Tag Archives: Expos

Holes in the Plan

From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.
From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.

If ever there was a photo that sapped the public’s confidence in the Olympic Stadium, this is probably it.

I figure the photo dates back to 1987 or 1988, one of the first instances in which the stadium’s retractable kevlar roof tore. It happened a few more times before the Olympic Installations Board (or RIO en Français) installed the current non-retractable roof in 1998 (at a cost of $26 million in 1998 dollars).

The current roof has been problematic since it was installed, having torn several times, including a major failure in 1999 that led to the lawsuits and counter-suits between contractors and the second roof’s designer.

As it stands the roof remains closed and the stadium field is unusable if three centimetres of snow accumulation (or three millimetres of rainwater accumulation) is expected within 24 hours of a planned event. This rule caused the postponement of a Montreal Impact game scheduled back in March of 2014.

For this reason, according to the Olympic Installations Board, using the Big O as a temporary home for a revived local Major League Baseball franchise is out of the question. The RIO is currently investing $100 million over the next five years to improve the stadium and related facilities, including renovating the tower and funicular as well as improving the overall ‘client experience’ (sound quality, heating, concessions etc.)

I find this a bit paradoxical. On the one hand the RIO is investing money into improving and maintaining the stadium for current and future use, but won’t allow the stadium to be used for regular MLB usage unless a new roof is installed (and they have no current plans to finance the roof project). The RIO is supposed to provide the provincial government with a report outlining new roof options by the fall. It should be noted that the provincial government awarded a contract to build a new stadium roof (at a cost of $300 million) back in 2004 and nothing came of it. In 2010 the RIO apparently sought approval from the provincial government for this roof replacement contract and, again, nothing happened.

In other words, there was a plan to build a new roof more than a decade ago, so I’m not altogether certain what these new reports will ultimately suggest. The requirements are fairly straightforward: build a roof that a) will allow year-round use of the stadium field without concern of it falling down and b) if technically feasible, design a retractable roof. I think it should be obvious the RIO should be aiming for the best possible roof design, and that would require the ability to at least partly open it.

If you didn’t know any better you might assume Denis Coderre is a brand ambassador for Major League Baseball, and it seems resurrecting the Expos is the primary focus of his administration. He says it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Don’t be fooled…

While exhibition games at the Olympic Stadium have proven immensely successful, and indeed the RIO has been doing a good job at increasing the public’s use of the entirety of the Olympic Park (and its many diverse attractions), the Olympic Installations Board doesn’t seem to be working closely with the city administration to secure the Big O as the first home of the resurrected team. It’ll take time and a significant private investment to build a new purpose-built downtown ballpark, so the rationale is to use what we already have until such a stadium is built.

But this all comes undone what with the roof replacement issue. The province already has a hard time justifying the status quo (i.e. a stadium for special events only), and should be hesitant to invest a considerable sum of public money into developing a new roof if there’s no guarantee of an MLB team returning to the city.

By contrast, the word from the MLB is: no team without a commitment to a new stadium.

Ergo, a site has to be chosen, cleared, decontaminated and then excavated before Major League Baseball will seriously consider relocating even a failing team to this city. And while there seems to be a general agreement in this city that a team could be relocated here and use the Big O until the new stadium is completed, it doesn’t seem that Major League Baseball is convinced. Assuming the Big O’s roof was replaced and that other major renovations were executed, it then begs the question: why build a new stadium at all?

And who’s going to front all that capital without a guarantee?

Unfortunately it increasingly seems as though the only way Montreal will get its Expos back is if the province and possibly the city invest public money into building an entirely new stadium from scratch, though this plan has already been done in Quebec City (and backfired).

The whole ‘if you build it they will come’ idea doesn’t entirely work. Right now Quebec City and Las Vegas are competing for an NHL expansion franchise, and that’s hardly a contest between equals. Vegas has a metro population of nearly two million people, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Quebec City has a metro population of under 800,000, and though both cities are major North American tourist attractions, clearly Las Vegas is by far the bigger draw, not to mention it’s a city whose sole existence is based on tourism. And then there’s the whole issue of broadcasting rights, advertising and certain aspects of Bill 101 that make it disadvantageous to operate a professional sports team in La Belle Province. Take note, the Centre Vidéotron was paid for by the Ville de Québec and the province, splitting the $370 million cost of construction 50-50. Quebecor was given exclusive management and naming rights to the stadium (there was no bidding process) for between $33 and $63 million up front and between $3 and $5 million per annum in rent.

