call it The Mall that ate Edmonton,” said Glen Scott, vice-president of real estate for the Katz Group, in regards to West Edmonton Mall. “Let’s be honest, it had a devastating impact on the downtown … But this is a major reboot. And it’s great because if you don’t have a vibrant downtown you do not have a vibrant city. I firmly believe that. And we’re going to have one of the best downtowns in the country.”
Scott led a tour of the district on Thursday, channelling the legendary enthusiasm of all four original Ghermezian brothers as he raved about the specialness of Ice District’s fitness club, sports bars, skyscraper lobbies and various bars, lounges and restaurants, the gigantic underground parkade, the Wayne Gretzky ballroom and the unparalleled view from the upper condos.
“What’s staggering to me is that it’s actually literally in the clouds,” Scott says of the top level Stantec condos. “You’re literally in another atmosphere.”
The “Legend” condos atop the JW Marriott skyscraper are 90 per cent sold out, Scott said, with the $800 million-plus Stantec Tower’s “Sky” condos 33 per cent sold.
Stantec Tower has four outdoor patios on different levels, one of them (for condo residents only) located on the 30th floor, complete with outdoor hot tubs and barbecues.
All the patios look out to the public plaza, which Scott says will be thronged on Oilers game nights.
“All of a sudden you come here and it’s like you’re in Hong Kong or New York and it’s got that sense of energy … We fully expect next spring when the Oilers are starting their Stanley Cup run that we will have the arena sold out and there will be 20,000 people gathering in the plaza and this hotel and Stantec, watching the game on that screen (above the Wintergarden’s main entrance).”
It’s hard to imagine the Oilers in a Stanley Cup race. And you certainly don’t have to buy into Scott’s hoopla about Ice District. You may also still greatly resent the hard bargain the Katz Group drove with city hall on the arena build, not to mention the latest ask for $10 million towards the $40-million public plaza.
But consider this: Edmonton city council first entered into the arena negotiation with the promise that Oilers owner Daryl Katz would invest $100 million. The public/private investment is now more than $3 billion, with more than $2 billion of that private money. It flowed into the local economy as the provincial economy tanked. The entire investment will help to create a property tax boost which will pay off the arena and for numerous other public parks, sewers and improved streetscapes downtown.
“We hadn’t even signed an agreement and there was a huge controversy,” Scott says of the early arena negotiations in 2009-10. “Now he’s (Daryl Katz) put in 30 times that amount. It’s unbelievable what’s been done. There was a lot of angst. In hindsight, it looks like craziness. But I think everyone can concede that he’s more than met his promises.”
Fair comment by Scott? There’s no denying the impact this public-private partnership has had on both the downtown and in helping Edmonton weather the province’s recent economic doldrums.
This project is a grand slam home run for the city, I say. When you visit Ice District next spring or summer, I suspect you’ll say the same.