Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Olympic Question

I've been trying to imagine what life would be like as a post-Games resident of the Olympic Park, muses Dave Hill in today's Guardian. Would I be blissfully immersed in a new frontier urban village living experience, combining glamour shopping, quality leisure and sylvan delights or would I end up stuck in some undistinguished modern flat in a faux neighbourhood with no soul? Either way, he is pretty confident that if West Ham's new owners move the Upton Park club into the Olympic stadium it would have a big effect.

Present plans for the stadium, insofar as they exist, involve it hosting intermittent one-off big sporting events. But, Hill notes, if a Premier League club moved in such events would become far more regular - once a fortnight at the very least. For better or for worse that would be a lot different from the occasional bit of 20/20 cricket and international athletics event. So will it happen?

On the face of it David Sullivan and David Gold's aspirations for the Hammers to play in the 80,000-seat stadium after the Games ends is the ideal solution for all concerned, concludes Paul Norman. The new owners have been quick to point out the club's dire financial situation and a move from the 35,000-capacity Upton Park would massively swell the coffers. "It is nice to get the club back in the hands of east Londoners and these are exciting times," said Sullivan. "We hope to persuade the Government to let us move into the new Olympic Stadium and I believe the people of east London would support that move. If we could get this huge ground, we could take football back to the people. We could reduce the admission prices to the cheapest in the Premier League because we would have the capacity to do it."

And the government would have the top-level sporting 'anchor tenant' that the building needs if it is not to become a Dome-like White Elephant. As Norman notes, Sullivan has obviously been talking to someone in government about it too. "We don't want to buy (the Olympic Stadium), we want to rent it. The government promised to keep it alive for 30 years, it's going to cost them more to keep it alive. With us it's going to cost them nothing - we would pay all the running costs," he says. The Olympic Park Legacy Company is giving nothing away but is sure to be interested. A spokeswoman told Norman: "We have seen the story. Nothing is ruled in or out yet."

Still, even at this early stage there are a few problems that need to be overcome if this perfect solution is to really have some legs. Firstly London 2012 organisers say West Ham United would have to agree to keep a running track at the Olympic Stadium if they are to move into the venue after the 2012 Games to honour a pledge made by Lord Coe during the bid. A spokeswoman said: "The OPLC are looking at the legacy of the Olympic Park, including the stadium. Everyone is clear that the stadium will have a running track in legacy but additional sporting use is a matter for the OPLC." The government is committed to creating an athletics environment for east London at the stadium. Sullivan clearly is not. "I don't think running tracks work, particularly behind the goal," says Sullivan. "The customers are so far back it doesn't work."

Secondly, it is widely known that Westfield- - whose super-duper new complex will be a major feature of the Park - is not best-pleased at the idea of a load of hairy football types turning up every other Saturday to a site immediately adjacent to its new Stratford City shopping centre. The Australian developer will no doubt be hoping these latest plans go away.

But that seems unlikely. Writing in the Times, Gary Jacob reveals that officials from West Ham and the Premier League have visited the site several times in recent weeks. Sullivan and Gold also have influential figures on their side, including the London mayor Boris Johnson, who is keen on a football club taking over the running costs of the stadium even though the decision will have to be taken by the Olympic Park Legacy Company. Along with Shadow Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson, they want to see the stadium maintained at its full size and utilised for potentially lucrative events, such as the 2015 Rugby World Cup. With an estimated cost of £176m to maintain the stadium at Olympic size until 2018, with tax-payers footing a large proportion of that bill should it remain public hands, Mr Johnson has consistently expressed an interest in a rugby or football club becoming tenants.

Adding his voice to the call is Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales. "This is great news and augurs well," he said yesterday. "The new owners were in Birmingham for the long haul and they clearly have the best interests of West Ham at heart. West Ham is synonymous with the East End and deserves the chance to be the best and beat the best. We have always argued the Olympic Stadium deserves a top-flight football team after London 2012. In my eyes there is only one obvious choice - and that's the Hammers. Allowing the club to move into this iconic setting would ensure a fitting legacy for the stadium."

