Yet another waterfront stadium plan is being put forward for Auckland. Modern-day stadium naysayer Hayden Donnell summons his stadium-supporting past self to debate the merits.
I used to support a waterfront stadium. It was 2006. Trevor Mallard was the minister of sport and he was offering Auckland $700 million to build a 50,000-seat facility across Bledisloe and Marsden wharfs for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It seemed like a generous offer. At the time, our waterfront was mostly populated by carparks, containers and the decomposing corpses of people who’d drowned in their own vomit at Danny Doolan’s. Most of the opposition to the proposal seemed to be from the type of local government lifers who’ve made a career out of frowning gravely and saying “no” whenever anyone came up with a semi-interesting idea. Besides anything else, as the old saying goes: “If Trevor Mallard offers you 700 million dollars, take it”.
My position has evolved over the years. These days I’m won over by the argument that waterfront stadiums are mostly expensive, walled-off dead zones in what should be a city’s most open and well-used strip of land.
I’ve happily occupied that position for years until yesterday, when something discombobulating happened. Simon Wilson, a Herald columnist and Oracle of Auckland local government, came out in full-throated support of a new $1.8 billion harbourside stadium plan. Writing yesterday, he said it could be “the making of our waterfront, the great public amenity Auckland deserves”. His first line was “How magnificent” – his most enthusiastic start to a story since “the quail was divine”.
It would be weird for Wilson to be wrong. Maybe I should reconvert and become a waterfront stadium supporter again. As Wilson himself is busy with “a job” and “a life”, I decided to use makeshift black magic to summon the Ghost of Hayden Past and see whether he could convince me this new stadium design is good for Auckland. I bought my materials. After a brief period of necromancing and incanting, I began the ceremony.
This is the transcription of my conversation.
Ghost of Hayden Past: What?
Ghost of Hayden Present: There’s a new plan for an Auckland waterfront stadium and it looks better than the last one. It’s meant to be built on reclaimed land where Captain Cook Wharf is now. The design looks really nice. It’s privately funded. The group behind it wants permission to build apartments on the waterfront and the current Eden Park site in exchange for construction.
Ghost of Hayden Past: Okay, so some rich people are promising to give us a stadium in exchange for letting them build houses during a housing crisis? This sounds like an extremely good deal. We get 50,000 extra people in the CBD during All Blacks games and some new apartments, in exchange for giving them 0 actual dollars. Why do you seem so hesitant, and why do you look so old?
Ghost of Hayden Present: How did you know there’s a housing crisis? Anyway, it’s not “free” free. We’re giving up a huge section of literally the most expensive land in New Zealand. We could be using it for anything but instead we’re deciding to block it off with a huge stadium that will only be intermittently used and will keep Aucklanders away from parts of the harbourside for decades to come.
Ghost of Hayden Past: Oh no, block people off from the harbourside? Anything but that. Except wait, what’s that part of the waterfront used for now? It’s a carpark and a port. Surely a beautiful, expensive stadium is better than a carpark with a fence around it? I’m so disappointed in what you’ve become.
Ghost of Hayden Present: Okay. Um. Well. I know the area’s being used poorly now but if we put a stadium there, then we’re locked using it poorly for decades. Sure, we should get rid of the carpark. But wouldn’t these wharves be better off as actual public space that everyone can enjoy, and not just when it’s time to win the Bledisloe Cup again?
Ghost of Hayden Past: There’s plenty of other land on the waterfront that’s public space. Wynyard Quarter. Queens Wharf, technically. The Viaduct. There’s space to have a stadium and still have lots of walking, cycling and parkland along the harbour.
Ghost of Hayden Present: Our current stadiums are “under-utilised” and operating under “financial constraints”, according to a 2012 report to council. That doesn’t exactly scream “hell yeah, let’s make another nearly $2 billion stadium in the most expensive part of the city”.
Ghost of Hayden Past: This could do better than the current stadiums. In any case, it’d be a calling card for the city, like the Sydney Opera House is for Sydney. It’d be an attraction for people arriving here by cruise ship.
Ghost of Hayden Present: Or would it? Look at Wellington’s stadium. Or Melbourne’s. The areas around them are depressing sinkholes. It’s just as likely they’d step off the cruise ship, and straight into what a huge concrete dead zone. Wouldn’t it be better if they stepped off into bike paths, cafes and other public space and not roughly 300 hectares of walled off land that won’t be used 95 per cent of the time? There’s a huge opportunity cost to plonking a stadium on the best tract of land in the city.
Ghost of Hayden Past: Have you become president of a local ratepayers association or something? This proposal leaves a lot of room for public space.
And if we’re talking about opportunity cost, what’s the opportunity cost of just doing nothing and waiting around for some beautiful imagined utopian vision to be realised? Auckland Council’s own officers just opposed two great-looking new apartment complexes in the middle of a housing crisis for the crime of displaying hints of creativity and initiative. Are you really going to wait for a great new waterfront plan to work its way through the council’s gigantic bowel of bureaucracy, past the contracting sphincter of its governing body, and out into the world? Climate change will have destroyed the Earth by the time this gets approved. Your children will have locked your body in a chryo-tube and farmed it for scarce resources. They won’t be agonising over whether we should put in a bike path or a sports facility beside Quay Street. Maybe instead of agonising like this, we should actually try to support this proposal – even if it isn’t exactly what you want – so we can make progress in this still distressingly moribund city.
Ghost of Hayden Present: I get what you’re saying. But how about we compromise? Is it possible to construct a stadium like this one, but further away from the water? Stepped back, like the one proposed by Archimedia earlier this year, but beautiful, like the one proposed by the Auckland Waterfront Consortium.
Ghost of Hayden Past: You and I both know these kinds of compromises just muddy the waters and stop anything actually happening.
Ghost of Hayden Present: Maybe not this time!
Ghost of Hayden Past:. Could you at least tell me our music career has improved?
Ghost of Hayden Present: …
Ghost of Hayden Past: I thought so.
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