Why Canadian Tire Centre is Where it Is

Posted on Tuesday 28 April 2009

I can’t speak to the issue of what we should do with Lansdowne Park or whether a snow dump in Kanata should be the home to a new MLS team. But I can answer the question—why Canadian Tire Centre is where it is?

I get asked that question a lot. Why isn’t Canadian Tire Centre (CTC) at… (pick one) Lebreton Flats, Lansdowne Park, in Orleans somewhere along Highway 174, at South Keys, at Lac Leamy in Gatineau or right downtown like the Bell Centre in Montréal or the Air Canada Centre in TO.

All of these locations were ones we looked at from 1987 to 1989 before we decided on the current location for the Palladium—in Kanata along Highway 417 with its ‘own’ interchange.

First, here are a few observations that came primarily from Gino Rossetti, the Detroit-based architect who was the architect-of-record for the Palladium (the first name for CTC) and who pioneered the concept of consecutive rings of suites with his successful first effort at stadium and arena design—the Palace of Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play. A city needs an arena site that has:

1. A large horizontal surface for parking;
2. A site that is not less than 85 acres and preferably 100;
3. Access to a major transportation corridor;
4. Access to public transit;
5. A site that would allow the structure to be half in the ground and half above the surface to distribute guests more efficiently and to make the building more human scale.

Other things on our collective wish-list included:

a. Access at grade;
b. Double loaded storefronts at grade so that on days when the arena was dark, there would still be life in and around the facility;
c. Opportunity for architectural signage to maximize that revenue stream;
d. A curtain-wall entrance that left no doubt as to how to access the arena.

Let’s first look at some of the alternative sites. Lebreton Flats is owned by the NCC and the NCC informed us that they had a (very) long term plan for the site that did not include an arena, even if was going to be a ‘very nice arena’, it was still just a rink to them. The NCC felt that national priorities such as a new museum (which turned out to be the War Museum) or a new SCC (Supreme Court of Canada) building would take precedence. They gave us two opinions—a private view which just said “No.” And a public version: “We’ll study it.” In bureaucrat’ese, that is the same as a “No.”

We also looked at the Lac Leamy site where the Casino du Lac Leamy is now. It’s a beautiful site, next to water, close to a major highway and just five minutes from the Parliamentary precinct. Better yet, it was for sale at that time. After all, you can’t build on a site that doesn’t belong to you (i.e., in the case of NCC ownership of Lebreton Flats).

But there were already two NHL teams in the Province of Québec (unfortunately, les Nordiques have long since moved from Québec City to Denver) and the majority of our potential fan base did not want to see a third team headquartered there while Ontario only had one team.

What about locating the team at Lansdowne Park? There were two significant issues with that choice. Firstly, there are more lawyers living in the Glebe than practically anywhere else in Ottawa. How would they and the Glebe community react to having another two million visitors descend on their neighborhood? I can tell you from hard experience—not well. The planning for a new arena might have taken years to get approved, if ever.

Secondly, the NCC would never allow OC Transpo to run buses on Queen Elizabeth Drive. Hence, the only way to get people in and out by public transit would be Bank Street. The MAXIMUM number of people that OC can run up and down Bank Street would be about 2,500 pph (people per hour). For an arena with a 20,000 capacity, it would take four hours to exit everyone from the building using buses and another three hours or so to get them there in the first place, if you were to rely on public transit for, say, 50% of our attendance at a game or an event. (Arrivals tend to be more spread out than departures since, if you lose to the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference Final as the Sens did, EVERYONE wants to go home at exactly the same moment. Hence, departures for OC buses on Bank Street would have been problematic since the mix with cars would effectively lock down the street.)

Now that tells you something about why the ACC and the Bell Centre are downtown arenas. We could have built the Palladium on a downtown site if Ottawa had a big time people mover like the Métro in Montréal or the subway in TO. Those two systems can move between 20,000 and 30,000 pph—a huge increase from what OC can do.

When we used to go to Montréal to see Expos games, we used to drive to downtown, have dinner and then take the Métro to the Big ‘O’; we would never think of taking our car.

But I can tell you that if we relied on buses, we would have had one sellout—opening night and after that, there would have been a fan revolt.

Even in 1987-1989, we thought the event horizon to get a rapid transit system here in Ottawa was a generation away and given the way our City is currently proceeding (or not proceeding), I am not holding my breath to see a high capacity light rail system appear in Ottawa any time soon.

