new auckland

No such thing as a free stadium

Worries about Eden Park's debt to Auckland ratepayers have emerged as the Auckland Council contemplates what could be a 'loan' of up to $4 million to look into a new waterfront stadium.

The council's planning committee had its first official look yesterday at the private consortium's concept for a sunken $1.5 billion stadium on Bledisloe Wharf - to be funded by land development, not rate or taxpayers - and raised questions over the plan.

The Auckland Waterfront Consortium briefing sought the council's support to start work thrashing out details for the twin development of the downtown wharf and the land on which Eden Park now stands. "We do not believe this is absolutely the perfect answer. It is one answer that needs massaging," it said.

It was careful not to say publicly how much money it would need for the 'facilitation phase' over the next 18 months. But a private workshop for councillors had been held earlier and one councillor Linda Cooper raised a figure of $4 million as the sum the council could be up for in the preliminary stage.

"We have heard it might be $4 million. If this does not go ahead, is that underwritten and we might get that back?" she asked the consortium chair, property valuer Dave Wigmore.

He told the committee his group would prefer shared funding from the council or the Government, but it would not be critical and was confident the facilitation phase could be paid for by a private backer or philanthropists if needed. Wigmore said any money contributed by the council would be treated as a loan and repaid by the ultimate developer selected to build the stadium and develop housing precincts at Bledisloe Wharf and Eden Park.

Cooper was concerned the ratepayer was already at risk of up to $60 million over its loan to the Eden Park Trust Board. "We are owed money by Eden Park... we could be in for up to $60 million.

"We have sunk a lot of money and risk into Eden Park and we don't have any governance role. We are told we need to keep putting money in," Cooper said.

"You cannot say categorically that it [the waterfront stadium] is at no cost to the council."

When told the Eden Park Trust could end up holding equity in the stadium by putting in capital, the councillor responded: "They haven't got any."  Wigmore said the value of its land would be the trust's possible contribution.

Councillor Ross Clow, who chairs the finance committee, said the consortium could be seen as rushing the council on the stadium plan. The council was due to revise its long term plan in 2020 and 2021, and already had other planning work to do for the port and waterfront.

"It would not be until 2020/21 that we would want to be looking at your proposition," he said, adding with an almost palpable regard for the bureaucratic process: "You are asking us to do something way earlier than we would chronologically."

A consortium member, Simpson Grierson partner Mike Sage, said the work needed to start now so a separate proposal by the Ports of Auckland company to possibly build a six level carpark on Bledisloe Wharf did not go ahead and then have a life of just three years if a stadium was agreed. The financial position of Eden Park was also "fairly desperate... from what we see in the media."

Also, the consortium believes its plan could be completed at Bledisloe in time for a possible Auckland hosting of the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup in 2030/31.

Wigmore said it would take three years to improve the consortium's plan with public and stakeholder input, dovetailing into Clow's 2021 timing. "We do need to start this facilitation testing now, If we leave it until 2021 we will miss" the two events.

The consortium claimed widespread public support for its sunken stadium since the project was revealed by Newsroom last month. Councillors questioned what evidence it had to back that claim, some saying they had received negative feedback over siting an expensive stadium on the waterfront.

The consortium was ticked off by Tau Henare, a member of the council's Independent Maori Statutory Board for its lack of involvement of Maori so far. While he loved the stadium concept, "We are not like any other stakeholder..."

While the planning committee had heard Ngati Whatua Orakei had declined to engage with the consortium until Auckland Council gave support, Henare said the stadium proponents ought to have created a plan "all encompassing of the special relationship," and "you failed there."  He urged the group to consider Maori representation "on the upper level of the consortium" if the stadium advanced.

Planning committee chair Chris Darby was keen to point out that, contrary to claimed support from Auckland Council owned entities Regional Facilities Auckland (which runs stadiums among other things) and Ateed (the economic development arm) the waterfront consortium's proposal had not gone to those organisations' boards.

Wigmore said they had offered support and RFA had suggested the waterfront stadium was a positive solution, but there had been no "formal" endorsement.

Darby also wondered aloud why an inward-facing facility made sense on the edge of the Waitemata Harbour. A consortium member, architect Richard Goldie, said the setting did not apply just for the two hours of a match or concert that someone would be inside the stadium, but the entire time they spent down and around the facility when drawn to it. 

"I call it an urban beach," he said of the way the stadium met the water. "I can see myself wandering down there and frankly swimming off there."

During discussion at the committee it emerged the consortium has moved away somewhat from earlier thoughts that the port could move its car importing business to the wharf at Onehunga. It is now suggesting better use of land remaining at the port once Bledisloe is removed could be the way of keeping cars being unloaded downtown.

The consortium's stadium would be funded by selling the rights to develop a housing and business precinct on Bledisloe Wharf and a housing and possibly retirement living development at Eden Park.

Sage said there were three essential aims with the plan. "Land must stay in public ownership. There should be no cost to the ratepayer or taxpayer. And we would be adding value to public land by changing is use and then extracting its value by way of the stadium and other amenities."

The planning committee could decide later this month whether to recommend the council get involved in any further work on the stadium as part of a broader waterfront and ports project.

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