WATCH: Newsroom has obtained a video and images of a spectacular stadium that was mooted for the downtown Auckland railways land, the favoured site in a previously secret report to the Mayor. Aucklanders never got to see what might have been.

Is it possible, despite the city’s Covid-induced financial crisis, that a new downtown ‘National Stadium’ on the old railways land could yet come back into consideration as Eden Park’s upgrade costs loom and big global private equity funds look for sports and venue investments?  

This would not be the ‘sunken’ stadium proposed by private interests in 2019 for the land and waters around Ports of Auckland’s Bledisloe Wharf, but a never-before-seen site and concept worked on for the council’s own former stadium agency, Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA), and the land owners Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei but left in limbo by politics and now the economic downturn.

Yet what looked like a door slammed firmly shut on decades of downtown stadium dreaming might not have to remain so.

Contrary to the common view that no one would have the $1.3 billion to develop a venue like this National Stadium concept, which arose out of a stadium and precinct pre-feasibility study for the RFA in 2017, there is talk of global players’ interest being piqued by the possibility.

That pre-feasibility study from 2017, written by PwC, was the report Mayor Phil Goff would not pass out to councillors because of sensitivities for landowners of possible sites considered by the review.

It has become well-known that it looked at five city sites (the Quay Park one featured in this video and concept plan, below, Bledisloe Wharf, the Wynyard Quarter, Victoria Park and the old city works depot on Nelson St) and favoured the railway land at Quay Park.

The reason for the study was acceptance that the main rugby stadium, Eden Park, would need major capital upgrades and was constrained in its events by its highly residential location, that Mt Smart Stadium is also needing a big investment and that a national stadium in the city centre and allied to other transport, waterfront and downtown development could be a major economic benefit.

Newsroom has obtained under the local government Official Information Act previously un-released images of the favoured style of stadium on the favoured downtown site.

This Quay Park stadium, shown here in a concept video prepared by PwC and architects Warren and Mahoney and delivered three months after the feasibility report, would be rectangular to host rugby, league and football, be covered with a retractable roof, and involve further hospitality, residential and office developments in the surrounding land.

It could be a 50,000 seat venue suited to large concerts and was rated by PwC as the best venue for ingress and egress, had high regeneration potential and good potential for a stadium ‘precinct’ of other nearby facilities. It would sit near the Spark Arena and a few blocks from the ASB Tennis Centre in Stanley St.

The stadium would sit on a big platform above the existing rail lines so as to minimise railway disruption and would have an opening at the eastern end looking across the port and Waitemata Harbour to Rangitoto.

Here is how Warren & Mahoney thought it could be placed in relation to existing facilities at Quay Park.

And here it is in relation to the rest of downtown Auckland.

And how it would sit in the context of the port, harbour and city to the east.

PwC concluded: “While it is likely to have a higher cost of development, the potential of the site is considered to be the greatest of those assessed from a revenue perspective, which could assist in offsetting any higher cost.

Which is all well and good, but we are now three years on, the pre-feasibility study and the visual masterplan have not advanced at all, and Auckland Council is facing a further $1 billion revenue shortfall over the next three years because of Covid-19’s impact on its non rates income.

And, while the Warren & Mahoney “preliminary key images, plans and data” document obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act by Newsroom is addressed to both the RFA and Ngāti Whātua, there is no indication the iwi, as landowner is interested in pursuing the concept.

Indeed, one of its leading figures, Renata Blair, is now a member of the Eden Park Trust and has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for that venue as it purports to be a National Stadium and bids for the rights to hold regular concerts.

The PwC report recognises there would be significant impact on Ngāti Whātua’s business and strategic plans.

“Ngāti Whātua could be a partner to a PPP arrangement that sees them earning improved returns from the land and the development creating value capture income. This relationship is important to the feasibility, indicative and detailed business case processes.”

Those with an ultimate vision for a central city stadium with good transport and entertainment connections, believe the Quay Park vision is one that Aucklanders should both know about, and debate the merits of vs further, multi-hundred million dollar spends at Eden Park.

Importantly, Newsroom has been told there has been unsolicited interest in a central city stadium from more than one global fund looking for stable investment possibilities in the sports and entertainment sector.

