Past Futures, Episode 3: Omniplex to the Rescue | By Russell Cobb and Katherine Krohn

As the City of Edmonton embarks on a massive urban revitalization scheme, a group of researchers at the University of Alberta has been asking what we might learn from failed experiments in urban renewal over the past one hundred years. Over the next few weeks, Edmonton Pipelines – a group of students and faculty who explore Edmonton’s identity via digital narratives – will bring you stories about dreams of a future that never came to pass. 

Part 1: Downtown urban renewal
Part 2: Edmonton’s “Miracle Mile”
Part 3: The Omniplex

Edmonton has long suffered from world-class envy syndrome. During boom years, the city likes to dream big, only to see grandiose plans collapse under their own financial weight during lean years. And no dream has been more grandiose, more ambitious, more futuristic, than a project simply known as “Omniplex.”

In the early 1960s, a group of team owners, politicians, and city boosters came together with a bold idea: Edmonton would revitalize its downtown with a massive multipurpose facility incorporating the world’s second domed sports arena.

The group, including the owners of the Eskimos and Oil Kings (the Oilers did not exist yet), went on a tour of Montreal, Detroit, and Houston, gathering inspiration for a project initially called the Coliseum. The development that really captured Edmontonians’ imagination was Houston’s Astrodome, the so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The mayor of Houston wanted a team and an arena to fit with the booming city’s space-age swagger, and in 1961, voters in the city approved a bond to build the world’s first indoor sports arena. When the Astrodome opened in 1965, the New York Times predicted that “stadiums all over the world will become…obsolete.”

Back in Edmonton, the Astrodome-inspired project was renamed Omniplex (boosters told media to omit “the”), but the proposal went above and beyond Houston’s crowning glory. Omniplex’s main attraction was a football field that could be raised in the air to reveal a hockey arena. The project wasn’t all about sports, though. It would also incorporate a convention center for 25,000 people, a 100,000 square foot trade show center, a movie theatre, two lecture halls, luxury restaurants and boutique shops, a parkade for 2,000 vehicles, and plenty of office space, all the while linking the structure to new rapid transit facilities. The structure would lie in the heart of downtown Edmonton in order to spur redevelopment of the floundering city center.


[Plan of downtown Edmonton featuring the Omniplex (white building behind the old City Hall). Courtesy of the Edmonton Journal.]

The multipurpose trade and sports center, to be located between 96th and 97th Streets and north of 103A Avenue to the CNR tracks, was not only ambitious in concept, but also in design. Three different investors, Batoni, Hashman and Marlboro, funded detailed proposals for a $30 million Omniplex. The Batoni plan included a cable suspended roof and integrated the hockey arena into the football field by covering the ice with removable astro-turf. The Hashman proposal employed mechanically movable seats on a sunken track in order to offer the best possible viewing for both sports, a technique borrowed from the Houston Astrodome.


[Batoni blueprint of the Omniplex, depicting cable suspended roof. Image from Submission for an Omniplex to the Mayor/City Council, by Bowlen Investments and Batoni Construction Ltd, May 4th 1970.]


[Artist’s rendering of the Hashman proposal. Image from A proposal for Edmonton Centre, by Sam Hashman and co, 1966.]

The most inventive design of all, and the most publicized, was the Marlboro plan. The building was a circular structure of glass walls and concrete pylons that supported a steel-domed roof. An ice rink lay below the football field which was tracked on hydraulic elevators. The football field could be raised to the ceiling of the stadium, revealing a hockey arena with seating capacity between 7,500 and 15,500, depending on demand (and depending on how high the field was lifted). The trade and convention space was tucked away underneath the stands, and a plaza area with specialty restaurants overlooked the 32,000-seat football stadium.


[Cross section of the Marlboro Omniplex design.]

In a 1968 pamphlet published by the City of Edmonton, Omniplex was advertised as completely unique, “as bizarre in concept as the [Montreal] Expo Pavilions and many times more versatile – as well as much more weather-proof – than the Houston Astrodome.” Not only was Omniplex sold as a world-class structure, but it also had something for everyone: it was “a complex to meet 1,001 social, economic and recreational needs,” all under one roof.

[Artist’s rendering of the Omniplex’s trade show center and restaurant overlooking the football stadium. Courtesy of the Edmonton Journal, 12 October 1968.]

 

In addition to providing much-needed trade and sports facilities, the Omniplex was a strategy of urban renewal. The Edmonton Journal boasted it would attract $5 million of new money annually, create 350 jobs, and “put Edmonton on the map as THE outstanding city of Western Canada.” Edmonton would become the natural location for trade shows and conventions, welcoming new industry to the city. The sports facilities promised to extend the season for soccer and football games, draw bigger crowds, and ensure the future of pro-football and pro-hockey in Edmonton. The arena would host national events, spectaculars, political rallies, rock concerts, and more. Finally, due to its singular design, the domed stadium would surely be Canada’s leading tourist attraction.


[Artist’s rendering of the Omniplex domed stadium. Image from Edmonton Omniplex Presentation to Edmonton City Council by Marlboro Developments, 1970.]

For all the praise and hope Omniplex generated, the extravagance and ambitiousness of the proposal ultimately jeopardized its practicality and financial feasibility. The NHL president expressed concern that the dual sports arena could not meet pro-hockey standards, and the utilities committee agreed that the logistics of raising an entire football field to the ceiling would be impractical if not prohibitive. Furthermore, the cost to build the Omniplex was approaching $32.5 million, while the original budget for the facility was a third of that price. By-election candidate Sam Agronin accused the proposal of being “way beyond the wildest dreams and wildest capabilities of this city,” since the burden of paying for it would fall on property owners. Others worried that the Omniplex would exacerbate congestion in the downtown area, and some even questioned whether Edmonton was a big enough city for a 32,000-seat stadium.

On November 25, 1970, City Council brought the issue to the public. In a vote to determine if the government should borrow money to start construction of the Omniplex, 54 percent of Edmontonians voted no. The city pondered finding alternative funding for the project, but interest petered out as planners began suggesting more realistic alternatives. Four years later, Northlands Coliseum opened (now Rexall Place) and plans began for a separate convention center on Grierson Hill (now Shaw Conference Centre).

Had Omniplex materialized into reality, Edmonton might have been stuck with a white elephant. The Astrodome is itself now obsolete, standing vacant and lifeless in south Houston. Even with its muggy, tropical climate, Houstonians decided that they’d rather watch baseball in a traditional ballpark with a view of downtown. In 2000, Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) hosted its first Houston Astros game, kicking off an era of redevelopment that has now made Houston’s downtown walkable and sustainable.

While most of the debate about Edmonton’s new arena has focused on cost and feasibility, city dwellers should consider the long-range forecast. Will a new arena enhance the city’s quality of life and its sense of place?  Or will it simply become another monolithic concrete and steel structure? The new arena—like Omniplex before it—might capture the imagination with its dreams of establishing Edmonton as a world-class city. But for it to sustain itself, it must also capture the needs of a vital, livable city—public space and human-scale retail with safe and walkable streets. Otherwise, it could become Edmonton’s Astrodome—a hulking structure of obsolescence.

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  • Russell Cobb

    Those who do not learn from history are “domed” to repeat it.

  • JB

    One issue the Astrodome still exists as a football stadium hosting the Sugar Bowl and the Saints so not exactly lifeless.

  • Guest

    I found these images at the City Archives in the file on “Namayo Avenue” a while back. They were published in the Edmonton Journal. Fascinating how history repeats itself.

  • Buzzilinear

    The Wanderer logo looks like the Omniplex.