West Ham had initially expressed interest about moving into the Stadium during the early stages of development. Tottenham Hotspur also held preliminary discussions but decided to build a new stadium on the site of their current ground at White Hart Lane. But the election of Johnson in 2008 as London Mayor put having a football club at the Stadium as an anchor tenant back near the top of the agenda. West Ham's chances will have been boosted by the inclusion last month of the Stadium in the plans of England 2018 if their bid to host the World Cup is successful.

Baroness Margaret Ford, the chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, had also said when she took over her new role last June that she wanted to return to the subject of a major football club moving into the Stadium. Sir Robin believes that if West Ham became the new owners of the stadium it would help England's World Cup bid. He said: "It would boost England's bid to hold the 2018 football World Cup to boot as the stadium would have to be adapted for football. Having hosted one of the greatest sporting shows on earth why not help hold the other too?"

Elsewhere Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, has opened the door to a revised bid from West Ham United, while insisting there could be no deal without "money on the table". Use of the £540m stadium after the games is a thorny area for the government, which has set up the Olympic Park Legacy Company with Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, to look at its commercial feasibility beyond 2012.

The ideal solution for West Ham, whose Boleyn ground is 3 miles from the Olympic stadium, would be similar to one that saw the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium rented to Manchester City football club by the local authority. Ms Jowell said stadium construction plans involving a football club becoming 'anchor tenant' were thrown out three years ago because of cost, but the government was not against reviewing the idea. However, she told the Financial Times: "West Ham have had a press conference. They haven’t come with money on the table to make an offer. If they were to go to the legacy company [with an offer], they’re not exactly going to show them the door and say: ‘We’re not interested, we reached that conclusion three years ago.’"

Which brings the third stumbling block. West Ham’s problem is that the new owners, Sullivan and Gold, own only half of a club they say is saddled with debts of £110m. Furthermore, any stadium deal would come at a hefty price. The legacy company is said to be examining the costs of a football club moving into the stadium, and estimates are that it would be about £150m – and another £100m if the running track were removed, although about £38 million of that would come from the Olympic Park Legacy Company.

Eggert Magnusson, who is writing an account of his time at West Ham to be published in the UK later this year, is sure to include his work exploring a potential move from Upton Park to the Olympic Stadium, something Sullivan calls a ‘major part of our strategy’. According to the Mail, Magnusson was told refitting the athletics-dedicated stadium into one fit for Premier League football would cost up to £400m. By the same token, Sullivan’s comparisons with Manchester City’s move to Eastlands are considered erroneous as the City of Manchester Stadium was designed and built for the Commonwealth Games in the knowledge it would later become a football stadium.

The Olympic Stadium is now being constructed with only athletics in mind after Spurs and West Ham declined early overtures to move there due to the non-negotiable running-track legacy. It is believed Tom Russell, who was in charge of the Manchester transformation after the 2002 Commonwealth Games, resigned as group director of Olympic Legacy with the London Development Agency after just a year because a football tenancy wasn’t built into the blueprint.

Adding to the dissenting voices is West Ham legend Billy Bonds, who sums up the fourth obstacle in the way of Gold and Sullivan's ambitious plan. He speaks for a hardcore section of the Hammers support when he says is against the the club's proposed move. "Personally I wouldn't like to see them move but can understand why they would want to," Bonds told BBC Radio 5 Live. "Obviously I'm in the same boat as every West Ham fan and have fond memories of Upton Park." Former defender Bonds, who played for West Ham for 21 years, added: "They seem to think a move is vital in the progress of the club. The Boleyn pub and the actual ground - we all love that - but I suppose football today is all about money and getting people through the turnstiles and maybe that is the way forward."

Meanwhile, according to The Architects Journal, Anish Kapoor is understood to have landed a project to build a huge tower in the Olympic Park just days after another proposed East London landmark – the £300 million mega-mosque – hit the buffers. According to AJ sources, the Turner Prize-winning artist has scooped the Boris Johnson-backed contest to build a massive sculpture on the 2012 site. Kapoor's scheme, which would tower above the Olympic stadium and has the support of steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, saw off competition from Antony Gormley.

As Dave Hill ponders: Big towers, big football, big shopping. Heaven? Hell?

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