That infamous PwC report, which councillors could read only in the Mayor’s offices, discussed Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) as an option for funding a stadium.

“PPPs are where private enterprise partly or fully funds capital in the development of a public facility and then has operating and earnings rights for a long period (eg 30 years). PPPs are used when such an arrangement is considered the most efficient way or providing a public service. Significant decisions such as capacity and ownership of various revenue-earning properties become critical and are driven by commercial strategy rather than fulfilling non-commercial needs of stakeholders.”

Perth’s sparkling new Optus Stadium. Photo: Steve Deane

PPPs, it said, had “several international precedent and one New Zealand precedent,” citing the new $1.5b Perth Stadium and $1.3b Singapore Sports Hub, the Emirates Stadium (Arsenal football) in London and in Auckland, the Spark Arena. Spark Arena is a third of the way through its 30 year PPP agreement before ownership transfers back to the Auckland Council.

“Spark Arena is evidence that Auckland has executed a PPP in the past for the purposes of new venue development and also that there are global entertainment organisations prepared to invest in venues in Auckland.”

In a section headed ‘Could this work in New Zealand?’, PwC said: “Properly scoped, specified and promoted a national stadium and precinct for New Zealand in Auckland would present a value proposition of interest to the international market. PPP procurement, funding and delivery options should form an integral part of further assessment and planning.”

That was in 2017, of course. Since the report, Eden Park has been bailed out by Auckland Council to the tune of around $60m and RFA has been merged with another council organisation, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) to form Auckland Unlimited.

Most politicians and officials accept Eden Park is the logical stadium for the next decade. In any case, the PwC report estimates a Quay Park National Stadium would take six to seven years from feasibility case to opening.

Those thinking ahead on stadiums believe now is the time to start thinking on a possible national stadium solution before major investments have to be made in Eden Park or Mt Smart or Western Springs for future uses.

The future of city stadiums was addressed by a review that recommended the new Auckland Unlimited. The CCO reviewers said Eden Park had told them upgrading to provide covered seating for up to 60,000 people would cost between $500m and $800m.

Auckland Unlimited’s chief executive, Nick Hill, discussed stadiums early in his tenure, telling the New Zealand Herald for a front page splash story that Auckland would likely only need one major stadium, a statement taken by the paper to indicate he favoured remaining with Eden Park. However it is understood Hill did not intend to imply Eden Park was the only possibility, long-term, even while it would have to be the main major crowd venue for the next decade.

Interestingly, in September, a former Warriors chief executive Jim Doyle, wrote an opinion piece ‘How private money can pay for new Auckland stadium’ in the Herald, raising the possibility of international funds investing here.

Noting the big sums that would be needed, one way or the other, in Auckland in coming years, Doyle asked: “If we are going to spend anywhere near those amounts, wouldn’t we want to make sure that whatever funding gets committed will deliver something special for Auckland that is world class, creates the largest economic benefit for Auckland and has a long-term payoff?

“Secondly, stadium developments and operations across the world have taken a leap into the modern world of global capital and special-purpose financing in recent times. 

“Private equity operators have taken a strong interest in infrastructure, in general, and stadiums, specifically, as a means of investing up front in developments that have a long tail in terms of investment returns.”

Doyle then revealed: “Even during Covid-19, I have heard that major private equity players have expressed interest in investing in any new stadium infrastructure in Auckland. And if you think private equity might be hibernating because of Covid-19, think again. Bain Capital recently agreed to buy the bankrupt Virgin Australia, even though the airline had debts of A$7 billion.”

Internationally, major PE players such as CVC Capital Partners (investor in Premier Rugby Ltd in the UK), Silver Lake (Manchester City football) and Bruin Capital have made big moves into sports franchises, rather than stadiums. New Zealand Rugby is looking at alternative sources of funding, including from private equity. “We are open to looking at partners who may invest in New Zealand Rugby,” chief executive Mark Robinson told the Herald.

We may not need a new stadium now, or be able to afford it now, but if the thick end of a billion dollars is needed within a decade to prop up existing, compromised venues, and a possible funding line from overseas is hovering for something new, the downtown stadium might come again sooner than we think.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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