In other words, the public purse pays to build a stadium with no anchor tenant on a hope and a prayer that a city that lost its hockey team will get it back twenty some-odd years later, and one of the province’s biggest corporations gets the exclusive right to manage and name the building providing they pony up between one tenth and one fifth the construction costs up front.

If that seems illogical, impractical and ultimately disadvantageous to taxpayers in Quebec, then you understand full well why our city cannot go down the same road with regards to resurrecting the Expos.

Regardless of what politicians might say, there’s overwhelming evidence that pro sports subsidies from the public purse rarely result in a strong return for the taxpayers, and the heads of the various professional North American leagues know this full well. They bank on it. And the public subsidy doesn’t end once the venue is built. According to research by a University of Michigan sports management professor published in 2012, taxpayers are on average subsidizing 78% of the major sporting venues in Canada and the United States.

Denis Coderre should know better: public support isn’t enough. Both the Expos and Nordiques had strong public support (and arguably still do). But both the NHL and MLB are US-focused entertainment conglomerates that pay their players in US funds and seek English-language broadcasting rights. Currently, the Canadian dollar is losing value compared to the Greenback, and Quebec remains a limited media market. We should also note that both the Expos and the Nordiques appealed to the provincial government for bailouts and ‘stimulus spending’ back when they were on the verge of collapsing, and the péquiste government of the time made the unpopular though ethically correct decision not to use public money to help pay the salaries of multimillionaires who for the most part aren’t even Canadian citizens.

Twenty years later we’re more or less back where we started though with a provincial government and local mayor who seem to think the public investment will be returned through indirect economic stimulus, an idea that’s been disproven by most sports economists.

Plus que ça change…

My question is, are we clever enough to find a way around all these potential pitfalls?

Can we game the system to get a chance to play?

The way I figure it, an entirely privately-funded endeavour is exceptionally unlikely. Simply acquiring a plot of land large enough to build a stadium on will almost assuredly require expropriations of one kind or another, not to mention redesigning the streets around the new stadium. Thus, government is implicated from day one no matter where the new ballpark is built.

Regardless of whether a new stadium is privately or publicly financed it will still require several years to build, and given this is the case it would be advantageous to have the team start playing before the new facility is completed. This is particularly advantageous if we don’t want public money to finance new stadium construction, as the team would be able to begin generating revenue from which the costs of construction would eventually be paid.

That said, the Olympic Stadium needs to be brought up to code to permit long-term, year-round use.

And who’s going to pay for that?

The compromise position would require the Olympic Installations Board (and its properties) to be transferred from the province to the city, meaning the city would be responsible for the stadium’s renovations and maintenance but would also collect direct revenue from its use. The cost of bringing the Big O up to code is significantly less than the cost of building a new stadium, and has other major advantages as well (e.g. no need to redesign the street and traffic system; Olympic Park is already directly connected to two Métro stations; there are maybe a dozen other major attractions within a short walk of the stadium etc.). Furthermore, Olympic Stadium is the city’s single highest capacity venue, and building a proper roof (in addition to the current renovation scheme) would allow it to be used year-round (the stadium floor cannot currently be used from December to March). This would not only allow an MLB team to operate out of the stadium, but any large sporting event in addition to concerts and conventions, important additional revenue streams.

While spending public money to build a new purpose-built ballpark in the hopes of attracting a sports franchise is a nearly criminal misuse of government funds, renovating an underused multi-purpose stadium that’s already been paid for is a lot easier to digest, especially if the city were ultimately fully responsible for the stadium. At this point, the city would finance repairing the roof and making the stadium usable throughout the year, but would also own it and be able to use it as a potential revenue stream. It could then be rented by the resurrected Expos (at a fair price) for as long as was necessary to finance the construction of a new purpose-built facility at a different location in the city. And if after five or six seasons the club’s perfectly happy with the Big O the city could then conceivably offer the team an emphyteutic lease arrangement in lieu of an annual rent.

