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A great idea, till you ask difficult questions

by Matthew Plummer
It’s the start of city council election season in Wellington, and I thought I’d look at some of the big campaign ideas doing the rounds. First up: beware of any politician who pledges to build a new 10,000-12,000 seat indoor stadium. It sounds like a great idea, until you ask some difficult questions.

For example:

Q: Has the Wellington City Council finished paying off debt for building the Westpac Stadium?

A: WCC hasn’t started paying back the $15million debt incurred in 1998 – it was added to the City Council’s general debt, which currently sits around the $500million mark. The interest payments for WCC’s stadium debt are now around $1million a year. The Regional Council’s $25million stadium loan will be paid off in 2018.

Q: What happens to the Westpac Stadium if we move the Wellington Lions and Phoenix to the new 10,000 stadium?

A: The Westpac becomes a white elephant, with only half a dozen Super Rugby games and an All Blacks test match if we’re lucky. Plus the occasional extravaganza like the Edinburgh Tattoo. Less use doesn’t equate to lower maintenance – the grass still has to be mown and the building still has to be looked after.

Q: Okay, so let’s leave the sports at the Westpac. But a covered 10,000-12,000 seat arena would be a great asset for big gigs. Let’s build it!

A: Not so fast. The TSB Arena (another WCC asset) has a capacity of 5,655. I agree it’s not the greatest venue in the world, but how many events is Wellington going to host where the TSB Arena isn’t big enough, and that need to be under cover? How many times a year do the likes of Guns’n’Roses come to town – maybe half a dozen? Are we seriously talking about building a venue that will get such limited use? Even band promoters think it’s a bad idea.

Q: But it’d be cool to have an awesome indoor arena for big music acts, and we’d miss out if we don’t build one!

A: Yes it would be great, and yes we might miss out. But while there are many advantages with living in a small city, there are also some downsides. This is one of them.

Q: Aren’t ratepayers already already spending quite a bit to upgrade the Basin Reserve?

A: Correct. The City Council has just signed off $21.2million over the next decade for the Basin’s redevelopment. Did I mention we haven’t started paying off our late 1990s debt on the stadium?

Q: Any idea of how much the new arena would cost?

A: Figures haven’t been worked up yet, but as a comparison, the ASB Centre in Kilbirnie cost $47.5 million back in 2007, and the Westpac Stadium cost $130million in the mid-1990s. A rough ballpark figure would put the cost of a new 10,000-12,000 arena at around $60-85million – around half the cost of the $134.4million for the film museum with a convention centre on top.

Q: Could we have a monorail running between the railway station and the new mini-stadium?

A: That’s an excellent idea – already covered in The Simpsons. Because there are definitely no similarities between Wellington and Springfield when it comes to wasteful spending.

monorail

Yes it’d be lovely to have a dedicated mini-stadium for the Phoenix and Lions, with the ability to host large events for artists like Madonna, but as a city of 200,000 (and a region of 500,000) the reality is it’d be a financial millstone round every Wellingtonian’s neck. We need to develop other tourist infrastructure first: major Wellington events see our existing accommodation stretched to the limits, and friends working in Wellington’s tourism sector say the city needs two more large hotels if we’re serious about economic growth from tourism. Besides, shouldn’t we make some progress on getting our outstanding Town Hall back into operation before we chase after the next hare-brained idea?

So I think we’re better to start thinking long term about what the eventual replacement for the Westpac Stadium will look like. That might seem like a long way off, but in the competitive world of hosting major sporting events a lack of roof and inflexible capacity will make the Westpac less attractive as other stadia across Australasia are upgraded: the New South Wales Government has just signed off a major refurbishment of Sydney’s Olympic stadium (with demolition of the 17 year old building seriously considered). Athletic Park hosted our major sporting events for a century – no-one seriously believes the same will be true for the Westpac.

So the eventual replacement will probably be built for a rectangular pitch. Everyone prefers watching cricket at the Basin, and there have only been barely a dozen games where attendance has been higher than the Basin’s 13,000 capacity. Building a multipurpose stadium round an oval pitch is a huge design compromise – so we’re much better to cement the Basin’s reputation as one of the world’s great cricket venues with an extra 5,000 seats.

