MSG Sphere Stratford: Developer abandons London version of Las Vegas venue after Sadiq Khan blocks plans

The company behind a proposed Las Vegas-style concert venue beside the Olympic park announced on Tuesday evening that it had abandoned its plans after they were blocked by London mayor Sadiq Khan.

The Sphere Entertainment Company, a sister firm to Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corporation [MSG], told the Evening Standard it would sell the brownfield site it had earmarked for a £1.5bn MSG Sphere arena – and look to build in another country.

In a dramatic intervention from New York, Sphere and MSG's executive chairman and chief executive James Dolan said the firm had no intention of appealing to the Government to reverse Mr Khan’s decision.

“It really is the end of the line for London,” Mr Dolan said. “Why doesn’t London want the best show on earth?”

He said Ed Sheeran had wanted to perform the opening show at the London Sphere – and that U2 singer Bono, who performed the opening show at the Vegas Sphere, also wanted one to open in the capital.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove has served notice that he could intervene and approve the Sphere. But Mr Dolan said Sphere had no interest in seeking to overturn the mayor’s decision, which he claimed had been made on “political” grounds.

“We were totally taken aback by this," he said. "We thought the mayor was supportive. He gave no indication he was going to behave like this.”

Mr Dolan revealed that he had been due to attend Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s economic investment forum on Monday – but would no longer be travelling to London. He had expected that the Sphere would have been highlighted by Mr Sunak as an example of major foreign investment in the UK.

“To throw that away through a desire to embarrass the Prime Minister and his economic forum is unconscionable.”

The MSG sphere was planned for Stratford (The Madison Square Garden Company/PA)
The MSG sphere was planned for Stratford (The Madison Square Garden Company/PA)

In a 20-minute interview, Mr Dolan told the Standard he was “disappointed” that Mr Khan had ordered the London Legacy Development Corporation [LLDC], the City Hall quango that oversees the wider Olympic park, to refuse planning permission.

The mayor said the application breached his London Plan on three key grounds: light pollution from the LED exterior of the eyeball-shaped arena, concerns about the impact on heritage buildings and the amount of energy that it would require.

But Mr Dolan said: “We spent five years on this process, working with the LLDC and the community, addressing all the concerns that we heard.

“The Sphere [in Las Vegas] has already proven itself to be a technological and artistic success. We were looking forward to bringing that to the people of London. We think they would have loved it. We are disappointed in that we are not going to be able to do that.”

He said the impact of U2’s show at the Las Vegas Sphere had been “unbelievable”. Mr Dolan said: “Everybody comes out of that show saying it’s the best thing they have ever seen.

“You should talk to Bono. He is going to be disappointed it’s not in London. Bono sees the Sphere in Vegas as an art installation. He tells me all the time. I also think he might like one in Dublin.”

Asked whether he was prepared to wait for Mr Gove’s decision, Mr Dolan said: “We have expended quite a lot of capital. To be very honest, there is no process that makes us want to continue the effort.

“We can’t keep banging our heads against the wall in London while there are other cities that want us.

“We are going to sell the land. We are exiting the market. It hurts me to say that. We wanted London to be the second place where we opened up a Sphere. Chasing this in London is not the right thing for the company.”

 (The Madison Square Garden Company)
(The Madison Square Garden Company)

Mr Dolan said he had no desire to look elsewhere in London as this would involve restarting the lengthy planning application process. He said the Stratford application had been “subject to a completely politically motivated move by the mayor’s office”.

When the London Sphere plans were first unveiled in 2018, Mr Khan issued a statement as part of MSG’s publicity in which he said: “It’s great to welcome another world-class venue to the capital, to confirm London’s position as a music powerhouse and to boost still further our city’s thriving night-time economy.”

Mr Dolan claimed Mr Khan’s decision to side with the Sphere opponents rather than approve the scheme, as the LLDC had done last year, had been influenced by next year’s mayoral elections.

As mayor, Mr Khan has the ability to approve or reject large schemes but he cannot do so on political grounds, only planning grounds.

The Sphere in Las Vegas was recently lit up for the US Grand Prix (REUTERS)
The Sphere in Las Vegas was recently lit up for the US Grand Prix (REUTERS)

Mr Dolan said: “We worked very closely with the LLDC. We spent thousands of hours with community forums, addressing concerns. We must have modified our plans 100 times to make it acceptable to the local community.

“We didn’t get a personal guarantee from [the mayor] – it wouldn’t have been appropriate. But all our discussions with the mayor’s office and the LLDC suggested we had done everything necessary to satisfy the community.

“When the mayor came out with his statement [on Monday] saying he welcomed technological innovation, that was about as disingenuous  a statement as I could possibly hear.

“It would have been wonderful for London. It would have made a huge statement about its willingness to embrace technology and art and the future. This is a dismal outcome. It’s going to suffer. Commercially it’s going to suffer. Over 4,000 jobs would have been created. It would have lit up that community.”

Mr Dolan said he had personally visited Stratford and approved the intended site. “I thought it was the perfect place for the Sphere to be. The whole thing about light pollution is a red herring. It was not going to be on 24 hours a day. The brightness was toned down from Las Vegas.”

He said the decision meant that AEG, which operates the O2 arena in North Greenwich and other venues and music festivals in London, would be left to dominate the capital's live events market.

The Mayor's office declined to respond to Mr Dolan's remarks, and reissued its comment from Monday.

This said: "London is open to investment from around the world and Sadiq wants to see more world-class, ambitious, innovative entertainment venues in our city.

“But as part of looking at the planning application for the MSG Sphere, the Mayor has seen independent evidence that shows the current proposals would result in an unacceptable negative impact on local residents.”

The Vegas Sphere is owned by the Sphere Entertainment Co.