It has been a long time coming but a decision on whether east London will get a slice of Las Vegas in the form of a state-of-the art entertainment venue almost as tall as St Paul’s may be nigh. The Madison Square Garden Sphere in Stratford would, its owners claim, create 4,300 construction jobs and a further 3,200 when it opens.
Capable of hosting concerts for 21,500 people, the Sphere will feature the largest, highest resolution screen in the world, according to MSG, which owns many US entertainment venues.
But the project, the brainchild of MSG’s chief executive, James Dolan, a major donor to Donald Trump, is proving divisive.
When it was unveiled in 2018, the Sphere received support from the then culture secretary, Matt Hancock, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
But since then local councillors, many residents and a rival entertainment giant have come out against it. A decision on whether to approve the Sphere was supposed to have been reached by the end of this year after the initial application was made in March 2019, but the public consultation had to be extended for a third time – until 4 December – amid concerns about its impact on the area.
Lyn Garner, the chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, whose planning committee holds the fate of the scheme in its hands, recently suggested a determination will be reached in January.
A rejection would be a major setback for MSG. The firm hopes to roll out the concept in other countries but so far has only one Sphere under construction, in Las Vegas.
MSG says an independent survey it commissioned found 85% of people supported the plan. But Lindesay Mace, of Stop MSG Sphere, a group of Newham residents who fear the Sphere will “blight the area”, described the polling as a sham. “Something like 80% of people surveyed hadn’t even heard about the proposal,” she said. We would ask: “Did the pollsters tell them about it or show them images before they asked whether they supported it? Did they discuss any negative aspects about the Sphere?”
A central concern is light. The Sphere will have a “digital skin” stretched over a 2-hectare facade featuring 36 million external LEDs. MSG stresses it will be dimmed after 11pm to barely above that of twilight, but this does not reassure opponents.
“To put a 90 metre by 120 metre glowing blob among people’s flats is just completely crazy,” Mace said. “It’s the wrong development for the wrong area.”
But residents opposed to the scheme believe the odds are against them, pointing out that of 12 members on the corporation’s planning committee only five are elected local councillors.
Some have also questioned whether London needs another giant venue. AEG, the operator of the nearby O2 arena, warns that the scheme would place huge pressure on local infrastructure.
MSG points out that London has only two large capacity indoor arenas capable of hosting major acts – the 02 and the SSE Arena Wembley – while New York has seven, and Berlin, Paris and Madrid all have more large venues per person than London.
And it claims that the Sphere will be more than a music arena, a unique venue that can host immersive, interactive experiences such as eGaming competitions.
“MSG Sphere will be a state-of-the-art entertainment venue that supports thousands of good jobs and generates billions of pounds of economic benefit,” a spokesman said. “Our planning application reflects the constructive dialogue we have had with a range of stakeholders and demonstrates the thoughtful consideration that has gone into every aspect of our proposal.”
So far, almost 2,000 documents relating to the planning application have been submitted to the development corporation. Despite this, Mace said MSG had yet to address many concerns relating to noise, travel, air and light pollution. “MSG have made a lot of noise about the consultation that they have carried out with local residents, but it does feel like a David and Goliath battle.”