Monday 22 June 2015

Known Unknowns at the New Stamford Bridge

So now things finally start happening. As has been widely reported, the club has invited local residents, season ticket holders and members to a consultation at Stamford Bridge on 30th June and the 1st and 2nd of July. The club has also distributed a beautifully packed leaflet telling The Story of Stamford Bridge which also starts to make a case, we think mostly directed to residents in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge, about the advantages that an expansion will bring to SW6. So the glacier that is the Chelsea FC stadium saga finally seems ready to lurch forward. Just to note that, for the purposes of this piece, we are taking the process at face value and disregarding the theory that this may be an elaborate exercise in belt-and-braces elimination.

So what do we know about the project? Not so much more than we did before but enough to be worth setting out. As usual it’s useful to analyse the different newspaper articles reporting the latest developments so that we can identify common themes. This is because a collection of simultaneous similar articles tend to stem from an organised club briefing. In this case the common elements are quite clear:

  • The club have concluded that there is no suitable site for a stadium in South West London apart from to build it at Stamford Bridge. This is despite the site, at 12 acres, being much smaller than the ideal 20 acres for a stadium of the planned size.
  • How big is the stadium planned to be? Most of the articles refer to a 60,000 capacity but one mentions ’20,000 extra spectators’ suggesting it might be up to 62,000. Another, in the Express, mentions a planned 67,000 capacity but that may just be a misprint.
  • Intriguingly, along with building over the railway lines in order to meet the planned capacity (as we expected) most of the articles refer to the need to ‘dig down’ in order to build a tier of the stadium below street level like at the Bernabeu. This is by no means an obvious solution and we discuss it further below.
  • All the articles expect the club to need to move away for at least two and probably three years while ‘the site is cleared in order to start again’. They also mention Twickenham or Wembley as temporary homes but they acknowledge difficulties with both options.
  • It is also briefly mentioned that the club has an option to continue to play at Stamford Bridge while building work on the stadium takes place. In this scenario the project would take four years and there would be an understandable impact on the capacity throughout. Just the fact this might be an option may well have implications and these are discussed below.
  • The suggestion in the papers is that the plans for the stadium are not yet finalised and that they won’t be until after the consultation. The fact that it is also stated that the stadium is ‘years from reality’ and some of the articles imply that it may take a decade before the club can play at the new stadium lend further weight to the fact that this will be a long slog. That said, one super-optimistic take on the situation expects a ‘formal [planning] application later this year’
  • The construction cost suggested in all of the stories is consistently quoted as around £500m. Obviously this is a huge amount but it’s interesting for several reasons and we will explore these further below. The estimate offered is that it would take 15 years to pay off the cost which would suggest an additional annual income of around £34m if the £500m figure is correct.
When The Story of Stamford Bridge leaflet arrived out of the blue we assumed, probably like everyone else, that it might offer genuine, detailed insight into the club’s stadium plans for the first time. Unfortunately it did not quite deliver on these hopes despite it being a beautifully packaged potted history of the Bridge. The intended audience was clearly not us stadium obsessives. However it did reveal one further significant element of the plans:
  • A key issue all along with expanding the stadium is getting up to an additional 20,000 fans in and out of the stadium without creating an unacceptable logjam on Fulham Road: the infamous ‘Egress’ problem. As revealed in The Story of Stamford Bridge, this time the club intends to provide a solution by resurrecting the idea of a dedicated pedestrian walkway from the north-east end of Fulham Broadway tube station, over the railway lines and directly into the north end of the stadium. It’s an ingenious and completely logical part-solution – but we’re sure we remember the concept being considered ‘unsafe’ at one point.
All of the above are fascinating glimpses of individual aspects of the likely plan – but there is little to tie everything together at present. That said, a few issues and questions stick out and are worthy of further examination.

