8.9.05

Stadium Coin Toss

After a ridiculous saga of back and forth stadium games that undermined faith in the ability of Toronto to actually plan and build any kind of important big city-building project, the famous soccer stadium is back for one last kick at the can.

Site selection is down to two: Downsview Park or the Canadian National Exhibition. According to news reports over the last few days, the Canadian Soccer Association is now favouring the Downsview site. Apparently the mighty Maple Leafs are also involved, because they now want an MLS team for Toronto.

The furor over which site is more appropriate is an excellent debate for urban planners and architects. Let us examine the strengths and weaknesses of each site:

Below are two satellite images (thanks, Google) of the sites at the same scale. Exact stadium position (*) is not known but estimated using past history as a guide.

DOWNSVIEW PARK: This is either the future heart of the city or a colossally screwed-up lost opportunity, depending on how you look at it. A large site in the northern centre of the city was preserved for future park use when an airbase was closed. A subway station (the current end of the line) was built in the 1990s on the corner of the site. However, the surrounding area is mostly single-family residential with 6-lane arterial roads clogged with strip malls and light industry. The truncated Allen Expressway runs along one side. Central Park West it is not. However, the area will densify over time, and in this spirit an ambitious plan was launched after a top-notch international design competition in 1999. That plan has been horribly underfunded (thanks, Canada!) so nothing much has actually happened other than selling off chunks of the park to big-box development to cover costs while using the barren open spaces to host the odd mega-crowd event like papal visits or SARS-stock. The idiots in charge don't seem to realize that you can't make an uban oasis without spending money to actually build something lush and interesting, and you certainly can't do it when your Great Lawn-type spaces overlook a Home Depot parking lot.

PRO: Given the above mess, the site might actually do well with a soccer stadium. Something has to kick-start the further construction of the park, and there is a small chance that a stadium could do it. This is probably why the federal government prefers the Downsview site.

Also, soccer has broad suburban and city appeal, and this site sits on the fringe of both. Suburbanites will have an easy time driving on one of the many nearby highways to the site, and soccer-loving city residents (a high proportion of them recent immigrants) can commute via subway.

Architects wooed by the landmarking and ego-busting possibilities of the site may jump at the chance to do a stadium on a tabula rasa. After all, Munich seems to like their new showpiece-in-the-park. But is the designer and budget already set?

CON: The catalyst factor is a big if -- what Canadian construction project has ever included much landscaping in its design? A cheap stadium surrounded by parking lots would kill, not help, Downsview Park. If you have ever been to Flushing Meadows in Queens you have seen a great site ruined by the disastrous surrounding of the park in stadium parking lots and expressways.

The site surroundings may take decades to urbanize to the point where this is an attractive community. It is currently too suburban to support the kind of sports infrastructure -- bars, t-shirt shops, restaurants -- that make going to the game a fun experience that involves more than parking the car.

And, subway station aside, most fans are going to come by car. Where will all those cars park?

THE CNE: The Ex grounds are a legacy of Toronto's annual summer fair, the CNE, which are still in use today both for the fair and for a variety of other uses. The 1 m sq ft National Trade Centre dominates the eastern part of the site today and is heavily used for conventions. There is also a new minor-league hockey arena at the east end. For decades the old Exhibition Stadium held 40,000+ for football and baseball. The western part of the fairgrounds house permanent exhibition buildings that range in age from 50 to 100 years old, some used year round for restaurants, consumer shows, and a hall of fame. The overall feeling is a little confused, not quite as historical and green as it could have been, and a little messy with all of the scattered parking lots. The closest parallel would be the more cohesive Seattle Center. The lakefront expressway borders the site, and there is a substantial transit station for the commuter rail and two streetcar lines. The subway is not nearby and requires transfer to the streetcar or bus.

PRO: What worked for the CFL, MLB and the AHL should work for MLS. Highway access is good, parking is ample, and there although there is no direct subway access the location is central and tied into other downtown transit modes.

The Toronto mayor favours the CNE site.

Building a stadium on the grounds would also be a good catalyst for fixing the hole left by old Exhibition Stadium. New landscaping, new architecture, new energy.

Other stadium uses -- and there will be many, from festivals to concerts to one-off sports events -- would be much easier to run and more appealing to the audience if in a central location and not in the suburbs.

Most importantly, the Ex is just outside of the downtown core, with a view of the skyline and lakefront energy. How can you quantify that?

CON: Toronto in the last few decades has turned (famously) into "Vienna surrounded by Atlanta". With the distribution of middle-class soccer fans across a huge area, transit is not so important as most will now be coming by car from suburbs 45 minutes away and not simply trying to take a crosstown streetcar. To drive through city traffic to get to a game will deter many of them. The haute downtown condo crowd is unlikely to attend a soccer match, no matter how convenient. On this practical basis alone, Downsview is more accessible to the people likely to attend games.

The CNE is also capable of better placemaking, and it took years to get rid of hulking Exhibition Stadium. There may yet be a better use for such a prime site -- more exhibition halls, like Frankfurt, or more urban green space, or an attraction like an aquarium (also under consideration).

Finally, one reason the Ex was abandoned in the first place was the terrible wind and cold blowing off of Lake Ontario. (This could possibly be mitigated through clever stadium design.)

CONCLUSION: I was firmly against a stadium at the god-awful campus of York University when that site was first proposed. Downsview is better because of the subway and the chance to save/renew the park. The odds of attracting Joe Newmarket to a game there are also better. But I can't abandon my philosphy of putting public-image public-spaces downtown, where the symbology of the city identity is paramount and where there is the greatest chance of creating, and benefiting from, an overlapping infrastructure of the urban environment. The CNE is not ideal -- it's a fairground, not an urban street, and as deviod of bars and shops and pedestrians as the suburbs. But at least you can get a decent coffee a short distance from the main gates. Keep the centre of the city in the historic centre, rebuild and densify the CNE to be the best urban fairground site in North America, and put the stadium on the lake where it belongs.

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