As far as I can figure it this is the best way forward.

At the time of this writing, the RIO indicated that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games to be held in Montreal in 2016.

Reserving dates is problematic with the defective roof, remember? What if more than three millimetres of rainwater accumulates within 24 hours of the planned match? Would the RIO stick to the rules and force the cancellation of a regular season major league game? Or would the MLB pressure the RIO go ahead anyways?

Author’s Note

First, thanks to regular reader Faiz Imam for pointing out that Quebec City and Las Vegas aren’t competing against one another. There are two spots open and as far as I know the only two cities vying for a franchise.

Second, a spokesman from the RIO got in contact with me to correct a few points. The Big O’s roof can support any amount of rainwater; an event would be cancelled if 3mm of sleet accumulated on the roof. The spokesman also corrected a report that went out on 98.5 fm indicating that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games in 2016. Apparently this is not the case, though the Big O could be available were a request made.

Sewing a Stadium into the Urban Fabric

Conceptual rendering for
Labatt Park as it was planned in the late-1990s.

Kristian Gravenor commented recently on the perennial professional opinion that Montréal is a prime location for Major League Baseball expansion – apparently Keith Olbermann is a fan of baseball’s return to our fair city, thanks largely to the convincing data we have more than enough of an established fan base to support it. As though the enduring popularity of the Expos logo on baseball caps wasn’t enough of a reason…

Kristian proposes the location of Bridge and Mill in the former Goose Village neighbourhood (near the foot of the Victoria Bridge) as a potential location for the construction of a new ballpark to host what would become a reincarnation of the Expos.

I think his choice has some excellent advantages. He points out that it would be close to the site of the first professional baseball games played in our city back in the 1880s, and would likely aid in the revival of an otherwise forgotten and historic part of the urban tapestry. Other practical advantages include the site’s proximity to the Victoria, Champlain and Cartier bridges, the Bonaventure and Ville-Marie expressways and other major thoroughfares, such as Wellington, Charlevoix, Notre-Dame, St-Patrick and Rue de la Commune. While the closest Métro station is Lucien-L’Allier, it is but a bit further than the distance of Molson Stadium to Place-des-Arts (though is admittedly mostly uphill and through a light-industrial/construction zone, and not an exciting and rather stately residential zone) and STM shuttle buses could be used in the same manner as currently employed for Alouettes games. This site would necessitate the demolition of several light industrial buildings, and finding new locations for these enterprises so as to execute the necessary land acquisitions may present some problems. Alternatively, I suppose it would be better to construct on the south side of Bridge as the Costco could be re-located just about anywhere, though building here would potentially require re-designing the adjacent railway lines. All of this to say, it would be a compact, urban stadium.

Another advantage would be the integration of this ballpark into what will soon become an entirely new neighbourhood of medium-density condominiums extending south from the central business district all the way to the Victoria Bridge and the underused Montréal Technopark. If we somehow manage to avoid a market correction and can maintain steady residential development in this sector over the next couple decades, I think it’s only natural that this specific kind of residential expansion occurs. The area is blighted and simply put must be better used than it currently is. If it succeeds it will provide accommodation for thousands of middle and upper-middle income earners paying taxes directly to the city government and work to better integrate Pointe-St-Charles, Little Burgundy and the Cité-du-Havre into the public conception of urban living in Montréal. As it is these places are somewhat distinguished by their inaccessibility. A renewed Griffintown and Goose Village would do quite a bit to remove the physical barriers erected a half-century ago. And a new ballpark here would be a step in the right direction, possibly propelling the development of residential buildings and doubtless launching many new small enterprises, part of what the new neighbourhood will need to secure its long-term vitality.

But can we successfully re-launch a pro-sports franchise?

And what role does the stadium as lieu-de-mémoire and cultural landmark play in how a franchise is reborn?

