Between the Olympic stadium, the London Aquatics Centre, and the ArcelorMittal Orbit squiggle – not to mention Westfield shopping centre – the east London neighbourhood of Stratford has acquired more than its fair share of high-profile buildings in the last decade. But even as the Olympics recedes into the past, a new debate is now raging over what might be the most controversial proposal yet: the Madison Square Garden (MSG) Sphere.
In March this year, MSG submitted a planning application for a spherical entertainment complex, 90 metres high and 120 metres wide, containing restaurants, shops, a nightclub and the centrepiece: a 21,500-capacity auditorium. The same diameter as the London Eye and almost as tall as Big Ben, the giant sphere will be covered 190,000 sq ft of LEDs, programmable to display images on the exterior.
What MSG London executive vice-president Jayne McGivern describes as “a joyous ball of magic”, Newham councillor Harvinder Singh Virdee has called a “blob”, and another local activist “unprecedentedly monstrous”.
The project has received support from the Newham Chamber of Commerce and representatives of nearby Newham College and the University of East London. Other residents are more concerned, and have formed a campaign group called Stop MSG Sphere. Their main objections regard noise and light pollution, increased traffic and the resulting rise in air pollution, anti-social behaviour, and strain on public transport and roads. There are also worries that it will block out natural light to homes, some of which are located only 50 metres away.
Then there is the advertising. In the artists’ blueprints, the “skin” of LEDs displays wholesome scenes of the night sky or planet Earth, but the planning application allows for advertising, potentially presenting the opportunity for a kind of giant spherical version of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus.
“The advertising has been a whitewash,” says Lindesay Mace of Stop MSG Sphere. “They show very few examples [in the blueprints], and they’re all calming, blue background, which blends in with the sky. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the reality won’t be like that.” MSG counter that under the plans submitted, advertising will be allowed for a maximum of 50% of the time the Sphere is illuminated, and that the facade will be turned off or placed in a low luminance “stand by” mode from midnight to 6am in the summer and 7am during winter and spring.
The Sphere would be located on triangular piece of land behind Stratford station. “It’s a densely populated residential area,” says Mace, “which is something that MSG have done their very best in their images and assessments to downplay: there are thousands of residential properties nearby.” MSG claim that impacts to the surrounding area will be minimal, pointing to the fact that the site is also surrounded by live railway lines.
There have also been objections from Newham Council, which in July backed a report critical of the Sphere, and voted that it be submitted to the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) for consideration. But activists point out that McGivern, who has been the public face of the company locally, was a board member of the LLDC from 2012-16.
In November, campaigners also released correspondence between senior staff at the LLDC and MSG London, acquired through freedom of information requests, in which the two parties discussed the US company’s “strategy” to deal with “local resistance”. The emails also pointed to 33 unminuted meetings and apparently unrecorded hospitality for LLDC staff. MSG say there is nothing irregular or unusual in this.
Backers of the proposals point to a summer poll, commissioned by MSG Sphere, that found 85% support among local residents. They say it will bring employment to the area, in construction and in the culture sector.
Campaigners counter that only 21% of those polled had heard of the proposals, and only 11% of the MSG Sphere specifically.
McGivern nevertheless cites the poll as a major indicator of support. “The poll demonstrates overwhelming local support for MSG Sphere, including for the thousands of jobs and significant economic impact this state-of-the-art entertainment and music venue would bring,” she said.
The company is promoting the idea that London needs another music venue of that size. The planning application says the city “has an undersupply of dedicated large entertainment venues in comparison to other major world cities”, arguing that only SSE Arena in Wembley and the O2 in North Greenwich are capable of hosting the largest international touring acts. It points to New York, a similarly-sized city with seven such venues, though it does not mention London’s Alexandra Palace or its major park festivals – such as Hyde Park and Finsbury Park – which have capacities close to 100,000.
MSG also claims that a smaller venue also included in the planning application, with a capacity of 1,500, and a 450-capacity nightclub will have a positive trickle-down effect on smaller music venues and local acts in London.
Local scepticism, however, derives in part from the experience of hosting the Olympics, for which tens of thousands of jobs were promised by the LLDC that protesters pointed out this summer have still not materialised. “Obviously the Olympics left positives, like the park and the sports facilities,” Mace said. “But it has also left us with the LLDC, an unelected corporation without any real accountability, a planning authority for a lot of land that was previously under local authority control. Seven years on from the Olympics, what we’ve seen is lots of developments, with little visible benefit for local people.”
What would be visible, of course, is the sphere itself, for miles around, an issue that Mace emphasises has not been properly discussed. “The size and illumination of it will be unprecedented – we believe in the UK, and quite possibly in Europe.”
- This article was amended on 12 December 2019 to correct references to the amount and duration of advertising proposed for the Sphere