Marvin Rees ‘very interested’ to meet US investor to rescue £156m city centre scheme

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has said he is open to proposals from a US investor to rescue Populous’ £156m city centre arena scheme which he cancelled at the start of the month.

Rees said he would be “very interested” if a US investor, understood to be Oak View Group, that met with city council officials two weeks ago, decided to table a bid to build a concert venue on the site.

Bristol Arena showing temporary events

What the scrapped Populous scheme would have looked like

His comments come amid a deepening political row in the city over the arena, with supporters of the original Populous and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios scheme, which was to have been built by contractor Buckingham Group, accusing the Labour mayor of being biased against the project.

The row follows the city mayor’s decision, backed by the council cabinet, to terminate the existing scheme, citing cost rises, and instead explore a proposal by Legal & General for a mixed-use scheme, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, with a conference centre on the same Temple Island site.

Senior executives from Oak View Group were told by council officials, including Rees’ head of office, Kevin Slocombe, that the site, next to Temple Meads train station, was not available. Slocombe later said the US firm had agreed the site would not work for an arena. However, Bristol property developer Stephen Fear, acting as intermediary for Oak View Group and who was present at the meeting, denied the executives said this, and said they are now working with their consultants to decide whether to table an offer.

ZHA's rival proposal for Temple Island, Bristol

ZHA’s rival proposal for Temple Island, Bristol

Rees, who promised in his election campaign to deliver the arena, described accusations of impartiality over the scheme as “nonsense”, and said: “If you can get him [Stephen Fear] to confirm categorically that they’re interested in Temple Island, I’d be very interested in that.”

Rees said the decision to terminate the existing scheme was made because of the potential impact on the council’s already stretched finances. A report by KPMG, commissioned by the council, found L&G’s scheme would likely create an extra £500m of economic benefit for the city. Rees said: “My question is what is your appetite for risk […] in a time when music venues are difficult to make stack up.

“At some point someone has to stand up and say this is a huge gamble. You can’t run a city on crossed fingers.”

Fear said Rees’ declaration of interest was “very positive”.  

Former RIBA president George Ferguson, who promoted the Temple Island scheme while he was mayor of Bristol before Rees, described the decision to cancel it as “utter madness”.