Friday, June 30, 2017

Mapping the Way Forward for a Kingsway Entertainment District

The recent decision by Greater Sudbury Council to locate a new events centre on vacant lands on the north side of Kingsway, just west of the intersection with the Highway 17 by-pass, represents a sharp departure from the vision contained within the City’s strategic planning documents.  That vision, as some of the Council members who chose to support a downtown location for the events centre explained on Tuesday night, has been informed by years of public consultation.  The vision of a strong downtown acting as the cultural, arts, economic and entertainment heart of the City is contained in our Official Plan, the Downtown Master Plan, and the City’s strategic economic development plan.

And yet in its wisdom, Council betrayed this vision, and opted instead to embrace a new vision for the future success of the City – one promoted by the majority landowner of the Kingsway location.  It is a vision of the creation of an Entertainment District on private lands, anchored by a community events facility. This private developer is also the owner of what are expected to be the primary tenants of the community events centre – the Sudbury Wolves Ontario Hockey League team.   This new vision was one that resonated with many in the community – and particularly those who may have never bought in to the notion that there was ever much value in investing in our downtown.

Selecting the Kingsway

I think it’s fair to say that there were a few factors that really drove the decision-making process that led Council to selecting the Kingsway site for an events centre.  First of all, the marketing of the Entertainment District concept has been underway to varying degrees for the past couple of years. It started publicly with the developer’s pitch to Council at the Large Projects pitch in November, 2015  (see: “Big ideas and big projects get public airing,”, November 26, 2015).  From there, the developer made a number of pricey acquisitions (including purchasing the Sudbury Wolves) to re-inforce his position as a ‘community builder’.  Slick websites, a social media strategy, community PR presentations – all helped create a certain buzz around the concept of an Entertainment District, even if not all of the information that ultimately entered the public realm proved to be accurate.  As recently as a few weeks ago, a slim majority of City residents polled by Oracle Research were under the mistaken impression that the developer was going to build an arena for free – even though that’s never been a part of anyone’s plans (see: "Majority of Sudburians want referendum on arena," the Sudbury Star, June 26, 2017).  Further, the developer and his group has long insisted that the lands being considered for the events centre are ‘zoned for development’ – which is factually correct, but completely misses the point that they are not zoned for the type of development being proposed by the developer (specifically, a community events centre - see: "True North pleased arena project a priority," the Sudbury Star, May 2, 2016).

It is fair to say that some on Council who supported the Kingsway location did so specifically because they heard from their constituents that the Kingsway location was desirable – and that the downtown was not.   For some, that was enough.  Other Council members wholly embraced the concept of the creation of a new Entertainment District in this location – believing that selecting the Kingsway as the site for an events centre would lead directly to a laundry list of uses locating on the developer’s property.  Some of the uses, including a casino, a four-star hotel and a motorsports park, are backed by businesses / community groups that made public their desire to locate on the Kingsway, should Council select the Kingsway location for a community events centre.  The status of other uses, such as the waterpark, additional ice pads, restaurants, etc., are not clear at this time.  It is fair to say, though, that the vision for these lands includes more than just an arena – and should the arena be built, there is a very real probability that these other uses will move forward.  The Council members who cited these other uses, and the opportunity for the creation of an Entertainment District, as part of their justification for favoring the Kingsway did so with the knowledge of this probability, even if some chose to frame their arguments in terms of the uses being a certainty.

And finally, along with a real public outpouring in support of the vision of an Entertainment District, let it be said that there was clearly one other factor at play that led to the decision of Council: along with supporting the Kingsway, many of my fellow citizens were quite vocal in their opposition to the downtown as a location for the events centre.  A distinct anti-downtown sentiment often formed the basis of underlying support for the Kingsway.  Most often, the anti-downtown sentiment manifested itself in a lament over a lack of parking – despite the downtown having an abundance of public parking spaces.  The consultant’s report referred to this phenomenon as a ‘perception’, while providing facts and figures to demonstrate that the perception was not informed by the evidence.  Despite this, the consultant actually ranked the downtown location as the lowest-scoring venue when it came to parking.

