The Olympic Stadium: Appetite for destruction

“Let’s talk about why the government’s creating artificial urgency to spend $870-million on a roof for a stadium that functioned without one for 10 years.”

The Legault administration, always happy to spend massive amounts of public money on the things we need least right now, announced that they will spend at least $870-million to repair the stadium’s roof and technical ring, the latter of which will be made of glass. The government anticipates the project will be completed in four years and that the new roof will have a lifespan of 50 years. They’re also anticipating doing so will bring about $1.5-billion in economic stimulus over the next decade, more than doubling what the stadium currently generates. The new roof will be fixed in place, but because of the glass component, will allow natural light to enter. In the government’s statement, they indicated this would be somewhat in keeping with stadium architect Roger Taillibert’s original vision, even if it ultimately means an end to any dreams of having a fully retractable roof.

Inevitably, people will ask why we’re throwing good money after bad and point to the stadium as an example of the “sunken cost fallacy.” As much as I hate to over-focus on dollars and cents, they do have a point, particularly so given that, when it comes to government spending, it’s austerity for everyone else.

The irony isn’t lost on me either: the government has little to no money to shelter the tens of thousands of homeless people in Quebec, but has nearly $1-billion to put a new roof over an underused sports stadium. 

It’s a sickening display of how perversely misguided government’s priorities are, and we should remember this come election time.

It is our perennial dilemma of seemingly olympian proportions: what to do with the Olympic Stadium?

2024 marks 20 years since the Expos played their last home game at the stadium, and by extension, 20 years since it’s had a primary tenant. What we’re supposed to do with a massive venue that’s unlikely to ever be used as the full-time home of a sports team ever again, and one that continues to cost exceptional amounts of money to maintain, are interrelated questions that have only become more pressing as time goes on.

They are interesting questions, too, because they suggest Montrealers have a say in the matter, but in fact the stadium, much of the land and some of the facilities around it actually belong to the government of Quebec. The Legault administration, which is almost allergic to doing anything that would benefit the city and people of Montreal, will throw money at the stadium irrespective of the fact Montrealers would prefer that cash be spent on other more useful things (social housing development, mass transit improvements, extending the bike network etc.). This in turn only exacerbates several other problems: Montrealers feeling the province is disconnected from their reality, Quebecers from outside Montreal thinking the government wastes money on us and Montrealers increasingly frustrated with how the province spends money here.

$870-million is an exceptional sum to pay to fix up a stadium that is unlikely to ever be anything more than occasionally used. Moreover, the cost estimates might not be anywhere close to reality. The Quebec government has a long disreputable history — one that can be traced back to the construction of the stadium 50 years ago — of paying far too much for civil engineering megaprojects. Whether it’s a consequence of corruption or simply too few major firms too close to those in power, the end result is the same for Jean and Jeanne Q. Publique. Given the way the CAQ does business, we might assume the Big O refit project is just more of the same gros jambon (pork barrel) politics. Call it a subsidy by another name to the construction and engineering industry.

That said, with a planned lifespan of 50 years, it’s clear the Quebec government sees the Big O as something that’s more than just a stadium. 50 years from now, it’ll be 100 years old. If it’s not a monument now, it certainly will be by then.

Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski recently suggested demolishing the Olympic Stadium might be a better solution. This idea comes up often enough and, at least in recent years, tends to be paired with an argument proposing that redeveloping the site with high-density housing would be a great way to turn a money-losing expanse of land into one that would bring in considerable new tax revenues for the city.

The government shot down this idea today as impractical. It would be difficult and expensive to demolish the stadium without potentially damaging the tower and/or the metro line running underneath. The tower is a unique architectural achievement, one I happen to find quite beautiful. It’s also functional office space and a tourist attraction, and has a massive public aquatic complex and gymnasium facilities, so tearing these down along with the stadium wouldn’t make any sense.

The stadium is, despite its expense, a considerable architectural achievement and undeniably a historically significant building. Few stadiums or arenas in Canada will ever be considered architecturally significant in the same way that the Big O is, and few will ever be able to make a claim to be as historically significant as it is as well.

This is why it might now make sense for the stadium to seek federal classification as a national historic site, which could potentially make funds from Heritage Canada available for future repairs. A study commissioned in 2017 concluded that the entirety of Olympic Park has heritage value, that the tower and stadium are internationally recognized landmarks and among the city’s repertoire of major monuments. There are conditions in getting a heritage designation, but then again there probably aren’t any other protected historic buildings in Canada that would be anything like the Big O. It would certainly set a precedent, as unlike other historic buildings there would be a good justification in this case to allow for exceptions to normally strict rules against modifications that would allow the stadium to be improved over time. 

Whether the Quebec government is interested in cooperating with the federal government is another question.

Going this route could open doors to making the Olympic Stadium Canada’s stadium — a giant federally subsidized multi-sport, performance and convention venue, conveniently located in Canada’s premier tourism destination. We might not care as much about the cost of further repairs and improvements over the years if the costs are shared between the governments of Quebec and Canada and there’s an agreement in place that major federally subsidized events, like the Grey Cup, or any future international sporting events, are sent to Montreal. 

This may preclude any future use as a ballpark, but that was likely already the case. So be it — local promoters could continue renting the stadium for exhibition games. Using the stadium as a national sports training centre, or effectively saving it for a future summer Olympics bid, makes sense — it is what it was designed for, after all, and reusing the stadium and its associated facilities is just about the only way to make olympiads financially beneficial to their host cities. 

It worked for Los Angeles in 1984.

Involving the federal government doesn’t necessarily mean anything would have to change at an operational level — if all parties worked together in good faith. The Regie d’installations Olympiques (RIO) has done an excellent job, and their accumulated institutional knowledge should continue to be put to good use. The Fed’s involvement would be to supply needed renovation and improvement matching funds as much as direct events towards Montreal. This might not be to the liking of civic boosters in other cities, but that doesn’t matter — they don’t have what we do, what we’ve paid for.

Today’s announcement is just that: an announcement. We’ll have to wait and see whether this translates into meaningful action. As someone who has kept tabs on announcements for the Métro’s Blue Line, don’t count your infrastructure projects until someone starts putting out orange cones.

We should, collectively, take a moment to ask ourselves whether this has to be done right now, and whether this nearly $1 billion sum should be entirely paid by Quebec taxpayers. Tourism minister Caroline Proulx’s comment that the roof replacement project must go ahead without delay, or we risk losing the stadium entirely, rings hollow to me. Most Montrealers don’t remember this, but the stadium had no roof and was completely exposed to the elements for the first decade of its life: the tower wasn’t completed until 1987 and that’s when the retractable roof was installed. 

Given the stadium really isn’t being used anyways, it doesn’t really need to have its roof replaced right now, now does it?

Forget about sunken costs, let’s talk about why the government’s creating artificial urgency to spend $870-million on a roof for a stadium that functioned without one for 10 years. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.