In fact, people coming from Orleans by car would have taken more time to get to Lansdowne Park than to get to CTC—sure, they can get to the Queensway and Bank Street in 20 minutes but threading their way off the Queensway and hunting and pecking their way to a parking spot, who knows where, could easily take more time and gas than going to the Kanata site.

So why not build a big, multi-level parking garage somewhere? Well, for the reason discussed above, you can’t actually park more than 7,000 vehicles vertically. Since everyone will leave at the same second the team loses in overtime to the Maple Leafs, a multi-level garage will simply not work. It will become grid locked. If you have ever been in the Rideau Centre on Christmas Eve (the only time of the year when men outnumber women there) and everyone leaves at the same time (i.e., closing time), the public garage becomes such a nightmare that the cops have to come and untangle the mess—one car backing out while another is moving forward on every level results in an unsolvable puzzle. I know, I was in just such a mess one Xmas eve.)

So I knew when we were looking for a site that we needed one that we could own, that would have enough room for 7,000 cars and 500+ buses on one level. The soil conditions had to be right to bury half the building. (If you have ever been to Madison Square Gardens, you already know what a pain it is when everyone has to go UP to get to their seats for a Knicks game or whatever.) There had to be room for a new interchange and there had to be more than one way to get to the site. It couldn’t be imposed on existing communities who would react in NIMBY fashion to the extra traffic and noise that would be generated by a MCF (Major Community Facility).

(Communities are now being built around CTC by Mattamy, Minto, Richcraft and others but the key difference here (a matter that caused me a great deal of worry at the OMB Hearing that would eventually approve the construction of the Palladium) is that people who buy these homes are self-selecting to be near CTC. We are not imposing on an existing community. We believed that this would happen—if you look at our original plan called West Terrace (now expanded on and improved by the City of Ottawa and called the Kanata West Concept Plan Area), it called for significant residential development as well as other employment and commercial development.)

Well, we looked for a long time for an appropriate site and we didn’t find one—the CCEA did that for us. The Central Canada Exhibition Association has thought about moving out of Lansdowne Park for quite a while. Their Board found the site where CTC is now—not me. One day I woke up to read in a local newspaper that the CCEA had optioned a site of some 500 to 600 acres at Huntmar and the Queensway. I jumped in my car and drove to the Huntmar overpass; I stood on the bridge looking east. I could see the homes of Kanata marching like ants over Moodie Hill towards me and I knew that the CCEA had beaten me to a great site.

I silently saluted them and cursed them too.

I told the guys at Terrace Investments Ltd., the first parent company of the Sens. We were all disappointed.

But a couple of months later, for reasons known only to the CCEA, their Board decided to release their options on these lands. Again, I read about that in the same local newspaper. By 10 am, Jim Steele (still with the Sens) and I were sitting in one of the local farmer’s homes drinking rye and trying to convince the family to sell their lands to us.

Fortunately, many of these fine people did—we ended up with 600 acres.

Now, finally, I have to deal with the real estate play.

We told only a few people what we were doing—Des Adam, then Mayor of Kanata knew as did Jimmy Durrell, Mayor of Ottawa and Andy Haydon, Chair of the RMOC.

We told them and then Premier of Ontario, David Peterson, that they each had a magic wand and we wanted them to use it—we said that private money would buy the team ($50 million) and build the building ($240 million) but we needed three things from Government*. One, we needed the Palladium site (100 acres) and the remaining lands (500 acres) rezoned for a MCF and for other uses. Two, we needed public monies to fund the new interchange (a $30 million cost) because the day the interchange was completed, it would have to be given to MTO (the Ministry of Transportation for Ontario) for $2 and you can’t finance something you don’t own—it would be like me putting a mortgage on your home. Three, we needed their support to tell the NHL what a great place Ottawa is, how much hockey is loved here and what a great place Ontario is to invest in. Alberta had two teams, Québec had two teams but the largest (and, at that time) the richest Province only had one.

(*We told Mr. Peterson that this was not another Sky Dome which cost the Ontario taxpayer about $450 million in losses.)

We asked them to focus their wands on the Palladium lands and, presto, the lands (after all due process) would be rezoned. The average price we paid for the lands was $12k per acre and we made no secret of the fact that, after rezoning, we hoped the value would increase to $112k per acre (lands in the area are now trading for $300,000 to as much as $546,000 per acre). The $100k per acre increase in value multiplied by the 500 acres of ‘surplus’ land we had bought (and which we planned to resell) would exactly equal the $50 million purchase price for the NHL expansion team.