Kicking Around the Downtown

But it would be remiss for any of us paying attention to the debate in our community to conclude that the anti-downtown sentiment was in any way limited to the perception of a lack of parking. Through the course of the discussion that ensued in the mainstream media, consumed social media, and ultimately worked its way to the Council table, what was really at play was an “us” vs. “them” classist attitude – one where the downtown was deemed unsafe -  filled with drug-users, bums and hookers – whereas the Kingsway offered a new and safe alternative for the good people who just want to go to a Wolves game without being harassed on the streets by people looking for money to help buy food or crack.  Around the Council table, this attitude manifested itself in remarks in favour of the Kingsway for its “family friendly” parking facilities (as opposed to the ones where the drunken bums are using your car as their personal sofas – or worse) to those opposed to the downtown location (we can’t build a $100 million events centre next to a rooming house!)

In part, this anti-downtown sentiment is yet another expression of the tension that exists between the inner city (former City of Sudbury) and the outlying areas.  Through this lens, the hostility towards to the downtown is one informed by the notion that the inner city and the downtown have been the primary beneficiaries of the forced amalgamation that the Region of Sudbury went through at the turn of the century – and that the outlying areas have disproportionately had to sacrifice in the form of higher taxes and reduced services to support the inner city.  Evidence to this effect is, of course, anecdotal – but the anecdotes form a very real emotional response to the inner city-outer city tension within our community.

Of course, I don’t buy into the notion that the inner city has benefitted disproportionally by amalgamation – and I point to some of the decisions made by this Council as my justification, including the $100 million Maley Drive extension, and the siting of the community events centre in an industrial area by a landfill on our urban fringe.  While it is true that both of these projects I’ve identified are cited within the boundaries of the former City of Sudbury, the point I am trying to make is that so many of our municipal council’s decisions have been informed by what I consider to be ‘car-centric’ suburban thinking, rather than based on the notion of building smart, sustainable communities that will be ready to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.  And I believe that the tension within our City has played a role in holding the inner city back from being what it can – and needs to be – going forward.  And that’s why the recent decision to take our community arena out of the downtown in favour of a new location on the urban fringe feels like such a slap in the face.  That decision betrays the commitment the City made to itself and to its residents to bolster the downtown – the economic, social, cultural and entertainment hub of our City – in favour of what appears to be isolated entertainment and commercial venues in a sea of parking spaces.

Anyway, Council has spoken, and we are going with the Kingsway.  Although I obviously favoured a downtown location for the events centre (I actually favour just renovating the one that we have now, but that option just wasn’t on the table), I guess I’m going to have to make the most of this new ‘vision’ for our community – even though it’s clearly not one that I support.  That being said, there are ways to make this vision more palatable.  With that in mind, I believe that the City should adopt moving forward with the new Kingsway Entertainment District in the manner that I’m mapping here.

Kingsway Entertainment District Secondary Plan

The creation of an Entertainment District anchored by a community events centre needs to be developed through a comprehensive approach led by the City.  Rather than each proposed use proceeding through the approvals system discretely, at their own pace and on their own schedule, the City has an opportunity to chaperone all of the uses, including those on private lands, through the approvals process through the development of a comprehensive Secondary Plan.  A Secondary Plan for the Kingsway Entertainment District can set out the policy environment in which all of the uses will operate under; address technical issues with the landfill, surface and ground water, traffic, servicing and species at risk; and, create opportunities for public consultation and engagement, so that the entertainment district that we eventually end up with can be one that all Sudburians will have had the opportunity to contribute to.

A secondary plan should be informed by the official plan, and embrace and refine much of that plan’s policy environment.  Strong environmental and livability principles should be applied, and consideration for the primary users of the Entertainment District – people – should be prioritized.  By prioritizing the needs of people over cars, an Entertainment District that focuses on user experience can be created.  Fears of isolated, discrete facilities surrounded by a sea of parking (the “big box” approach) can be minimized with this approach.  Walkability, cycling and public transportation options both to – and within – the District will be prioritized.

Since the City seems determined to create a brand new district for entertainment in a greenfield location, we have the unique opportunity to create it as we please, largely unencumbered by existing constraints (save for a few items, identified below).  Yes, moving forward in a comprehensive rather than a piece-meal way may add time to the development process, and it might end up holding back some of the proposed uses that may be ready to sooner than others.  However, let’s be clear about where things are at today: none of the Entertainment District uses that have so far been talked about publicly, including a community events centre, have gone through any process that has already determined their suitability for the Kingsway site (except for a hotel and some small-scale commercial/office uses).  The Kingsway lands are industrial lands – they have not yet been determined to be appropriate for the creation of an Entertainment District – a decision of Council to select a site for a community events centre, or the eventual issuance of an RFP for construction, changes that.