And a new stadium in Wellington will have a roof. The total capacity will be a little higher than Athletic Park’s 39,000 (and definitely more than the Westpac’s 35,000 seats), with a layout that avoids the notorious ‘sea of yellow’ evident for less attended events – perhaps with tiers that can be blocked off for smaller fixtures, or by using drapes. The Welsh have done this successfully with Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – and scaled down version of this would work well in Wellington.

But this is a conversation to be had in the 2020s. We get one chance every generation to build a major sports facility that adds to the city. Until then we need to make the most of what we’ve got – and avoid pouring money into ‘great Wellington assets’ that’ll be operational and financial disasters from the outset.

In the meantime, here’s the NBR’s Tim Hunter discussing the latest outbreak of the ‘stadium virus’ in New Zealand. And do try and track down the Monorail episode of The Simpsons, as it didn’t end happily for Springfield. You’ve been warned, Wellington.

Matthew Plummer – @mwyp – is a commercial photographer and freelance journalist with over a decade of experience in the infrastructure sector.

https://www.facebook.com/matthewplummerwellington/

6 comments:

  1. KB, 28. April 2016, 9:52

    No need to build a whole new stadium – instead just modify Westpac.

    1. Add a retractable roof.
    2. On one side of the stadium, replace the current seating with a section that becomes a retractable stand. One that moves forward 15 meters or so into the field for soccer, rugby, concerts and temporarily creates an intimate almost rectangular shaped venue, and can be pushed back into the existing bowl shape when playing cricket or very large concerts/events.
    3. Slightly unrelated to the structure, but the current capacity of the stadium should be reduced slightly by a few thousand seats so more comfortable seating can be installed for at least 10,000 seats. Take out a few rows for increased leg room, and make them wider for more personal space. Also install screens in every seatback for replays, food ordering etc.

     
  2. Patrick Morgan, 28. April 2016, 10:03

    Great post Matthew. I especially like the Simpsons reference.

     
  3. Ben, 28. April 2016, 10:57

    Hello councillors . . . . . we are not a city of several million residents, can’t even hit 500,000 so what’s with all the grandiose ideas? We are a small city with all the wonderful benefits associated with that. But the downside of being small is we cannot afford all these big projects, and certainly will have difficulty sustaining them.
    We need to consolidate and think about paying off some of the previous debts and sort out the Town Hall without hocking of precious assets.

     
  4. Michael Gibson, 28. April 2016, 16:18

    This is the sort of thinking which none of ouir present elected people have ever exhibited – it is excellent.
    It would be good to have some analysis on the Council instead of the time-servers who have made a career (what a waste!) out of being glib & making so many lousy decisions. Ideas anyone?

     
  5. Guy, 29. April 2016, 7:40

    KB – you’re wrong. Two reasons why we can’t just modify the existing stadium:

    1 – The current structure is designed without a roof. It is simply not strong enough to just “add a roof” to the top of it. It would collapse. Wellington winds are massively strong, and acting on a roof of this size, the forces would be immense. The only way to get a roof on the existing structure would be to – effectively – take all the upper structure down, rework the foundations, and build a whole new upper structure. Probably easier then, to just demolish the whole thing and start again.

    2 – Thorndon Residents Society. They held the city to ransom last time, and would do so again this time. Roof = higher building. Taller = less view for those living in Thorndon. Why do you think the current CakeTin has such a flat top? Because views for rich people living in Thorndon set the height limit, above which we cannot go.

    Oh, and 3 – screens in every seat back? You are kidding, aren’t you? How many billions do you have to donate to this project?

     
  6. Pb, 24. August 2016, 23:04

    One solution could be to purchase movable seating of about 15,000 and place at an existing park like Rugby League park in Newtown, or Memorial Park in Petone for Wellington Rugby, Hurricanes and Phoenix use. The Basin would need 5,000 extra seats to replace the old red stickered stand. This would allow Westpac to be strengthened to allow for a roof and a potential redesign to allow for a permanent rectangle seating format with as much of the original bowl maintained as possible. However, this would mean all cricket and australian rules football would be played at the Basin. Would NZ Cricket be happy with that? It is a beautiful cricket venue, but can get congested on game day. Some would say that the added seating of 15,000 at an existing park would become a burden (Post new-Westpac), however if the seating was moveable, it could be repurposed in 3,000 seat lots, or whatever increment best suits, to be moved to multiple sports parks and venues around Wellington and used for club and school purposes. The 15,000 outdoor moveable Seats could be seen as an investment in supporting community sport.

     

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