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Say 'yes' to the stadium
Tuesday November 21, 2006

When Trevor Mallard gave Auckland a fortnight to make up its mind on a stadium for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it seemed a cruelly short time. The Eden Park plan had seemed fine, and remarkably non-contentious compared to previous impositions on the neighbourhood. Mr Mallard's sudden waterfront alternative was an outrageous proposition in every sense - conceptually, visually, technically, financially and politically.

Conceptually, a rugby ground was not the sort of use the city had imagined for its potentially splendid downtown waterfront. Visually, it would be as high as a 10-storey building and block views from office and heritage buildings over the Britomart transport terminal. Technically, it sounded difficult to build a full-size stadium on piles over water, the financial estimates looked extremely light and politically, it was not clear who would own it, run it and answer for its operating performance.

But a fortnight has turned out to be long enough for public discussion. In our columns and other media, the waterfront stadium has been debated from every conceivable angle and the weight of our readers' views has been running heavily against it, more heavily at the start of last week than since.

Not everyone finds the decision easy. Technical and financial uncertainties remain. But the World Cup venue must be ready in five years, there is no more time to dither. It is a choice between Eden Park, with the limitations of its location, and the imponderables of the port site. Purely practical considerations of likely cost, progress made and construction deadlines, argue for Eden Park. But the waterfront proposal should be evaluated on wider criteria than those of the Rugby World Cup.

Would a stadium "work" on the waterfront? Could a building of such bulk be designed with distinction and become a celebrated feature of the landscape? Would it open the harbour around it for public enjoyment? Would it be a catalyst for further public development and improvement of facilities nearby? Could it attract sufficient use, not necessarily of its playing field, but of conference rooms, reception lounges, exhibition areas, bars, cafes and the visitor attractions that could be built into it?

We think the answer to all those questions is yes. We think there is time to design something suitably impressive for the site. A deadline can concentrate architectural minds wonderfully. We have no doubt the stadium would open the whole area to public use and the old wharves to the west, used by the ferries, would be soon transformed too. The question of whether the stadium becomes a successful multi-use facility depends on the way it is run. If its management is under a sufficiently demanding regime it is likely to make the most of its potential.

And in its primary use, as the national stadium for rugby, it would be the focus of a now highly professional and lucrative activity. It could market itself as the home of the All Blacks and profit from the status. It would be an international centre of excellence. That is why the Government hopes it would be a symbol of wider economic transformation, and it could be.

Concerns remain. The design must be right, the financial fine-print must not leave Auckland ratepayers carrying the losses of an under-used, softly-governed monster. Not least, the port of Auckland must not suffer for this indulgence. The refinement of the project must ensure those worries come to nothing.

Overall the proposal is attractive and the possibilities exciting. Auckland's decision makers should say yes.