In short, there is simply no good reason not to proceed in a comprehensive manner at this point.

Please let me repeat that, because it’s very important.  There is no good reason not to proceed in a comprehensive manner at this point.

The “Advantages” of Piece-Mealing

But there are some bad reasons for not going the comprehensive route.  A comprehensive approach to development will certainly lead to enhanced public engagement with regards to how the entirety of the site is ultimately developed.  A piece-meal approach which looks at each proposed use/facility on its own, in isolation, and on its own timeline/schedule, will be less likely to lead to the implementation of an overall development concept that has received the buy-in of the public.  And that’s why a piece-meal approach may be desirable for some – because it will lack in an overall vision, it will likely end up costing less to actually build.  When the public gets involved and starts suggesting that certain amenities be included and that built-form and public spaces adhere to high standards of design (the sorts of things that our existing official plan already calls for, by the way), it can lead to delay and ultimately increase cost.

If the goal is to slap together some buildings as quickly as possible, in the midst of a sea of surface parking, then proceeding in a piece-meal fashion certainly has its advantage.  But that “big box” vision is the one that’s led to so many terrible suburban spaces that work well only for cars – and even not very well for them.  We can do better than that.  And if we are committed about constructing an Entertainment District that draws users from across the province and the nation, than we had better bloody well figure out a way to build something that doesn’t look like a suburban “power centre”. 

A Comprehensive Public Process
Isolated facilities in a sea of surface parking. From True North Strong.

To establish an Entertainment District on the Kingsway lands, the City first has to determine whether the lands are suitable for the proposed uses.  A comprehensive approach to District development through a secondary plan will mean that the City is not reproducing technical studies for each, discrete use proposed, and can have some assurance that the findings of technical studies can be implemented without ownership questions raising barriers.

Species at Risk

The Kingsway lands may be home to species at risk – blanding’s turtle and whippoorwill.  A comprehensive Secondary Plan approach will assess the Entertainment District lands in their entirety.   Lands that are found to contain species at risk habitat can be clearly delineated and sectioned off for non-development.  If these lands prove to be too substantial and ultimately limiting the ability of proposed uses to locate in this area, the City should abandon this project.  I understand that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry may be able to issue overall benefit permits for the destruction of habitat, but with numerous, if unexplored, options available to the City, there really is no reason to go ahead with an Entertainment District in a location that is determined to be unsuitable.

Land Fill Site

Similarly, a Secondary Plan process means that the constraints on the entirety of the site imposed by the existence of a landfill can be assessed, and non-developable areas identified at the outset.  Policies to minimize impacts on Entertainment District uses and users can also be created at this time, informed by the technical studies produced by the City.


Vehicular access and egress has been identified as an issue for a community events centre at the Kingsway location. Traffic issues are sure to be exacerbated by additional Entertainment District uses.  With limited options for access/egress, District impacts on our existing road system will need to be explored – and can best be explored in a comprehensive way.  Policy recommendations which seek to minimize these impacts should be explored, but it remains very likely that upgrades to existing roads will be needed to accommodate anticipated traffic.

The development of a comprehensive traffic plan for the Entertainment District could also identify how transportation network upgrades could be cost-shared between the City and the various private interests. The City’s contribution should include an on-going commitment to providing transit/shuttle service along prioritized internal and external rights-of-way (preferably transit-only rights-of-way along the lines of bus rapid transit systems in places like Ottawa and Mississauga, where feasible – and feasibility for such a network could easily be built into the Entertainment District). 

Low Impact Development Standards and Green Infrastructure

Policy should be developed that ensures the use of low impact development standards throughout the Secondary Plan area. These standards should include the use of naturalized vegetation for controlling stormwater runoff, and permeable pavement to minimize flow impacts.  Buildings should be carbon neutral or carbon negative - they should be constructed in such a way so as to generate their own energy via the use of solar panels and wind energy elements.  Renewable energy facilities should be found throughout the secondary planning area.


One of the selling features of the Kingsway site was the opportunity to create abundant surface parking for the travelling public.  However, the creation of parking on such an expansive scale is at odds with the direction that governments are moving in to curb personal vehicle use for the sake of climate change mitigation.  Abundant, free parking also raises the question of costs – for parking is never free.  Given that the community events centre is intended to be a community facility, it will be the taxpayers of Greater Sudbury that will be subsidizing free parking.

