But the safety rationale for replacing the 31-year-old inner-city stadium is as disputed as any policy in the NSW election campaign, which has become, in part, a referendum on whether it should be rebuilt.
Money and lives
The cost on both sides aren’t trivial. Knocking down and rebuilding the structure is estimated at $730 million – a sum studies show will not be recouped in the benefit to sport and fans. Not replacing the stadium could, theoretically, cost lives.
There is a political cost too. Due to an accident of timing, demolition equipment hired by Lendlease began work eight days before the election. In a close election, images on television and in newspapers of a fully functioning stadium being torn apart could have an impact on the outcome.
The leading replacement proponent is Tony Shepherd, a prominent NSW businessman and chairman of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust. He’s aided by fellow trustee Alan Jones, who has used his microphone on AM radio to warn of a Hillsborough-like disaster unless the trust gets its way. Ninety-six people were crushed to death in Liverpool in 1989 when gates were opened and the spectators rushing in squeezed the crowd against high pitch-side fences.
Shepherd argues the stadium would take 24 minutes to evacuate. International guidelines advocate eight minutes. The implication was that those extra terrifying 16 minutes might be enough to trigger a fatal crush inside the stadium’s relatively narrow concrete passageways.
“The trustees have an absolute obligation, both moral and legal, to operate a safe venue and, with the overwhelming evidence of the expert advice in front of them, could come to no other decision,” he told Labor leader Michael Daley in a November letter seeking bipartisan support.
A strange certificate
A NSW parliamentary committee last year accepted the safety argument. But its inquiry into the government’s Sydney stadium policy dryly noted that the trust – a bastion of the city’s establishment – hadn’t publicly raised any concerns until 2016, when lobbying for a replacement began.
Labor MPs on the committee disagreed with the conclusion, although chose not to challenge the safety concerns until afterwards.
“Details of the safety report were never forthcoming,” Labor’s Lynda Voltz says now, in an email. “The committee was dominated by Liberals and Nationals members who, with the help of the Shooters and Fishers, accepted the safety argument.”
The committee also explored the stadium’s unusual “certificate of occupancy”, which was due to expire this year and would apparently not be renewed on safety grounds.
The certificate sounded similar to an occupation certificate, which is a legal instrument under the NSW planning law. But the Allianz certificate was created by the trust’s paid building certifier, Blackett Maguire and Goldsmith, and had no legal standing.
The committee concluded it was “not a recognised statutory document”. Voltz calls it “bogus”.
Architects don’t always agree
Some sports architects do believe Allianz is a safety risk, including those working at Cox Architecture, which has been hired to design the replacement by the NSW government.
But the man who founded the firm and designed the stadium, Philip Cox, doesn’t. He told this newspaper that Shepherd’s arguments were “not true” – a declaration that promoted Cox Architecture to threaten to terminate Cox’s consultancy in a grovelling apology to Infrastructure NSW.
The architect who vetted Cox’s designs for the NSW government, Andrew Andersons, agrees with Cox – the man, not the firm.
“It beggars belief that a purpose-designed structure, only 30 years old, would now prove such a hazard to patrons that the SCG trustees cannot fulfil their ‘absolute obligation, both legal and moral, to operate a safe venue’,” he wrote to Daley in response to the Shepherd letter.
Even highly experienced architects find it hard to assess if developments in safety codes require an entirely new building.
“When it was designed it would have met the requirements for its capacity but codes change over time so it may have issues that have later emerged,” says Michael Rayner, a Cox architect who now runs his own firm.
“But as these are highly technical, it is difficult for the wider public to know what is factual and what isn’t about what the different sides are contending.”
The Labor opposition has promised to cancel the project, although that now seems highly unlikely given demolition has started. Sydney is going to get a new stadium whether voters want it or not.