But we told the guys we wouldn’t keep that money—we would put it in Brinks trucks and take it to then President of the NHL, John Zielger’s office on Park Avenue in Manahttan and give it to him. In return, we would get a (pretty crappy looking) piece of paper called a NHL franchise under the NHL’s Plan of Sixth Expansion. We would put Ottawa on the map and it wouldn’t cost the City of Ottawa a dime.

We won local votes in Kanata and at the RMOC by a margin of 32 to 1 and we obtained the agreement of the Liberal Government of Ontario to our three requests. Things were looking pretty good in the summer of 1990.

But for some reason, Mr. Peterson decided to call an election two and a half years early and, with a nearly impossible splitting of the vote, Bob Rae and the NDP came to power later that summer with a majority in the Legislature based on 35% share of the total vote.

As a result, after we won a conditional franchise for Ottawa in December 1990, we knew that we faced a brutal 13 and a ½ week OMB Hearing where we would faceoff with our own Provincial Government who would: a) not support a franchise for Ottawa, b) use all the power of the Provincial Government to defeat the rezoning of the Palladium and the surrounding lands and c) not pay for any public infrastructure (aka, the Palladium Drive interchange).

It is, to this day, the only interchange in Ontario built privately.

I was on the stand for three and half days of examination and cross examination along with Doug Logan of Ogden Corp., our arena manager. Doug got so sick of the proceedings that, during a break in the hearing, he offered us $20 million to relocate the franchise to a recently completed Ogden building in Anaheim. Imagine, the Sens could have been the Ducks and maybe, in a parallel universe, we actually won the Stanley Cup in 2007. I told Doug: “We didn’t Bring Back the Senators to play in Anaheim.”

Anyway, when our lawyer told us we were losing the hearing, I decided to make a public offer—if the OMB would approve the 100 acres for the Palladium, we would try to keep the other 500 acres in agricultural use for a generation. This would allow the NDP, hockey fans and Ottawa to find a win, win, win solution. The NDP could claim they had preserved farmland for a generation (even though Cyril Bennett, who had tried to farm the land and whose lands the Palladium actually sits on today, told the OMB that his land was heavy wet clay and the most money he had ever made in a year from the farm was less than $10,000.) Hockey fans would have another NHL team to cheer on. And Eastern Ontario would get our ‘Honda Motor Car plant’—much needed (union) construction jobs in what was then a pretty tough recession.

The offer was rejected by the NDP and the matter was litigated to a conclusion. The Board ruled that the MCF zoning for the 100 acres needed for the Palladium could proceed. But it was silent about the fate of the other 500 acres. Plus we would have to pay for the new interchange. Consequently, we wrote down the value of our land holdings by $50 million and took another equity hit of $30 million (the value of the interchange). That is why we have NHL hockey in Ottawa today, why other people own those lands now and why yours truly is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and a real estate Broker and not involved in hockey or land development.

Prof Bruce, Founder, Ottawa Senators.

Ps. I had a hand in the traffic solution for CTC. Our original plan included a connection to Highway 7 by extending Huntmar south to intersect with Hazeldean Road (which the NDP also opposed) and a slave on-ramp to Highway 417 from what is now Parking Lot 9. The Huntmar extension was finally completed by Mattamy and opened in 2008 but the on-ramp from Lot 9 does not yet exist. I didn’t realize the on-ramp was left out until one event day, I parked in Lot 9. It took me 45 minutes to get out of there—I couldn’t believe it. When I got home, I looked up the plans and realized the slave ramp had been left out. It turns out MTO wouldn’t allow us to build it—the distances between the Palladium Interchange and Terry Fox Drive were too close to permit it, in their view. Ridiculous. The ramp would only be open for 45 minutes after major events when traffic speeds are reduced from 100 kph to 45 kph and, obviously, safe distances are likewise reduced. So there is hope yet for Lot 9 parkers that this can be rectified as CTC undergoes further development.

Pps. I stood on the Huntmar overpass one other time with Gino Rossetti. The first time he saw the site, he loved it. There is only one problem he told me: “The Highway has to be at least eight lanes.” I replied: “Gino, you know that and I know that but that is the last time you ever say that out loud because if the Province ever hears that, they will make us pay not only for the darned interchange but also for a brand new Highway and that will certainly sink the boat.” One day, the transitway will extend to CTC (for buses, not LRT) and you will be able to travel from the core to CTC on a double decker bus without ever mixing with cars. This will be a major improvement; I believe that the City has made such a mess of LRT that it should focus right now on the doable—finish the bus transitway to Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven before doing anything else.

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