Paul Lewis: Waterfront stadium a bewildering concept

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Artist impression of a waterfront stadium in Auckland. Image / Herald graphic
Artist impression of a waterfront stadium in Auckland. Image / Herald graphic

Oh no, it's back. The reincarnation of the concept of Auckland's waterfront stadium has a strange, bewildering fascination - a bit like watching Donald Trump's march towards the Republican presidential nomination or something in the toilet that just won't go away no matter how many times you flush.

Those things may be more closely related than we think and maybe Chris Brooks, the chief executive of Regional Facilities Auckland, meant only to make an entirely innocent aside when suggesting a new stadium should be considered. Whatever, he sparked a media traversal and stimulated otherwise highly conservative people to exhort us all to "be bold".

How easy it is to spend someone else's money, although the fact there is no money is a bit of a hurdle. The Government have said they won't foot the bill. That leaves Auckland mayoral candidates to make a great deal of noise about a new stadium, although the only way Auckland ratepayers will end up paying for it would be if "bold" is a synonym for "dumb".

Here are questions proponents of the waterfront stadium never answer:

1. Why would we build a stadium on one of the world's prettier harbours but have that same stadium looking inwards rather than out to sea? It makes no sense. It's like putting a pimple on a wart or lipstick on a pig. If you answered "so we don't have to look at the port", fair enough - wouldn't the vast amount of money the stadium would cost be better spent on helping to re-locate Auckland's ugly port, returning that same waterfront to Auckland's citizens? Or helping solve the transport woes? Or affordable housing?

2. Who knows how much it will really cost? The need to stabilise what the stadium will rest on will be a vast bill on its own. When the original concept was first floated, the supposed price tag was $350m, then it went to $500m. Many think close to $1 billion is more like it.

We already have a national stadium. It's called Eden Park and, imperfect though it may be, did a damned good job at the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. It makes a slender operational profit (although where it would be without the $190m taxpayers' loan to tart the old girl up for the RWC is debatable).

Stadiums don't make money. Look at the Bird's Nest, the much-acclaimed US$430m stadium built in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. It costs US$11m to maintain every year.

The Chinese last year bravely maintained it is a tourist attraction where people are charged to tour its largely empty grandeur and they also say it's hosted 300 events since then. Some of those events were press conferences and there must have been a shedload of reporters there to fill its 91,000 seats. There seems little doubt the income won't cover US$11m a year.

Fair suck of the Szechuan sauce, it will again be used for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing - although anyone thinking an Auckland stadium could be used for multiple Olympics likely thinks John Key's $26m for the flag referendum was money well spent and a vast amount spent on a new stadium will somehow miraculously generate more revenue than the old one.

In some quarters, great significance is attached to the Blues' cautious statement of approval about a new stadium. Given the Blues' record over the last decade, that's like the lemmings approving a new cliff to jump off.

If you need another cautionary tale, take the 18,500-seat sea-front stadium, office and entertainment complex proposed in San Francisco for the NBA team Golden State Warriors, costing about US$1 billion.

The stadium was supposed to be built on Piers 30-32 (actually one wharf) - the former base for Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa at the last America's Cup. The plans looked uncannily similar to Auckland's, although you may wonder why the Americans need US$1 billion for an 18,000-seat stadium and we need $500m-plus for what was originally mooted as a 60,000-seater. Raises the scepticism level, no?

Oh, and - small point - the Warriors' stadium is being privately funded by two billionaires. No public money involved.

The plans for Pier 30-32 were dropped after prolonged political opposition citing traffic problems and obscured views. The stadium proposal moved to a 12-acre site on San Francisco's Mission Bay (ironic, huh?) but is now the subject of a lawsuit from a group protesting it will block access to a university and hospital. Originally due for the 2017 NBA season, plans have now been shifted back to 2019. The stadium is no closer to being built.

Yes, let's by all means have an iconic building on the waterfront. But a sports stadium, focused on its own navel, cold-shouldering the Hauraki Gulf? Try a complex with a small concert venue, a cinema (maybe open-air), a theatre, a performing arts centre, restaurants and bars facing the view, a cruise centre, a library and, yes, maybe even apartments or a hotel.

You know, something people would use. All the time.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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