Innovation at Work: Lessons learned in building the world’s first underground arena.

ARTICLE | Jul 14, 2015

Innovate. The word comes from the Latin “to renew.” People working in local government should constantly seek to renew their ways of doing things. I am not advocating change for the sake of change – for which politicians have a particular propensity – but change that leads to doing things better.

Why should innovation be the exclusive province of the private sector? Why can’t we instill the spirit of entrepreneurship in local government? Small municipalities, especially, should exploit their size by tapping into their intrinsic agility in problem-solving – just as small businesses have always done.

At both the political and administrative levels, public-sector leadership needs to welcome innovation by encouraging imagination and inventiveness. Mind you, just coming up with an innovative concept is not enough. To make an idea happen, one has to inspire others, to galvanize collectively, to light a fire in many bellies. This is not an easy task in the public sector. Many political and administrative leaders have allowed themselves to become risk-adverse, unimaginative, and intellectually unresponsive simply by force of habit.

Take committees. Committees should be incubators of ideas by challenging their members to stretch their thinking; instead they usually serve as graveyards for ideas-in-the-making. A creative committee is usually a contradiction in terms. Committees generally knock the rough edges off a concept, file it down to some predetermined form, and then proceed to smooth whatever remains until an amorphous unrecognizable blob appears. But it’s the committee’s blob and they’re proud of it. 

Many municipal leaders just assume their administrations are made up of a collection of automatons resistant to doing anything other than by rote, by committee, and by the book. Well, perhaps they are; but they’ve been allowed to become that way. The safest course is the habitual, time-honoured, course. Don’t stick your head above the parapet, or you might get picked off. That’s true; but on the other hand, you just might get picked out.

Successful innovation comes from creativity; but creativity necessarily constrained by judgment. Creativity and judgment are two qualities one would think are rarely found inhabiting the same person, or even the same department. Well, one would make a grievous error in assuming them to be an alien pair, because creativity tempered by judgment makes the best combination of qualities for politicians or public administrators to possess. And you know what? These two qualities can be learned. Not taught, mind you. Learned through experience. And greying hair is not mandatory; young people can have excellent judgment. They are the quick learners who have made mistakes and then honed their judgment by being honest enough to recognize the mistakes, not shifting the blame on others.

Now on to an example of public-sector innovation in my little bailiwick, the City of Westmount. By the way, innovation is not new to us. In 1913, Westmount was the first municipality in Canada to adopt the City Manager form of government, and, three years later, to create a local architectural and planning board. Then, one hundred years later, we built the world’s first underground arena.

It happened this way. In 2008, Westmount had decided it was time to replace its creaky 50-year-old arena and its leaky municipal swimming pool. Because of new activities to be added, the whole rebuilt facility would eventually come to be called the Westmount Recreation Centre (WRC). Owing to these new activities, combined with two NHL-sized ice rinks to replace the former one-and-one-half rinks, the resultant – above-ground – WRC would have been a massive industrial shed looming some 35 feet high, 500 feet long, and 120 feet wide. As well as blocking views, this ungainly behemoth would have swallowed up great swaths of parkland. Indeed, because the proposed building would have taken up so much land, it had to have costly underground parking. In addition, while a new swimming pool could be shoehorned in next to the building, there was no space left over to fit in the existing three junior tennis courts. 

In order to reduce the land taken up by the projected WRC, I thought of two stacked rinks with one underground. But that approach was impractical; for one thing, there’s the permafrost that establishes itself under an ice rink. It was also a half-measure. Then, by October 2009, just before returning as Mayor after a multi-year sabbatical, I was convinced that both rinks should be buried. This had the advantage of liberating all the parkland that had been “under” the old arena.

I had noticed that arenas generally have no windows; so it was a use that lent itself to being placed underground. Another advantage is that the temperature 30 feet down remains at 59ºF year-long, which leads to energy savings in maintaining ice, allowing one rink to operate cheaply in the summer. In the same way, before refrigeration, blocks of ice were sometimes buried to remain frozen for summer use.

I had no trouble convincing City Council and the City Manager of the merits of thinking, not just outside the box, but specifically under the box. A small cadre of citizens, however, were very skeptical – and very vocal. They bitterly fought the project to the end.

Even aside from the naysayers, making the WRC happen wasn’t a walk in the park. In order to resist the lateral forces of the earth, the structure had to have walls of reinforced concrete two-and-one-half feet thick. The steel girders supporting the green-space above had to be nearly five feet deep; and, in order to span each rink, 107 feet long. After all, supporting columns in the middle of an ice rink would tend to cramp a hockey-player’s style.

So the structural costs were very high, to which one had to add the massive costs of excavation. On the other hand, we saved a bundle on the exterior envelope, which was, after all, mostly earth. It is true that in the suburbs, one can build an arena clad in corrugated steel; however, in the City of Westmount (an enclave in downtown Montreal), that sort of material is not acceptable. So we would have had to clad an above-ground arena in noble materials such as brick and stone.

And then there’s the value of liberating an acre and a half of scarce green-space: easily worth some C$8 million in Westmount. Once this “free land” was taken into account, going underground was cheaper than building above-ground. Unfortunately, in our case, we came across more contaminated soil than was estimated, and the cost of disposal was not cheap. Still, considering the extra land liberated, the underground solution came out ahead. Including an exterior pool, tennis courts, exercise rooms, a teen centre, a pavilion-in-the-park, administrative offices, and 13 changing rooms, the total cost for the entire 90,000 ft² project was a little over C$40 million. While over twice the size of the facility it replaced, the WRC uses less energy – one of the reasons it recently earned a LEED gold certification. In fact, the heat taken out of water to make the ice is used to heat the swimming pool.

It was only after we started detailed design work of the WRC that we came to realize that it would house the world’s first underground rinks. Certainly, no other arena has a park on top!

Westmount also innovated financially. As we did for the 1995 restoration and expansion of the Westmount Public Library, we used fundraising to help pay for the building of the WRC. The C$6 million donated by citizens substantially reduced property taxes funding the WRC.

Then there was the way in which we went about building the WRC. After a false start with the traditional design-bid-build method, I persuaded Council to go to the design-build method; and, to oversee the project from concept to completion, to create a design and construction steering committee. This committee, which was comprised of architects, a project manager, City managers, and two members of City Council, met weekly. It controlled the direction of the project with an iron fist, approved design changes when necessary, and fought hard to keep the extras under control when the inevitable unforeseen events occurred.

With design-build, you describe, in the utmost detail, your building program and you let the competing contractors scratch their heads as to how they’ll meet your needs within the set budget. In fact, as a bonus, our contractor’s architects came up with the idea of exploiting the site’s slope to permit windows in those parts of the WRC that were not housing the rinks.

So the design-build technique requires innovation; in other words, creativity with judgment: a concept that brings us back to our main theme. It was creativity with judgment that made the WRC unique in the world. And proved that innovation can happen in local government.

Peter F. Trent is the Mayor of the City of Westmount and author of The Merger Delusion, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Mayor Trent was an inventor and entrepreneur before being elected in 1991. He is currently serving his fifth term as Mayor.

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