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Longform read – The Basin: a better venue than a new arena

In November the region’s mayors gave in-principle support for a new $200million 12,000 seat indoor arena to be built on Kings Wharf. Glen Smith argues for a better, less costly alternative.

In November the region’s mayors gave in-principle support for a new $200million 12,000 seat indoor arena to be built on Kings Wharf, the justification being that the lack of such a venue causes performers such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift to bypass our city. But there is a better, less costly alternative.

The mayors’ support came despite the fact that the land had not been acquired, the suitability and cost of remediation of the land (which is subject to liquefaction and lateral spreading) was uncertain, the land may be required for port facilities, the potential number of possible concerts was unclear (with former Mayor Kerry Prendergast estimating it may be as few as 10 per year) and the huge cost was reliant on private funding, with the Wellington Mayor noting that “the precinct development would be required to off-set the costs of the new arena”.

This proposal comes at the same time as our other large venues remain under-utilised – inviting the question of whether any of our existing facilities could fill this market niche.

I am suggesting an option for developing the Basin Reserve to make it a 10-15,000 capacity concert venue while preserving and enhancing its primary purpose as a world class cricket ground.

Around a third of the seating would be covered, making it similar to the Mount Smart Stadium where both Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift performed in Auckland in 2018.

The Basin Reserve currently attracts few revenue-generating events and is reliant on increasingly stretched public funds. However it has the potential to house a wide range of revenue-generating events including concerts and fairs in addition to sporting fixtures.

If this is to be achieved, some major deficiencies need to be overcome:

  1. Poor ingress and egress with conflict between major roads and Basin users at all entrances;
  2. Lack of a main formal entranceway separate from traffic flows;
  3. Lack of a dedicated drop off area and zones for buses and taxis;
  4. Lack of adequate parking for support staff/ services;
  5. Inadequate covered seating;
  6. Lack of area for ancillary services such as food outlets and children’s amusements;
  7. Lack of connectivity with the Memorial Park;
  8. Relatively poor public transport service with the majority of the public, who live north of the city, having to endure mode change at the Station and then a slow cross-town bus trip

In addition, the Basin is the meeting and crossing point of a large percentage of the transport flows to and from Wellington’s Eastern and Southern suburbs. This means its design is intrinsically linked to transport planning and cannot be considered separately. Transport considerations are likely to impose further design requirements for the area including

  1. Grade separation of east/west from north/south traffic flows;
  2. Two road lanes from Mt Victoria Tunnel to the Arras Tunnel;
  3. Two road lanes from Kent Terrace to the proposed second Mt Victoria Tunnel but with design future proofed for the west to east flow to be eventually moved from a Vivian Street route to a Buckle Street, Arthur Street, Karo drive route. This is clearly the NZTA’s longer term plan since they built the Arras Tunnel 13 metres wide- just enough for 4 lanes of traffic;
  4. Easy flow off for traffic from the east on to Cambridge Terrace, encouraging motorists to go via Cambridge Terrace/ Wakefield Street route rather than Taranaki Street which crosses the Golden Mile;
  5. High quality public transport to Newtown and the south;
  6. High quality public transport to the Eastern suburbs, in my view the best option being a dedicated rail corridor integrated into the NZTA’s plans for Mt Victoria, Ruahine Street and Wellington Road via a stacked multipurpose road/rail/cycle/pedestrian in a second Mt Victoria Tunnel
  7. High quality preferably separate cycling and pedestrian corridors.

Transport requirements are a double edged sword since they could limit the space available around the Basin and produce a barrier for pedestrians, but on the other hand they could create a venue which is on direct public and road transport routes from virtually the whole of the Wellington region. In addition the Basin is much closer than the proposed arena to the main entertainment district around Courtenay Place (around 700m compared to 2.5 kms).

I believe that with the right design all the necessary transport requirements could be fulfilled and all of the Basin’s current deficiencies could be overcome or ameliorated, allowing it to become a location that rivals and complements the Stadium and other Wellington venues. I outline one design option below. Other designs would be possible.

The basic transport layout I have used is the Architecture Centre’s Option X which concentrates north/south traffic flow to the west side of the Basin and east/west traffic flow to the north side.

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This removes the Basin from being in the centre of a roundabout to being to the south and east of the major thoroughfares. It uses the natural land contour to provide grade separation of north/south from east/west traffic flows by way of a short trench through the higher ground at the eastern end of Buckle Street, removing the need for a flyover.

The Architecture Centre proposed covering the Buckle Street trench to form a tunnel but this is not essential and I have drawn it as a trench. They added a technically difficult, obtrusive pedestrian overbridge at high level at the end of Sussex Street which was heavily criticised; I have removed it.

I have made two major modifications to overcome one of the major problems of Option X which is that, being predominantly at ground level, the major traffic flows present a barrier for pedestrians, cyclists and local cars whose travel plans cross their path.

One modification is an overpass over low ground at the end of Cambridge Terrace (further east than the Architecture Centre proposal and about Buckle Street height – see cross sectional profile) that would allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross both north/south and east/west traffic while also providing direct flow off for traffic from the east onto Cambridge Terrace. It would enter a new covered spectator stadium at height (similar to the concourse entering the Westpac Trust Stadium) allowing a high quality main entrance to the Basin separate from major traffic. It would be reached by earthwork ramps using trench fill with the ramp around the northeast of the Basin envisioned as being continuous with the spectator mounds (in consultation with the Basin Reserve Committee) with the trees and fence relocated.

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The second modification is an underpass at the western end of Paterson Street, to provide access to a large school drop off area, allow east/south cycle and pedestrian flow, and also easier access to and from Mt Victoria. This design would allow full segregation of pedestrians from major traffic flows during entry and egress (see figure below)

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To avoid the disincentive of setup costs and provide a fit-for-purpose venue, a permanent stage would be ideal. The logical location would be in the south east corner opposite the two covered stands. There is an area here which would be large enough to house a permanent stand at the expense of some embankment. With the establishment of a park in the south east, some compensatory new embankment may be possible on the south side of the Basin. The stage building could provide additional covered seating, in line with the pitch, during cricket tests.

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Our city is facing large levels of public spending on essential high cost budget items such as earthquake strengthening, affordable housing and the vital transport improvements. Councils need to think very carefully before spending large sums of money on risky investments in new infrastructure when existing under-utilised and under-financed facilities have the potential to provide the same service at a fraction of the cost.

The historic Basin Reserve has the potential to be a high quality 10-15,000 capacity concert venue that would attract international acts while maintaining and enhancing its status as a world class cricket ground. Money budgeted for the indoor arena could be reallocated to upgrading the Basin and supporting more essential public services.

Wellington.scoop / Glen Smith