Demolition date for Northlands Coliseum still up in the air, almost 5 years after it closed

The Northlands Coliseum as seen on Friday, Nov.4, 2022.  (Trevor Howlett/CBC - image credit)
The Northlands Coliseum as seen on Friday, Nov.4, 2022. (Trevor Howlett/CBC - image credit)

It's been almost five years since Northlands Coliseum closed its doors for the final time, but there is still no timeline to demolish the former home of the Edmonton Oilers.

Demolishing the building is estimated to cost around $35 million, but city administration is recommending the demolition not be completed in the upcoming budget cycle for 2023-26.

City councillors could still decide to fund the demolition, however, sometime in the next four years. But for now, it appears likely that it will be more than 10 years from the last Oilers game at Rexall Place — April 16, 2016 — before the building is actually torn down.

The building, which opened in 1974, officially closed at the end of 2017.

The old arena looms large and has been described as an eyesore.

Ashley Salvador, city councillor for Ward Métis, which includes the Coliseum site as well as the surrounding neighbourhoods, said the demolition should have happened years ago.

"If we would've funded the demolition years ago, with a lower demolition cost and lower interest rates, we wouldn't be in this position now," Salvador said in an interview. "Because sitting idle really has cost millions of dollars."

Maintaining the Coliseum in its current form will cost the city about $1.25 million this year alone, a city spokesperson said.

Salvador said from a perspective of fiscal responsibility, it makes sense to knock the building down as soon as possible so the city can stop paying for maintenance and security.

So what's up with the Exhibition Lands plan?

While there were many proposals to repurpose the building, redevelopment of the land ultimately became the city's favoured approach.

The city is planning to turn the land, along with neighbouring properties from the Northlands site, into a mixed-use, transit-oriented infill development.

The development would create a new community with thousands of housing units, built in partnership with private developers.

The Exhibition Lands plan is expected to take about 30 years and will be completed in phases. Where the Coliseum once drew thousands of fans, there may someday be thousands of people living in a massive mixed-housing development.

"I think the community in itself will be the draw," said Lovey Grewal, project lead for the Edmonton Exhibition Lands Redevelopment project.

"It's meant to be a community where individuals can both live, work and play … the great part as well is that the site isn't going to lose that event draw because the Edmonton Expo Centre is currently in place and will remain in place for decades to come."

Watch | Oilers fans share Rexall Place memories in 2016.

Lovey, who has been working on the project since 2020, said the city has undertaken numerous pre-development studies on utilities and infrastructure, and worked with consultants.

The city also has climate transition and energy efficiency considerations for the project, but once the studies are finished, Lovey is hopeful the city will soon begin potential sales and marketing of the first developable parcels on the south side of the property.

What is the 'complete community' concept?

Damian Collins, a professor of human geography at the University of Alberta who specializes in housing, said the city has a rare opportunity for a large-scale development that can accomplish a variety of goals in areas the city is focused on: housing, transportation and climate.

"I think that the overall land-use plan looks very feasible and I think it's it reflects an international trend," said Collins.

"This is the way that cities are heading — toward building what are often called 'complete communities' that include a variety of housing types and prices, a variety of employment opportunities, educational features, and a lot of green space."

Collins said he can empathize with those who want to see quicker progress as the old Northlands site is "a little bit of a black hole in that region of the city."

But he thinks the end result will be transformative for the surrounding area and create an attractive community where people will want to live, noting the site has "three great advantages already."

"There's Borden Park, which is already one of our pretty attractive urban parks. It's got the Expo Centre, which is a major hub of activity — and that will continue on the site — and then it already has the LRT.

"You put those three things together and that's kind of a great foundation to build from."

Prime location for progress

Although the current proposed budget doesn't plan to fund the Coliseum demolition in the short term, significant funding is planned for Exhibition Lands.

The proposed capital budget includes about $53 million in funding for the Exhibition Lands from 2023 to 2026.

Salvador said she is happy to see the inclusion of that funding, which includes things like engineering design, land development planning and installation of subsurface infrastructure.

But she notes there are other projects related to the Exhibition Lands that aren't on the funded list, including the Coliseum demolition, a new LRT station at 115th Avenue, a replacement for the Coliseum LRT Station and an expanded Borden Park.

She plans to ask questions about the best time to invest in those projects during council's budget discussions.

As councillor for the area, she'd like to see progress for the project as soon as possible because the site has been "a burden and blight on the neighbourhood for far too long."

Still, Salvador said people who live in the area are excited to see the land redeveloped and she thinks it will be a boost for many parts of Ward Métis.

"It is not often that you get a large infill site in such a prime location, on such a large scale," she said.

"Not only will it be transformative for folks who eventually will call Exhibition Lands home, but there's spillover effects for communities surrounding Exhibition Lands and uplift that comes with that.

"So I think it presents a really unique opportunity for redeveloping and uplifting the entire area."