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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

In quake-scarred Christchurch, caution frames debate over stadium

Authorities have been reluctant to sanction multi-storey stands in the stadium, and have stressed on earthquake-resilient buildings across the city. Today, the tallest building in Christchurch is the 282-foot Pacific Tower.

Written by Sandip G | Christchurch (new Zealand) | Updated: March 1, 2020 8:42:18 am
Hagley Oval, where India are playing New Zealand, has almost no concrete structures. Sandip G

A decade ago, Christchurch, where India are playing the second Test against New Zealand, suffered the two worst earthquakes in its history in the space of fewer than six months.

The first, in September 2010, destroyed over 1,200 buildings and altered the skyline of New Zealand’s second-most populous city. The second earthquake, in February 2011, left 185 people dead and reduced to rubble other massive buildings, including a two-century-old cathedral, and the historic Lancaster Park, the city’s cricket and rugby stadium since the mid-1930s.

As Christchurch rose from the debris, its architecture was defined by the memory of its twin disasters. Today, the city is classically minimalist — Hagley Oval, the cricket stadium, is in the middle of a large and lovely park with acres of greenery that encompasses a botanic garden and a public golf course, ringed by a gleaming white picket fence.

There’s just the solitary concrete building, the single-storey Richard Hadlee pavilion that houses the dressing rooms and a few corporate boxes. A clutch of chairs are placed just beyond the boundary ropes under a canopy that resembles the one at the Adelaide Oval in Australia. The contrast with India, which has just got the world’s biggest cricket stadium, the 1 lakh-plus-capacity brick-cement-concrete behemoth at Motera, Ahmedabad, could not have been starker.

On either side of the pavilion at the Hagley Oval stand tents, covered in white cloth. A small tent is the food stall, and a moderately-sized one is the press box (or press tent). The tents trembled in the wind at the end of a day that India closed on the defensive — with New Zealand reaching 63/0 after bowling India out for 242.

Unlike most modern stadiums, the Hagley Oval is unstained by modernity. There are no towering floodlights or massive stands — it looks rather like an idyllic first-class venue, with the Victorian-style Old Scorers’ and Umpires’ Association building and the Greener’s Cricket Club in the vicinity adding to its old-world charm.

Authorities have been reluctant to sanction multi-storey stands in the stadium, and have stressed on earthquake-resilient buildings across the city. Today, the tallest building in Christchurch is the 282-foot Pacific Tower. “The association wants to expand and build a world-class stadium, but it has had difficulty convincing the authorities that the structure would be earthquake resistant. After the tremors, they are paranoid about everything,” John Pennington, one of the groundsmen, said.

Conservation groups had even opposed the creation of the stadium in the 165-hectare public park, the third-largest in the world. Protesters sat in front of machinery to stop the upgrades in 2012, and work had to be put on hold for six months. “They thought the stadium will destroy the natural beauty of the park. We assured them that no trees would be cut, and after much negotiation, construction resumed,” Pennington said.

Canterbury Cricket, the body that runs the game in the Canterbury region of which Christchurch is part, bid for matches during the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand even though it had no suitable ground. After the ICC refused to allow a game at a substandard venue, Canterbury Cricket went on a fundraising drive that was able to accumulate nearly NZD 10 million in the space of three months. The Hagley Oval was born within 12 months — and four months ahead of the World Cup, it was confirmed as a venue.

In 2018, the Canterbury Cricket Trust sought permission to erect six permanent 49-metre lights at the Oval, and asked that the process be fast-tracked so it could bid for important matches of the 2021 Women’s World Cup. The proposal was approved, but the community group Hands Off Hagley staged a protest saying the floodlights would attract 15 extra matches and bring in an estimated 54,000 extra visitors, which would threaten the park. The verdict in a judicial review went against the protesters, but the court instructed the board to preserve as much as greenery as was possible. Days later, the Hagley Oval was announced as the venue for the final. But structures like stands and press boxes have to wait.

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