Auckland has been awash with praise for the proposed waterfront stadium. Hayden Eastmond-Mein swims against the tide, and argues it’s a really awful idea.
Sport has a unique ability to defy reason and distort logic in New Zealand. It’s a proud tradition. We’ve used sport to turn a blind eye to the worst of human behaviour. Half of us were totally fine with an all-white Springbok team touring here, in spite of how that might have supported an apartheid regime back in South Africa.
Sports stars and commentators who physically abuse their partners are forgiven at such a quick rate that it’s almost as if we accept domestic violence as collateral damage; a price for the controlled violence we enjoy watching.
And we’ve used sport to make countless financially dubious decisions. We threw $5m at Team NZ after they lost the 2013 America’s Cup just to keep some sailors twiddling their thumbs at Wynyard Quarter for a few extra months instead of jetting overseas. Dunedin’s all-weather stadium has left their council with so much debt to service it’s had to cut spending elsewhere. An Auckland waterfront stadium may not be legitimising a racist foreign power, but it’s certainly a bad idea. It is a white elephant inside a wooden horse rolled, or perhaps floated, through the gates of the Waitematā.
The very first paragraph of a 2012 Stadiums Auckland report by Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) says the city’s three major stadiums – Eden Park, Mt Smart and North Harbour – provide “many sporting facility options. Yet they are currently under-utilised and operating under financial constraints.” You might be surprised the next sentence wasn’t “But let’s build another stadium anyway, right on the waterfront, it’ll be sick”.
Instead, their solution was a convoluted strategy of musical chairs: shifting the Warriors to league’s true spiritual home, Albany, to make way for the speedway at Mt Smart, which would make way for cricket at Western Springs, which would make way for rugby at Eden Park.
The plan was coldly received or outright rejected by nearly every sporting code. In the process of trying to salvage the failed strategy, RFA’s CEO Chris Brooks has put the waterfront stadium idea – first championed in 2006 by then-Sport Minister Trevor Mallard – back on the table, without cutlery or even a plate. But that’s not to say there isn’t an appetite. The Herald published 16 articles and op-eds in the eight days since the idea was refloated (a good indication of the issue’s clickability), with their online poll showing 82% of more than 16,000 respondents support it.
The most vocal supporters are predictable: sports bosses whose franchises would profit handsomely from the use of the stadium, without having to put down much capital; sports writers who probably wish Richie McCaw was mayor; politicians trying to hit the populist sweet spot ahead of the local body elections.
I am none of the above. I don’t have a stake in the stadium proposal other than wanting Auckland to be a cool city. So here are five reasons why it’s a dumb idea.
1. We’re going to go through the trouble of moving the port only to put up a giant box?
Have you noticed how all the promo images and emotive rendered videos show our mythical waterfront stadium from above or beyond? The thing that no one has really talked about is how fucking ugly stadiums are up close, and that putting one on Auckland’s most valuable real estate might not be a great idea.
There have been moves to reclaim the waterfront for the people for decades, so the idea that we’d go through the massive political and logistical headache of forcing the port aside, only to shove a giant box in our way, is quite hilarious. Architect Peter Bossley made this point back in 2006, telling the Herald the stadium would be a “dead and empty space” and that “no amount of animation and video images of the waterfront stadium could make it palatable”.
He’s right – here are just a few examples of the exciting cityscapes that stadiums inspire:
I bet you’ve never been to this part of Melbourne Waterfront, Etihad Stadium creates giant dead zone pic.twitter.com/sD5XRxFB9c
— Luke Christensen (@lukechristensen) March 15, 2016
— Hayden Eastmond-Mein (@h_yd_n) March 15, 2016
2. Waterfront stadiums are great, just ask Wellington!
Advocates love to point to Wellington’s cake tin as a shining example of a flagship waterfront stadium: well connected to public transport, standing proudly centre-stage in the capital’s skyline. This would be great if it was true, but it’s ages away from the bit of the waterfront people actually use, in the middle of an industrial wasteland. A fair comparison would have our hypothetical stadium somewhere down by Judges Bay.
3. Who’s going to pay for it?
You own a three-bathroom house and for some reason your weird flatmate writes a strange yet startlingly accurate report that says the bathrooms, though not ideally located, provide plenty of shitting options, are currently under-utilised, and face significant maintenance costs. Do you go ahead and build an ensuite because it’s close to the bedroom without even knowing how much it’ll cost?
Back in 2006 the stadium was roughly estimated to be a $500m job. Ten years later it’s anyone’s guess, with Sport Minister Jonathan Coleman saying it would probably cost well over $1b. Place that in the context of large rates rises and an infrastructure programme for roads and rail that already lacks sufficient funding, and you’re dreaming. And that’s ignoring the fact you’ve got a bunch of other stadiums that, short of demolition, need significant investment.
4. Lack of political appetite
When John Key, perhaps our most ideologically devoid and pragmatically populist prime minister ever, rejects the idea of Government funding, you really know it’s not a goer. Key is known for having a freakishly good grasp on the pulse of the nation (just don’t mention the flag). So while he knows that the general idea of the stadium might be overwhelmingly popular, he also knows it’s not actually going to win or lose votes.
5. A billion other reasons
I try to resist the either-or arguments surrounding public spending that imagine how many nurses, teachers or police officers could be funded instead. I mean, we could have a government that only funded nurses, teachers and police officers, but I dare say we’d be completely fucked. A piddly (in the scheme of government spending) $26m for a flag referendum you said you’d hold if you were elected is fine in my books.
But a billion dollar (or 18,000 nurses’ salaries!!!) stadium of dubious necessity definitely deserves to get stacked up against other potential spending. The most obvious alternative is a shitload of affordable housing. Auckland has become one of the most unaffordable places to buy a house in the developed world. Despite the current government’s light-handed approach, it’s clear that our chronic housing shortage is in need of large-scale intervention. But if there’s one thing that could make us spend a billion dollars on a shiny new thing we don’t really need instead of tackling a huge, growing social problem, it’s sport.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.