In the first of a two-part series on conflicting plans for Auckland's stadiums, venues and museums, Simon Wilson looks at the future of Eden Park.

Hold on to your seats, Eden Park has a bold new plan to develop its potential as a concert venue. Meanwhile, that sunken waterfront stadium idea hasn't sunk, not at all. The people behind it are busy trying to raise "ignition funding" – money that can be spent on a proper feasibility study.

And there's more. Concept planning continues to build a Te Papa North in Manukau. Ngāti Whātuā is keen on a new Māori and Pasifika museum, perhaps on the waterfront. The council's Regional Facilities Auckland, which runs all the big venues except Eden Park, is calling for a top-level rethink of our whole approach to stadiums and venues. And the Government's working group looking at upper North Island ports and freight strategy is expected to propose moving car imports off Bledisloe Wharf and all the way to Whangarei.

Big ideas, big strategic possibilities for Auckland. They won't all happen, they don't even all fit together. They raise very big questions about what the city needs, where and when we need it and how we're going to pay for it all. But the ferment is good: there's some exciting visionary thinking going on.


Can we harness that? Can we bring together the best ideas in an integrated plan, one that will work for all the diverse participants, to the enrichment of the city as a whole? The benefits would be enormous – in economic and social terms, as well as for sport, the arts and entertainment – and if the planning is handled well they will flow to us all.

Can Auckland Council rise to the challenge of leading this process? Right now they're mired in a bitter wrangle about speedway and local cricket, unable to talk coherently about almost any of the larger issues and possibilities.

Why has planning for the city's major cultural and sporting venues been hijacked by a couple of minor sports organisations, neither of which has demonstrated even the slightest interest in the bigger picture? Why is the council so unable to do anything about that?

Nick Sautner, who's an Aussie, says he was blown away listening to Lizzie Marvelly singing the national anthem at Eden Park last month. Sautner is CEO of Eden Park and the occasion was a commemoration for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Lizzie Marvelly sings the national anthem during a remembrance service at Eden Park in March. Photo / Getty
Lizzie Marvelly sings the national anthem during a remembrance service at Eden Park in March. Photo / Getty

"What a beautiful voice. And you know, I thought, if she wants to come in here and do a concert, well she can't. But if she wants to play rugby I can organise that tomorrow."

Marvelly will be thrilled to hear it. But Sautner's point was this. "I think it's wrong. Why should sports lovers have the advantage but if you're into arts and culture, Eden Park is out of bounds?"

Sautner is a tall guy, with big round shoulders and gangly legs barely concealed beneath his suit – no surprise, he was an Aussie Rules player. We were sitting with his boss, Doug McKay, chair of the Eden Park Trust Board, in a meeting room high above the playing field. The grass glowed a bright sparkling green before us as the rain poured down.

Sautner found it hard to sit still, and hard not to keep talking, too. He's an enthusiast with a head whirling with ideas. McKay, older, former CEO of Auckland Council and a business leader, wore black jeans and a business shirt, all tucked in and trim. He likes to sit with hands clasped on the table in front of him, the calm steady voice in the room.

Both of them waxed lyrical about how Eden Park is our national stadium, a slogan they've taken to using with all their branding, although it has no official status. No one in Government or the sporting codes has decided that's what Eden Park is.

That sports advantage Sautner mentioned is now being subsidised by Auckland ratepayers, with a $63 million financial package agreed to by council in mid-March. $10 million of it is a no-strings grant. Eden Park is owned by the trust, not by council.

That grant, along with the rest of the package, which involves taking over loans and other banking arrangements, reflects council's view that the park is worth preserving in a fully functional state.

Given that decision has now been made, what are the consequences?

There are four big truths about Auckland's venues and stadiums:

• In the medium term – the next 10-15 years – Eden Park will remain the city's premiere sporting venue.

Even if we do decide we want a stadium on the waterfront, it will take that long to debate, plan, consent and build. Eden Park, at least for now, is it.

The park is by far the city's best venue for big rugby and cricket games and for big events like Te Matatini. The biennial national kapa haka competition will be hosted there in 2021 and is expected to attract enormous crowds – especially as a team from Tāmaki Makaurau are the current title holders.

