Should people in Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty really care whether Auckland gets a flash new stadium on the waterfront?

It's a question worth pondering as the organisation now known as Auckland Waterfront Consortium (AWC) runs head first into Auckland Council intransigence over the bold plans to change the face of New Zealand's biggest city.

After some scepticism about the project was expressed in the pages of the Bay of Plenty Times soon after the plans were announced, AWC was nothing but proactive. Their front man, Michael Sage, contacted me directly and asked if I could listen to a full presentation of what's proposed, and why it should happen.

It should be pointed out that while the proposal itself is visionary, exciting, spectacular and all those positive words, the main reason for my cynicism was an appreciation of political reality. That reality was expressed on the pages of the New Zealand Herald only last Monday when a couple of Auckland councillors, Ross Clow and Chris Darby, poured a very big jug of ice-cold water on the idea.


As to whether the debate is relevant to Tauranga, there are two aspects. One, people from here will continue to travel to Auckland often for big sports and entertainment events.

The experience, as we all know, is currently underwhelming, especially at the outdoor venues like Eden Park and Mt Smart. So if a new stadium is built, it's likely many thousands from this region will go to a show or a match there at least once a year, probably more.

The second reason is an economic and logistics one.

Bledisloe Wharf, the new proposed new stadium's location, is where nearly 300,000 vehicles enter the country every year. If the new stadium and associated development ever starts, then the vast majority of those vehicles will have to arrive in the country via other ports.

A model of the proposed sunken waterfront stadium for Bledisloe Wharf presented to the Auckland Council planning committee. Photo / Bernard Orsman
A model of the proposed sunken waterfront stadium for Bledisloe Wharf presented to the Auckland Council planning committee. Photo / Bernard Orsman

Therefore, Port of Tauranga, which according to its chief financial officer Steve Gray might take up to 200,000 of those vehicles each year, would be a significant beneficiary of a new Auckland waterfront stadium.

But that's all in the future.

As Michael Sage, the Simpson Grierson lawyer fronting the AWC, says "if we start work tomorrow, it will be 10 years before the first ball is kicked".

Going backwards from that date, construction wouldn't start for at least another six or seven years, so the car importation business, which is a key part of Ports of Auckland (POAL) revenue, isn't leaving Bledisloe Wharf any time soon.


Sage, though, is desperate to stop POAL's planned six-storey carpark building on the wharf.

"That will be an absolute disgrace" he says.

"This is Auckland's Sydney Opera House or Statue of Liberty moment. We have to harness this opportunity for the world to see Auckland."

The proposal, as put forward, is a complete game changer for the waterfront. The stadium would be sunk into the harbour with all but the top rows of seating below sea level and the top of the goal posts at about the level of the sea bed.

"There are lots of buildings below sea level. Look at what the Louvre is doing in Abu Dhabi."

And he says don't worry about the impact of a tsunami or sea-level rise.

"A tsunami is extremely unlikely to happen in the inner harbour, and if the sea level rises so much to take out the stadium, then whole swathes of downtown Auckland are in real trouble, too."

Sage's enthusiasm for the project is unbounded. But already the cynics are asking why he and the other professional consultants in the AWC are doing this. Surely there'll be something in it for them, the suspicious and the wary say.

"This is a spare time project," he says.

"We all have professional reputations at stake, and there's been well over a million dollars' worth of time go into the project so far, and none of that has been charged for."

The schematic profile for a proposed waterfront stadium to be built partially submerged on the Bledisloe Wharf on the Auckland Waterfront. Photo / Supplied
The schematic profile for a proposed waterfront stadium to be built partially submerged on the Bledisloe Wharf on the Auckland Waterfront. Photo / Supplied

While the AWC members may win a role, through tender, in design and development if and when the project ever starts, for now what they're doing is essentially a civic duty to fix what they see are two major issues affecting Auckland – an eyesore of a waterfront and inadequate outdoor stadia.

But Sage admits, even before Clow and Darby made their comments earlier this week, that AWC was pushing up a very steep hill.

"We're doing this because we're not happy with the council and their efforts to fix the stadium issue. We need the political will to make this happen, and we won't get anywhere if we don't get through the political mire."

That there are issues to fix, there is no doubt. Sage's firm has offices high in the Lumley Tower on Shortland St in central Auckland. As befits a firm of its status, the Simpson Grierson offices have brilliant views of the Waitemata Harbour, the North Shore and Rangitoto.

But, in the immediate foreground of the view is the eyesore that is the Bledisloe Wharf carpark. It doesn't take much imagination to understand where the inspiration for this project came from – Sage looks at the problem out the window every working day.

The idea of a stadium on the waterfront isn't a new one. But Sage is thankful for the rejection of Trevor Mallard's idea put forward in 2006 as the headquarters for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

"That would have been a bad idea, because it wouldn't have paid for itself."

The idea this time is that by letting private developers take the risk and allowing them to use land owned by POAL and the Eden Park Trust Board, there will be no cost to ratepayers, although Sage believes "the Crown should support it, too".

He knows that POAL has plans for Bledisloe Wharf and he's horrified by them. AWC believes the land should be used not just for more aesthetic development, but way more valuable as well. He also understands that will be a difficult battle to win.

But Sage reckons that, on the other front, the Eden Park people are already showing signs of wanting to join the movement for a new stadium.

"The Eden Park Trust Board look like they're putting about a trail of breadcrumbs. That story about how expensive it will be to replace the grass there sounded like a desperate plea for help."

The residents around Eden Park have essentially killed any prospects for the ground's future. It just can't hold enough events to pay for itself. Sage believes if AWC's proposal for the waterfront passes a feasibility "stress test," the stadium will be completed carrying no debt, and because it will be able to host a significant event at least once a week, it will generate enough revenue to cover the costs of operations and depreciation.

Sage and the AWC now know, after presenting to the Auckland Council last week, they won't be getting a short-term loan for that feasibility work. They don't appear rebuffed, saying there's private interests who may be able to help.

"Look, we are not trying to solve today's problems. We are trying to solve tomorrow's problems before they get worse.

"There is every reason to do it, no reason not to do it. The city will never get a better opportunity than this."

Sage's obvious energy for this project makes you want to go and start driving those cars off Bledisloe Wharf right now and get the new development underway. But a combination of political stonewalling and POAL reluctance to give up their cash cow mean Tauranga sports and entertainment fans will have to put up with Adele in the rain for a good many years yet.

And those car transporters won't be clogging up the Tauranga Harbour Bridge in the foreseeable future either.