Drawn up by Populous for US entertainment firm MSG, Stratford scheme has attracted hundreds of objectors

Michael Gove has thrown a spanner in the works for Populous’ MSG Sphere in Stratford, issuing a directive to temporarily pause the scheme’s planning progress.

The move, similar to the one which stopped the redevelopment of the ITV studios building on London’s South Bank in its tracks last spring and led to it being called in, raises the prospect of a public inquiry into the controversial plans for the 90m-tall ball-shaped concert venue, which were approved by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) last March despite fierce opposition.

The Article 31 holding directive, issued by the levelling up secretary, temporarily prevents the LLDC and mayor of London from signing off the proposals and gives Gove the opportunity to call in the plans under Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

The scheme had passed a second planning hurdle last month when the LLDC voted to allow the display of advertising on the spherical façade of the 21,500-seat venue, which will be entirely covered in triangular LED panels, though it was still awaiting the approval of London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Opponents of the proposals – who include 850 residents and opposition groups as well as AEG, the owners of the O2 Arena venue in nearby North Greenwich – say the LED panels, which will show videos and advertising from dawn until late in the evening, will create light pollution for residents, and claim that there is no need for the venue.

AEG has previously called the proposed LED screen “wholly unprecedented in scale” and the developer, Madison Square Garden Company (MSG), has admitted that there remains a “residual degree of uncertainty” about the impact of the advertisements because the “precise nature of the digital display is unprecedented”.

West Ham MP Lyn Brown, another opponent of the scheme, tweeted: “Michael Gove has now issued a legal notice and I’m hoping he’ll act.

“The undemocratic LLDC steamrolled all local elected opposition, so it’s only right to take the final decision out of their hands.”

The building would occupy a 1.9ha triangular site between railway lines next to the Westfield shopping centre and close to the London stadium, which was also designed by Populous.

MSG confirmed last week that its Lucy Watson will be stepping down as head of MSG Spheres in London and Las Vegas, where another spherical music venue is under construction.

Building understands that delivery of the Sphere is likely to be carried out as construction management scheme, with McLaren, Sir Robert McAlpine and Mace having thrown their hats into the ring already. The existing project team contains planning consultant DP9, M&E engineer Me, acoustic engineer Arup and cost consultant RLB.

Last year Building revealed that Ian Feast, former COO of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, was leaving to head up delivery of the Sphere. At the same time, McAlpine’s director of strategy, Grant Findlay, left to join MSG as well and is also working on the Sphere.

An MSG Sphere London spokesperson said: “MSG is pleased with the progress our planning application is making. We always expected the government to take the opportunity to review our application for MSG Sphere London and their formal notice has absolutely no impact on our plans in any way.

“MSG Sphere will bring unique entertainment experiences to London and deliver many cultural and economic benefits, including creating thousands of jobs and generating billions of pounds for the local, London and UK economy.”

Late-running Sphere to open in Las Vegas this September

Earlier this month, MSG said the first Sphere it is building, in Las Vegas, is finally set to open this September – two years late and costing nearly $1bn (£825m) more than its original budget, writes Dave Rogers.

Designed by Populous and project managed by Rider Levett Bucknall, Aecom was appointed general contractor to the job in summer 2019 with the scheme given a price tag by MSG directors in May of that year of $1.2bn (£988m) and an opening date of “calendar 2021”.

But in August 2019, MSG said Aecom had told it the cost would be nearer $1.7bn (£1.4bn) adding that it “believes this cost estimate is too high and is now in the contractual process of reviewing, testing and challenging the elements of Aecom’s estimates and assumptions”.

At the end of the following year, the impact of covid-19 and supply chain issues meant Aecom was removed as general contractor with MSG becoming construction manager for the scheme having said in February that construction costs had gone up to $1.66bn (£1.36bn). A new opening date of 2023 had already been given earlier in the year.


Source: Shutterstock

The MSG Sphere in Las Vegas, seen under construction last summer, will open two years late this September

Explaining the decision to drop Aecom, MSG said: “The Company believes this change will provide it with greater transparency and control over the construction process, while enabling it to continue benefiting from Aecom’s expertise.”

But last November MSG was forced to admit that costs had gone up again – to $2.175bn (£1.8bn). It added: “The increase in the construction cost estimate primarily reflects the ongoing impact of inflation, global supply chain pressures and the overall complexity of the project.”

MSG had previously announced the scheme would open in 2023 but earlier this month stated that it had ringed this September as the date when paying visitors will be allowed through the door.

The MSG Sphere, which is being built at The Venetian resort in Las Vegas, which opened in 1999 after being built by Bovis’s US arm, stands at 366 feet high and 516 feet wide and will include seating for around 17,500 people, including 23 suites.

The outside of the sphere will feature 580,000 sq ft of programmable LED panels, which will enable MSG to bring in advertising revenue.

Lucas Watson, president of MSG Sphere, told a Las Vegas business conference last month: “Three [US] football fields of LED screen will wrap up, over and around the audience. In addition to the screen, the audience is going to be greeted by sphere immersive sound, 164,000 [speakers]. That’s eight channels for every person in the building of beam-forming technology and audio. It will be headset sound without the headset for every seat in the house. It truly is incredible.”

At the time it replaced Aecom and brought the job in-house, the Sphere in Las Vegas was being led by MSG executive Jayne McGivern, then its president of development and construction. But last spring, the former Multiplex and Skanska executive joined as chief executive of Saudi Arabia-based Sports Boulevard Foundation which is carrying out work on a huge sports and leisure scheme in the capital Riyadh.