A comprehensive review of the Kingsway Entertainment District proposal will need to look at a number of issues with regards to parking.  While acknowledging the reality that the District will be accessed primarily by personal vehicles, policies should nonetheless  be developed that will allow the travelling public the benefit of alternatives to personal vehicle access, while at the same time discouraging this form of access.  Ultimately, fewer vehicles on access roads and in parking facilities benefits taxpayers and Entertainment District users both.

The City should:
  • Develop policies which minimize parking requirements.  Shared parking facilities between various Entertainment District attractions should be required, which will reduce the number of parking spaces needed.  Only a comprehensive analysis – rather than a piecemeal approach – can work to limit parking for each discrete Entertainment District use.
  • Explore opportunities for non-surface parking facilities, such as parking garages, in order to minimize the application of road salt in the Ramsey Lake watershed and to better use Entertainment District lands more efficiently.  Parking garages can help better achieve walkability and make the Entertainment District more attractive to users.Require paid parking at all Entertainment District lots, to balance the taxpayer parking subsidy, and to discourage the travelling public from bringing personal vehicles to the District. Paid parking can ultimately lead to a reduction in the number of necessary parking spaces, and assist with using land more efficiently.
  • To encourage multi-occupant vehicles, ensure that High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are established along the Kingsway between at least Barrydowne and Coniston, and consider establishing HOV lanes along other major thoroughfares, including Second Avenue and Falconbridge Road.  Establishing HOV lanes lanes may require the removal of under-utilized centre-turning lanes along the Kingsway.  HOV lanes will encourage car-pooling, and may provide better access for transit/shuttle services.

High Quality Design

A new Entertainment District needs to be a place of joy for users.  High-quality design elements and features must be required by the City.  These include:
  • Excellent built-form that creates a sense of space that makes people want to return. Think here of a comparison between Science North’s snowflakes and the big box buildings at any power centre you’ve visited recently. New buildings must be pleasantly designed – they need to be a joy to look at, rather than cheaply constructed boxes that lack charm. 
  • Design features which favour pedestrians and cyclists.  Unattractive elements should be hidden from view – this includes not only waste disposal for the buildings, but parking as well.  Any surface parking feature should be located to the rear of buildings. 
  • Open space and other public amenities should abound.  All-season outdoor attractions must be required.  By doing so, the City could actually create opportunities to enhance user experiences, through the requirement for public space set aside for skating, tobogganing, roller-blading, cycling, etc. 

Public amenities should be integrated into the overall design.  Street furniture and places for people to congregate away from their cars should be planned and designed in a way that creates opportunities for interacting with other people.  The private sector can certainly benefit as well, through restaurant patios and other private attractions that rely, in part, on public spaces for success (food trucks; buskers, etc.).

Focus on the Future

If the matters referenced above ultimately become a part of the City’s vision for a new Entertainment District, it may very well be that the Kingsway location becomes a focal point for our community – as well as “putting it on the map” as a sports and entertainment destination.  If developed in keeping with the people-first principles identified here, the Kingsway Entertainment District could ultimately find itself home to some of the City’s entertainment-based festivals, including the long-running Northern Lights – Festival Broeal, and the upstart UpFest.  I think it’s fair to say that festival-goers would have no desire to find themselves trying to have a good time at the Costco parking lot – but if we were able to create, from scratch, a people-centred entertainment venue that was accessible and beautiful – and one which ultimately sprang from the hearts and minds of all Greater Sudburians – who knows what the future might hold.

Just try to forget that we could have created the vision that I’ve laid out here for a lot less money and for significantly greater public benefit if we focused on the downtown – as our strategic planning documents all suggest.  Just try to forget that because Council, in its wisdom, decided that wasn’t in the cards.  So we’ve got to now try to do the best we can with the creation of the Kingsway Entertainment District.  Tell your local Councillor that you’ll accept nothing less than a comprehensive, planned development proposal – and that you want to play a part in making it happen. If you do this, they may just listen to you.  If you don’t let them know, it’s almost certain that we’ll end up with an arena, a casino, a hotel and some restaurants all floating in a big-box style parking lot.

That’s not the definition of ‘vision’.  It is the exact opposite.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada) 

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