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AEG flags ‘serious concerns’ with MSG Sphere proposal

AEG, the operator of The O2 arena, has called for the planning application of the proposed MSG Sphere in London to be withdrawn and resubmitted due to “significant concerns”.

The application, filed by the entertainment arm of US live sports and entertainment giant Madison Square Garden Company, proposes to develop a music venue that would have a scalable capacity of up to 17,500 seated, or 21,500 when there is a mix of seated and standing. The latter, in theory, would be greater than the official capacity of The O2, which is nearby the proposed arena site and operated by MSG’s rival AEG.

In March 2019, MSG submitted a planning application for the Stratford project, with an array of eye-catching technology features part of the proposal, which is due to be determined by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) in the coming months. In September, the firm entered amended plans for its proposed MSG Sphere venue in London after overcoming objections raised by Network Rail.

The proposal includes a music venue, nightclub, members lounge, restaurants, bars, and new bridges to create pedestrian connections across the site. The building would be composed of a ‘skin’ of LEDs that would be programmable and could display images on the surface of the building, including adverts.

However, in response to the 1,922-page amended document, AEG, in consultation with global law firm Dentons, said it is particularly concerned that MSG’s analysis of the transport impacts “remains incomplete” as MSG seeks to develop its first major venue outside of the United States.

Following the conclusion of the second round of public consultation in January, LLDC reviewed the large number of responses and requested further information from MSG. Network Rail, which owns and manages most of the railway network in the UK, had raised concerns about safety at Stratford station. It had also highlighted the potential impact on drivers of glare from the venue’s LED skin and notices displayed on the illuminated surface.

MSG Entertainment said its new submission represents the culmination of an extensive process that included consultation and detailed technical discussions with key stakeholders. As a result of this work, Network Rail withdrew its objection to the MSG Sphere planning application, with MSG stating they now consider that all relevant risks and impacts have been identified, and appropriate mitigations and controls proposed.

However, AEG states: “The safe and efficient movement of visitors to and from The O2 relies heavily on there being sufficient capacity on Jubilee Line trains when they reach North Greenwich. MSG Sphere passengers will depart Stratford heading west at the same time as visitors departing from events at The O2 (and in worst-case scenarios from London Stadium events as well). This would leave no capacity on the trains at North Greenwich for the arena’s visitors, leading to transport chaos and the risk of missing onward connections home and becoming stranded.”

AEG also claims that there is “no qualified professional assessment” of the potential health and wellbeing effects of light, moving images, and visual distraction to local people, and is urging LLDC to commission independent specialists to assess the health and amenity implications of the advertising façade.

The operator has also accused MSG of not taking measures to address the “limitations on consultation posed by the COVID-19 restrictions”, and has requested that the current end date of November 13 is extended to allow interested parties and local representations longer in which to respond to the further information submitted.

A spokesperson for AEG said: “MSG’s additional planning submissions are hopelessly inadequate and continue to fail to address the issues arising out of its new London context and the specific constraints of the Stratford Site, breaching planning policy in several areas.

“AEG have always maintained we do not oppose competition in the live entertainment sector, or another large music venue in London, but it should not be built so close to The London Stadium, Copper Box and The O2. It is imperative that it does not add to congestion or overcrowding in this area of the city, or on the public transport network, especially the Jubilee line which is critical for the movement of guests to and from The O2. We believe that MSG’s scheme is fundamentally the wrong proposal, in the wrong location, and is technically seriously flawed. 

“It appears far from being conceived to reflect its locality, MSG have taken their original concept developed for downtown Las Vegas and transposed it directly onto a tight and constrained site overlooked by hundreds of residential properties in Stratford.

“As proposed the Sphere would directly negatively impact the safe operation of The O2, and the health and wellbeing of local residents. Eighteen months since first being lodged, and despite dozens of additional planning application documents, MSG have failed to address conflicting reports, or substantiate and justify the wider impacts of the development, despite objections from statutory consultees and the LLDC’s requests for further information.

“On this basis AEG requests that the application should be withdrawn, and the applicant asked to reconsider their plans for the site”