Molson Stadium

In our city’s professional sporting history this would not be a first – the Alouettes are an excellent example of the successful rebirth of a local sports franchise, and location had a lot to do with it. A chance move to the Percival Molson Stadium in 1997 (as a result of a scheduling conflict with a U2 concert at the Olympic Stadium) resulted in a curious increase of fan interest, and the game sold out rather unexpectedly. Keep in mind that when the Als reformed in 1996 it had been twenty years since we had had a successful professional football team and their first few seasons in the late-1990s were abysmal. The move to Molson Stadium is credited in having solidified the fan base, which played no small part in the twelve year development of a powerhouse CFL franchise – they play Sunday, Bloody Sunday before every game in tribute before every game now, and the Alouettes

So it begs the question – what is it about Molson Stadium that makes it work so well?

The Alouettes played at Molson Stadium from the time of their inception until 1968, when they transferred to the Autostade, located just to the south of where Mr. Gravenor proposes. The Autostade was built for Expo 67 and was intended to be the home of the Montr̩al Expos, but they instead chose Jarry Park Рan excellent decision for that club as the proximity to large residential zones helped encourage early attendance. The Alouettes (along with the Expos) would both eventually move to the Olympic Stadium in 1976, and the Als had a few successful seasons there until the franchise eventually fell apart in 1986 after years of poor attendance and bad management. Conversely, at the time the Expos were doing rather well and attendance for their games was increasing.

The Autostade

I find this to be a fascinating point Рthe Expos were not necessarily undone by the location of their ballpark. For more than twenty years the Expos managed to have decent attendance, as did the Alouettes for a while, even though the Olympic Stadium was ill-suited for both needs and often appeared to be poorly-attended. The Olympic Stadium is located far closer to the geographic centre of the larger metropolitan area than the downtown core, and is connected to two M̩tro stations, not to mention the rather ample parking available at the site.

No, the Expos, much like the pre-1996 Alouettes, suffered and folded due to lack of interest as a consequence of poor marketing, bad management, disastrous trades and strikes beyond the team’s control. Regarding the stadium, it wasn’t so much the building’s location as the building’s unfair public perception as a White Elephant. Hardly motivating and bad for morale when coupled with losing seasons and the robbery of our 1994 Season.

It happens in pro-sports much like in life – teams are born and teams die.

In some very lucky instances teams are reborn, and this is my most sincere hope with regards to the Expos – pro sports are good for business and society because they boost morale while drawing people’s attention at an inter-urban level. In this respect it would be wise to see what we can learn from the histories of both the Expos and Alouettes to see what worked for them in the past.

The Alouettes currently have the smallest stadium in the CFL, and they sell it out every game. A strong fan base has emerged and the renovated and expanded stadium is one of the oldest professional sports venues in use today. There’s an element of the antique and the distinguished present at our mountainside stadium; it seems to emerge from Mount Royal into the bucolic expanses of Fletcher’s Field and Parc Jeanne-Mance. It lies at a crossroad between different neighbourhoods, be it the Quartier Ste-Famille, Milton-Park or the upper part oft he McGill University campus and is little more than a stone’s throw away from the Mile-End and the Main. It is a most peculiar stadium, used by and integrated into a large university and situated between two ancient and elegant hospitals and across the street from a telephone exchange and student ghetto.

De Lorimier Downs, circa 1933 – currently the location of Pierre Dupuy High School on Ontario at De Lorimier

Despite what I would consider an odd location (Molson Stadium was apparently in an advanced state of disrepair in 1997, with a tree growing through the north stands), the decision to go with a smaller and historically significant building over one which had already been largely derided in the public consciousness for its exorbitant costs proved immensely beneficial not just for the team but for the area surrounding it in general – it stimulates land value and supports local businesses. The proximity to the the hotels and restaurants of the urban core are particularly advantageous for the local corporate community and this is at least in part a reflection of the changing nature of professional sports as corporate reward and business facilitator. In many ways I feel the Bell Centre is at least partially successful for the same reason. The relocation of the Montreal Neurological Institute to the new MUHC Superhospital campus at the Glen Yards may lead to the redevelopment of their facilities at the western end of the stadium into a new and larger Molson Stadium (I can imagine restaurants, a University Street entrance, parking garage, team offices, new private boxes, training facilities and a broadcast centre integrated into the facility simply by repurposing the adjacent buildings).