Te Matatini will be an enormous showcase for te ao Māori in this city and it offers Eden Park a chance to show just how good it can be as a cultural venue.

The other three big truths?

• Most of our major sports venues are not fit for their current purposes.

• Auckland misses out on many events because it does not have the venues those events need.

• Everything we do is going to cost us something.

Supporting Eden Park for now doesn't mean all talk of new stadiums is pointless. McKay says the immediate role of the park is "tidying the city through the next 10-15 years while a bigger strategy is developed".

Given that, it makes sense to do two things. One is to fix the things that need fixing – the turf, the roof of the north stadium and so on – and that's what the council grant is for.

The second is to look at whether the park can become more financially viable. It runs a small operating surplus now, but that's at risk because sports crowds for regular fixtures are declining. Not just in Auckland but everywhere.

The reality is, venues like Eden Park might look like sports venues and behave like sports venues, but from a financial point of view that's not their future.

Andrew Barnes is the new chair of the board of Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA). I met him for coffee in the Wynyard Quarter, where he has business interests. He's a bullocky man with a big grin and an unconcealed get-out-of-my-way approach to the world. Leans in when he talks and, like Sautner, is clearly impatient to get things done.

Barnes juggles half a dozen governance/entrepreneurial roles and it's obvious he's not used to pfaffing about they way they do in politics.

He said, "We've got the debate about these venues the wrong way round. We think of them as sports stadiums, but most of the money is in entertainment. Really, they're concert venues that also do sports."

I put that to Nick Sautner and his eyebrows shot up. He's not ready to stop thinking Eden Park is first and foremost the home of rugby and cricket.

RFA and the Eden Park Trust Board both seem to regard each other as an enemy, although it's not easy to see why. True, RFA did oppose council making that grant to the trust, but now the deal is done, they agree on quite a lot of the rest.

They certainly all agree that Eden Park needs concerts. The trust estimates the park could earn up to a million dollars in revenue with each one. Put that another way: if Eden Park staged night-time concerts it wouldn't need a council grant for anything.

Technically, the park can already stage six night-time concerts a year. But the process involved to get each one consented is so convoluted and time-consuming, promoters can't use it.

So McKay and his board have a plan. They're going back to the Environment Court to try to get that changed. They want concerts to become a "permitted" activity, which means they won't need a consent for each one. Promoters will be able to book dates and it'll all be on.

McKay says it will probably take them a year to get that change.

There's a lot at stake for Auckland. Andrew Barnes: "You want to know the difference between a concert and a sports game, for the city? When the All Blacks play a test, the locals fill the stadium. When Adele comes to town, you can't get a hotel room anywhere."

Concerts generate income not just for the venue, but for the city as a whole.

People who live near the park are split on the idea. The Eden Park Neighbours' Association has successfully led the opposition, but there's not much evidence they enjoy wide support. The new

Eden Park Residents Association is larger and wants concerts, and you can read what you like into the fact it has a working relationship with Eden Park itself.

Opponents of concerts talk about noise, disruption from trucks packing in and out, rowdy crowds and offensive behaviour.

Sautner says most of that just doesn't apply. They're so good at crowd management now, he says, they can clear the stadium in 14 minutes. Crowds disperse quickly to the bars of Dominion Rd and Kingsland. Those who catch buses do so within the grounds of the park. Rail passengers head directly for the station.

The old complaint, that park patrons urinated in the front gardens of homes all around the park, is rarely heard now. Why? Since the renovations in 2011, Eden Park has lots of toilets.

As for all the trucks, if Eden Park stages regular concerts they won't go near Walter Rd or the other side streets. Sautner says they'll arrive on Sandringham Rd and drive in across the number 2 ground.

It's called "bump in bump out": easy, quick, and not disruptive.

Well, it would be disruptive to the cricket. Auckland Cricket is guaranteed 60 days per year of uninterrupted use of that ground, and as Barnes notes, the cricket season coincides exactly with the concert season.

Strange but true: while New Zealand Cricket is keen on a shift from Eden Park for all but the biggest games, it can't tell Auckland Cricket what to do and they're clinging on.

