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LLDC gives green light to London’s MSG Sphere

London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) has approved plans for MSG Sphere, the proposed new arena project that has drawn vocal opposition, notably from AEG, operator of The O2.

Intended as one of a series of similar projects across the world, MSG Sphere is backed by Madison Square Garden Entertainment, operator of the iconic Madison Square Garden arena in New York.

LLDC held a planning committee meeting yesterday (Tuesday) evening, where the Sphere project was given the green light. It will now move on to the desk of London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Paul Westbury, executive vice-president of development and construction at MSG Entertainment, said the application had passed through a “thorough assessment”, adding that the “state-of-the-art venue” would help make Stratford “a global destination for music and technology”.

The Evening Standard newspaper said Westbury stated the venture would boost London’s economy by £2.5bn (€3bn/$3.31bn), adding that the plans had been “informed by” comments from local residents.

However, more than 1,000 local residents formally objected to the planning application, while a petition calling for the project to be axed received more than 2,000 backers. MSG has already purchased the 4.7-acre Stratford site, which has been left empty after last being used as a temporary coach park during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In March 2019, MSG submitted a planning application for its proposed new venue in London, with an array of eye-catching technology features part of the proposal. The plans for MSG Sphere were lodged with LLDC, as MSG seeks to develop its first major venue outside of the United States.

Located in the heart of Stratford, East London, MSG Sphere’s main venue 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 arena.

Featuring a spherical shape, the privately-funded MSG Sphere would have a diameter of 120 metres and, at its highest point, would be 90 metres tall. The venue would be wrapped in triangular LED panels which, when active, will showcase a range of static and moving images including digital art, content related to current and future events in the venue, and advertising and partnership branding.

The potential for noise and light pollution from this latter element has caused concern amongst local residents. The Evening Standard said that a statement was read out at yesterday’s meeting on behalf of West Ham MP Lyn Brown, a vocal critic of the scheme, describing the project as a “monstrosity”.

Brown also raised fears about the Sphere’s potential impact on local transport infrastructure, which already has to cope with travellers to the Westfield shopping centre, London Stadium and other venues on the Olympic Park. Brown said: “The last thing we need is another venue disgorging its audience into an already overcrowded transport hub.”

Ahead of the meeting, AEG last week reiterated its opposition to the MSG Sphere project. In November 2020, AEG called for the planning application to be withdrawn and resubmitted due to “significant concerns”. It came after amended plans for the project were entered, with MSG Entertainment stating at the time that all relevant risks had been identified and appropriate mitigations and controls proposed.

AEG has previously raised concerns over MSG Entertainment’s analysis of the transport impacts of the Sphere project. MSG Entertainment had said its submission represented the culmination of an extensive process that included consultation and detailed technical discussions with stakeholders, which led to Network Rail withdrawing its objection to the planning application.

Ahead of yesterday’s LLDC planning committee meeting, AEG repeated calls for the application to be rejected. While AEG insisted that it does not oppose competition from another large venue in London, it believes that the location for the Sphere is not suitable given its proximity to The O2, London Stadium and the Copper Box.

An AEG spokesperson said today: “We believe the LLDC has made the wrong decision to resolve to grant approval for the MSG Sphere planning application in the face of strong objections from local residents, local community groups, ourselves and the local council, Newham, in which the venue will sit.

“There has been consistent and significant opposition to the MSG Sphere, including from local MPs, a third of all councillors in Newham, neighbouring East London boroughs, Royal Borough of Greenwich, rail operators, Historic England, and hundreds of local residents, some of whom are represented by local campaign group, Stop MSG.

“Although the Committee has resolved to grant permission for the main Sphere application, there will need to be a further decision to approve the Sphere’s advertising proposal. The Committee expressed concerns about granting a 25-year advertising consent without any recourse should the bright and moving illumination blight residents. Therefore, there will indeed be another vote on the MSG Sphere’s advertising proposal before consent can be granted, and so the committee’s important job is by no means done.

“If it comes to it, we will be calling on the Mayor of London to uphold his election promise to do what’s best for Londoners, including the residents of Newham who are having this huge development forced on them, by directing refusal.”

MSG Entertainment last week announced that Lucas Watson will join the company as president of its MSG Sphere venues. He will begin the role on March 28 and will lead the strategy and execution of all business aspects of MSG Sphere venues in Las Vegas and London.

The first MSG Sphere venue – MSG Sphere at The Venetian – is currently under construction in Las Vegas and is scheduled to open in the second half of 2023. As part of his role, Watson will oversee global development of the MSG Sphere brand, which includes selectively extending the MSG Sphere network to other markets.

Image: MSG Entertainment