This idea of going small and re-purposing an existing facility has worked out very well for the Alouettes in the long-run, but the Expos will have little choice but to build an entirely new facility. The Olympic Stadium should probably focus on being our city’s principle over-size capacity venue – not ideal for any one particular team or sport but somehow excellent in a pinch for a large expected turnout, such as during a play-off run. In this respect, the onus is really on the Régie des Installations Olympiques to re-conceptualize the purpose of the Big O in our urban environment. It’s already well on its way to simply being another massive multi-function leisure space, not that different from Parc Jean-Drapeau or Mount Royal Park, though it would be far more successful if not designed to be more-or-less self-contained.

I’m a big fan of Miller Park in Milwaukee, as it uses a novel convertible fan-shaped roof.

A new ballpark should probably be placed as close as humanly possible to our central business district to take advantage of access to Métro stations, hotels, restaurants and local nightlife. Further, it should seek to occupy as much otherwise unused land as possible. Kristian’s proposal is a good one, but I wonder if there isn’t a location somewhat closer to the city to take advantage of that would result in fewer demolitions.

I’d counter-propose two other potential locations – either building over the Ville-Marie Expressway between St-Laurent and Hotel-de-Ville, in which otherwise wasted space could be put to better use, the venue would have access to three different Métro stations and a prestige address on the Main. Or, located between Duke, St-Henri, William and St-Maurice on the edge of Old Montréal and the International Quarter. This latter location would require the demolition of several small buildings but the quadrilateral is currently primarily a parking lot. A tunnel could link this location to Square-Victoria station and the Réso.

In both of these cases a stadium would quite literally be sewn into the urban fabric, providing a new anchor of activity in a well-connected and well-used area. The Bridge Street location could help that area develop, but that’s a little more chancy if condo developments don’t progress as we’d like. Regardless of the location, I think we’d be wise to design a compact throw-back design, such as Miller Park or Camden Yards (the developers of which were also involved in the rehabilitation of Molson Stadium) and that’s one reason I’d propose inserting a new ballpark into an existing, older part of the urban core. I’m particularly keen on the St-Laurent site because, as it stands right now, the highway is unsightly and serves as a rather unfortunate blemish. An old-styled ballpark here with a working retractable roof would be an amazing addition to the city-scape, and potentially allow for another large-capacity venue right in the heart of the city.

In any event, its still all up in the air, but on a closing note I would love to see an architecturally adventurous stadium that uses its ability to draw people together to pull disparate neighbourhoods into a more cohesive overall urban plan.

Food for thought. I wonder if street meat is the precursor to or result of downtown ballpark construction…

Worth reconsidering { No.1 }

A grainy proposal drawing for the never-built Labatt Stadium

I often wondered why Jean Drapeau poured so much money and interest into the Expos, and then one day it hit me – it keeps American eyes on us, means we’re a place worth knowing something about, and doubtlessly the kind of place one would consider visiting. Imagine the picture above beaming into homes and bars across the US of A – that’s a view, a potential team and a potential stadium that could have generated a lot of tourism money for this city, and for that reason, Montréal needs to get back into the business of baseball.

I happen to have recently discovered I enjoy baseball quite a bit, and the more I learned about the Expos, the more I came to realize the Expos were robbed of the pennant (at least) in the 1994 season.

Clearly the Big O was not the ideal venue for a baseball franchise, as the enormous stadium was generally impossible to fill, and offered those in attendance no real view, aside from the imposing enormity of the Olympic Stadium. The planned Labatt Stadium (which you can read all about here) would have had a capacity of 36,000 – roughly half that of the Big O.

Now, the site where this stadium would have been constructed is currently condo towers, though there are sites large enough to accommodate a stadium, such as between Duke and St-Henri along William in Griffintown, or at the site of the old Canada-Post sorting facility (incidentally, any re-development of the Griff should consider a ballpark, given the availability of large tracks of land owned by Canada Lands Corporation). Either way, the success of any new version of the Expos, should the citizens of this city ever make an attempt to get back into pro-ball, would be highly dependent on the stadium, its design and the view available to the spectators. A new ballpark would also create many new jobs and further serve as a potential venue for a variety of performances – in essence, a well-designed and strategically placed ballpark could act as a neighbourhood anchor, exactly the kind of thing the southern portion of the downtown could use.