The prohibitive night-time rules don't just apply to concerts, by the way. Auckland lost a big India-New Zealand cricket game this summer because it would have gone half an hour later than the time limit currently allows.

To be clear: if Eden Park succeeds in getting the rules on night-time use changed, the only barrier to Auckland hosting more of the biggest cricket games will be Auckland Cricket.

To put it another way: if concerts at Eden Park had been possible this summer, Six60 would still not have been able to play to 50,000 fans there because a handful of guys, with almost no crowd support at all, were using the No 2 ground for cricket.

What about longer term? Should Eden Park remain the city's premium venue for concerts and sport? Or should we build a new one, probably on the waterfront, although that's not the only option?

To start, how big should it be? You couldn't build a stadium large enough to hold all the fans who want to see India play New Zealand in short-form cricket, and the same is true for a Rugby World Cup final and for the world's most popular entertainers. But you don't build stadiums for occasional enormous events, unless they can be reconfigured to stage smaller events as well.

Andrew Barnes says the model he likes is O2 in London, formerly the Millennium Dome. It's the world's busiest venue, especially popular for concerts, but it seats only 20,000 and doesn't have a playing field.

Eden Park seats 50,000. For concerts with people on the field, make that 65,000.

What Auckland probably needs is a venue to attract crowds of 10,000 to 50,000, at least 25 times a year, to a whole range of cultural, sporting and other events. It would be home to rugby, rugby league, big cricket games, big concerts, pageants like the Edinburgh Tattoo and other major musical events, all sorts of festivals, sports competitions like the Rugby World Cup and a growing range of other activities. Japan Day was held at Eden Park this year.

What would Eden Park need to do, to be that venue?

Doug McKay says a retractable roof is top of his list, and that seems a no-brainer. He didn't say it, but the rugby is better, the cricket more reliable and honestly, hearing Adele sing in the pouring rain might be memorable but it doesn't really make the concert better.

McKay also says he would replace the western stand to align it properly with the north and south stands, and install "curtains" to shut off the upper stands when the crowd isn't big enough. Much like the Civic Theatre doesn't open upstairs unless it needs to.

He'd also like to see a pedestrian concourse to connect the stadium to Kingsland Station, like the Cake Tin has in Wellington.

He didn't mention better food and beverage options, or bigger and better big screens, or improving the in-seat experience with better audio-visual options. Nick Sautner says fans can use their phones and their own data plans for that.

But why keep Eden Park? Just because it's already there and it's "good enough"? Just because it looks like the cheaper option?

Long term, Eden Park has four major weaknesses.

1. A venue in the suburbs will always be disruptive of the suburbs.

However liberal the rules for its use become, the strategy for Eden Park will always be: how do we minimise disruption to the neighbours? That's entirely the wrong way to look at an asset like a stadium.

The strategy for our premiere venue should be: how do we use it more? Not just 25 but 50 times a year, and then some? Not "How do we contain it?" but "How do we lift the lid?"

2. A waterfront stadium is a better asset for the whole city.

Near to more nightlife, so patrons can have more fun and spend more money. Accessible from everywhere by public transport, which will become even more true as the CRL, light rail, better ferries and a new harbour crossing come into play. Maybe there'll be no car parks! Public transport would be the norm. Enhancing the waterfront, creating a drawcard for visitors and an advertisement for the city.

3. We could use the land better.

The land at Eden Park is perfectly suited for housing and smaller-scale recreation facilities. It could become a new model suburb, mixed, close to everything, a really good exemplar of how to build compactly in the city. Auckland desperately needs places like that.

It could even include a boutique sports ground with a vintage grandstand.

4. It will never be a great venue.

Seen any of the great new stadiums built around the world recently? Astonishing architecture, configured for proximity and great crowd excitement, flexible to host all kinds of events. Eden Park is a cobbled-together collection of stands and it always will be: a make-do solution that does the core job but little more.

Yes, there is history and there are memories. But when there's a much better experience on offer, people usually find it easy enough to adjust.

It's hard to see Eden Park every overcoming all four problems. The first one alone should be enough to veto its long-term future.

And it's impossible to think that imaginative, entrepreneurial people will stop coming up with exciting alternatives. So why don't we start taking seriously the ones we already have?

Tomorrow: The waterfront options