Progress on Populous’s Sphere project in London put off yet again

The Ball Isn't Rolling

Progress on Populous’s Sphere project in London put off yet again

Concerns about light pollution and traffic prompted planning delays for the LED-clad MSG London Sphere, but now the project could soon move forward. (Courtesy Madison Square Garden Company)

Planning approval for the Populous-designed MSG London Sphere, a wholly globular entertainment venue planned for a nearly 5-acre site in East London’s Stratford district, has stalled yet again as the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) pushes for a third public consultation round further addressing a range of potential issues. Those mainly concern the controversial, Ray Bradbury-influenced project’s potential light pollution and local health and transportation impacts.

Per the Architects’ Journal, the LLDC has written New York-headquartered entertainment behemoth the Madison Square Garden Company (MSG), requesting further details on the massive development—if completed as planned, it would be the largest concert venue in the United Kingdom with capacity for 21,500 seated and standing guests—that would inform further public consultation. Only then would a planning committee consider and give the sign off on the project application.

“The topics raised are already the subject of ongoing, productive discussions between MSG, our stakeholders and our potential new neighbours. We will continue to work together with all interested stakeholders to bring MSG Sphere to Stratford and create a thriving destination that supports thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of economic benefit,” said a MSG spokesperson in response to the LLDC’s letter seeking further analysis shared by the Journal.

Although its schedule has been thrown off balance, coordinated construction timing was of the essence for the MSG London Sphere. A planning application was first submitted by MSG in March 2019, which would have theoretically enabled construction work to kick off this summer with a slated summer 2022 completion date—exactly one year after the debut of an identical MSG Sphere at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. Also designed by Populous, the $1.66 billion sister venue in Las Vegas is currently under construction although its yet-to-be-announced-open date has been pushed back due to delays prompted by coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions.

Plans call for both venues to be covered, inside and out, with thousands of high-tech LED screens that allow spectators to view concerts and other events from up to 500 feet away. It’s this aspect, along with congestion concerns and a rise in air pollution that would result from increased traffic, that has caused the most pushback, as many local politicians and activists aren’t too keep on the idea of a nearly 300-foot-tall sphere (roughly the same diameter as the London Eye) blaring digital advertisements from its LED-clad skin.

As noted by The Guardian, the planning application presented an “opportunity for a kind of giant spherical version of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus.” MSG, which has consistently pointed to the project as being major job creator that’s enjoyed overwhelming local support, has claimed that, per the application, advertisements will only be shown on the illuminated facade 50 percent of the time or less and that it will be dimmed to “stand-by” mode during the overnight hours.

As reported by New Civil Engineer, MSG had earmarked December 2019 as the estimated application approval date for the MSG London Sphere. London Mayor Sadiq Khan had signaled his approval for the project earlier in the year before plans were officially submitted. The LLDC, however, came back with a request for further information, delaying any kind of decision until at least mid-2020. That decision, it would appear, will now come even later.

In any event, MSG was already resigned to the fact that the 17,500-seat London venue would not open a year after its (now also delayed) Las Vegas counterpart as originally planned, telling investors late last year: “The company is continuing to move through the planning application process, which is now expected to run into calendar 2020. It is no longer possible for the London venue opening to be one year after the opening of MSG Sphere in Las Vegas.”