  • Will the club and the genius architects Herzog and de Meuron who have reportedly been appointed to the project genuinely be able to find a way to build a superb new 60k+ stadium on an undersized plot without making serious compromises somewhere? It remains a huge challenge to make it work. Just to illustrate the problem the Allianz Arena stadium structure alone is, at around 12.6 acres, bigger than the entire Stamford Bridge site. 
  • Will the development therefore require the purchase of any surrounding land? We already know that the flats in the Shed End development are being bought by the club but will they also seek to buy up other neighbouring properties in order to increase the space for development? To do so would be both extremely tricky and massively expensive but could it be a prerequisite for the stadium development?
  • The idea of ‘digging down’ to create space for additional capacity is an idea which is often put forward by stadium design novices as a solution to the lack of space at Stamford Bridge, but it is really no use at all. This is because it is only a viable solution if a pitch has a lot of space around it (for example a track) otherwise spectators would just see the players playing football in a hole. Obviously this does not apply at the Bridge so we wondered why ‘digging down’ was being cited as part of the plan in all of the papers? Our only explanation is that the plans must involve bringing the level of the whole stadium down – the pitch and all of the stands. Why would the club do this? We can only think that this is not really a solution to the lack of space for a stadium but is instead a way to ensure that the taller stands in the new development do not impact on our neighbours’ ‘right to light’.
  • The newspapers stories all hint at a project which involves clearing the site and starting again and that appears to match the suggestion that the club will have to move elsewhere for up to three years. But the idea that if there are no suitable temporary homes that the club could choose to stay put at the Bridge while the redevelopment takes place around it is genuinely surprising and intriguing. Either there are different development plans depending on whether we can find a temporary home or not, or perhaps more likely, the proposed plans do not involve the realignment of either the pitch or of the stands. If so, perhaps the rumour of a re-clad West Stand remaining in place (perhaps with a steeper and larger lower tier ending below street level) with the other three stands being rebuilt has some substance.
  • The £500m project cost which is mentioned in all the newspapers is interesting on several levels. It is a huge amount of money for us mere mortals but it seems likely to us to be something of an underestimate. As a comparison, the Emirates Stadium cost an estimated £470m and that opened nine years ago. When we consider all the additional costs for the Stamford Bridge development – digging down, building over the railway, constructing walkways from Fulham Broadway and possibly West Brompton too – and the intervening nine years it’s hard to see how the overall cost would be only £30m more than the Ashburton Grove project. In the briefing last November the club estimated it might take 25 years to pay off the cost of the development. This time they estimated that it could take 15 years. Maybe they were closer to the truth the first time. 
  • How will the project be financed? Everyone is assuming that Roman will just dip into his fortune and offer us all his ultimate gift but how realistic is that? Let’s assume for a second that Roman isn’t just going to pick up the bill and that the stadium project will need to be financed some other way. Just what kind of impact is that going to have on the ongoing resources of the club?
  • Finally, where does the CPO fit into the plans? To date there has been no statement from the CPO board since the club announced the public consultation. That is, in itself, interesting and the board may choose not to comment at all until after the consultation has taken place. But we will hear from them in due course because quite simply the development cannot take place without the consent of the CPO. This consent will be required merely for the club to play away from Stamford Bridge for a period let alone for the development itself. And will the club seek to gain control of the freehold again? It’s certainly possible –especially if they might need to mortgage the land in order to raise money for the development. Such a move is certain to be controversial but we are sure the club would succeed this time – given the necessary safeguards of course. It would surely be a price worth paying, for even the most obstinate Chelsea Pitch Owners. 
Looking back at our blog on the subject from last November, what is surprising is how much of the ‘what next’ stuff it looks like we got right. It just took much longer than we expected (which may become a recurring theme in this project). But what should we expect from the next stage of the process? Will all our questions be answered at the consultation? Will the masterplan be laid out and will we get to inspect a shiny model? Of course we don’t know but on balance we suspect not. In fact we think some people may be disappointed with how much, or indeed how little, is revealed.

Looking at the consultation invitation itself, it states that “this stage of the consultation will focus at present on discussing the rationale and technical solutions for expansion with residents and match-going spectators”. Perhaps another little clue to the content can be found in the notes from a recent meeting between the club and Hammersmith & Fulham council which LBHF now helpfully publish on their website. The notes report that the meeting included “an update on progress of potential configuration for spectator accommodation” and it also outlined work “examining the feasibility of capacity expansion within the historic site boundaries”. We believe what we as supporters will get to see will probably be along similar lines. The consultation will surely reveal more than we know now but do we expect it to address all our questions? Highly unlikely we think. So all of us will need to make sure that the right questions and concerns and priorities are voiced and then fed into the consultation process. Because, be under no illusion, this will be one of the few opportunities to make our voices heard in shaping the new stadium of the club we love so do not pass up the opportunity.

The unquestionably vexed issue of how such a massive redevelopment would play out with residents is at the heart of this consultation. We can't imagine there will be silence on the part of locals and it could get very messy and drawn out indeed. As we have suggested, the club will likely make all sorts of expensive gestures towards the local infrastructure but this merely adds to the costs which we repeat, are likely to be significantly underestimated.

One final thought; it is ironic to hear Chelsea fans celebrating this potential development, possibly to involve enormous financial input from Mr Abramovich, even with other sources of finance. We presume that the disgraceful charges of "land-grabbing" and "theft" etc are now put to bed and that apologies will be issued?