The Regeneration of Wembley (Stadium and City)

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It is difficult not to get swept up in the excitement surrounding the city of Wembley these days. Between the brand new, already legendary stadium that was just opened earlier this year and the massive regeneration project taking place in the community, the new energy in the area is palpable. Wembley Stadium is being touted, and with very good reason, as the best stadium in the world, and when you walk out of the Wembley Park tube station and see the great white arch of the stadium soaring across the sky, it is hard to disagree. Replacing the old Wembley Stadium, the new stadium has acted as a catalyst for one of the most ambitious regeneration projects in London which, led by the Brent Council and the London Development Agency, aims to transform completely what has been referred to by locals as a “drab industrial estate� into a cosmopolitan area that will attract visitors and new residents not only for the great football but for all of the leisure and cultural attractions that are springing up as well. All in all, the stadium has already brought a great deal to the area, but it is just the beginning.


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As of now, one might say that the bright gleaming stadium seems somewhat out of place in the current neighborhood. The city of Wembley (which is located in the London borough of Brent) is a primarily industrial area in northwest London and is home to the largest percentage of residents born outside of the EU (just over 38%) in the UK. There are large Indian and Sri Lankan populations within Wembley, along with significant numbers of Middle Easterners which create a very diverse atmosphere as you walk along the main road of Wembley, seeing street signs in three or four different languages. Many of the buildings appear to be from the 1930s, with simple brick façades in a semi-detached style. Most buildings off of the main road feature small stores on the ground floor and three or four stories of housing above. There are those who will no doubt say that it is tacky to build such a large, expensive structure in an area not known for its wealth. Yet while the area appears detached from the stadium now, this will likely not be the case in the next 15 years. The entire area is undergoing a large change due in much part to the new Wembley Stadium.

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It is appropriate that the area is going through such a transformation with the new stadium because it was the old Wembley Stadium that helped build up the present city in the 1920s and 30s. The old stadium was built in the early 1920s as apart of the British Empire Exhibition. The original design was made primarily of concrete and steel and featured what became the signature “twin towers� leading into the stadium. Over 4.5 million people visited the old Wembley in its first year alone. The old stadium played host to some of the most remarkable events in London in the twentieth century, including the original Live Aid concert, and most importantly for many Brits, it was the very field where England won the World Cup in 1966. Because of this, the stadium was considered hallowed ground. Yet because of increasing demands by crowds and teams, the stadium became outdated and was closed in 2000. When it came time for the new stadium to be built, it was of prime importance to find an architect that would give Wembley a stadium that was not only practical but was also aesthetically pleasing and would give fans an incredible experience when they came to an event.

For this, Sir Norman Foster was hired. Foster’s work has popped up all over London, from 30 St. Mary Axe (the “Gherkin�) to London City Hall to the Great Hall in the British Museum, so it probably came as little surprise when he was chosen to design the new Wembley. Yet he had quite a job on his hands in designing a stadium that would win the hearts of the British. When construction began in 2003, the community was quite supportive of the new design and its architect, yet as the time stretched on and the budget outstretched its limits, people began to grumble. There was a large amount of discontent in 2006, the year the stadium was supposed to open, when all scheduled events for the year were cancelled because the project was running behind. Yet Ken Allinson says it best when he predicts in his book, “No doubt all this will soon be forgotten� (199). Indeed, when the stadium officially opened in March of 2007, any criticism of building costs or time spent was overshadowed by the praise heaped on the new facility. The Wembley Stadium website features quotes from notables expressing their enthusiasm such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Tony Blair. John Motson, a famous football commentator for England, sums up the feelings of many in saying “It’s surprising how quickly the old sentimentality is forgotten when you see the sparkling new facilities.�[1]

Simply put, I believe Wembley Stadium is a grand triumph of architecture. Before reading any facts or figures about the stadium, I visited the site on a non-event day just to stroll around the grounds and get a feel for the place, and from the moment I glimpsed its white arch above the buildings of the town, I was mesmerized. The stadium is a dominant statement of power (sure to intimidate visiting teams) without being overbearing or unwelcoming. It can be seen from almost all parts of the town, and just in case people cannot bear to be parted with the sight for too long, many shops around the area feature pictures of the stadium inside, from its construction phase to the final product. The stadium seems to be a symbol of pride for the area, and with everything that it will bring to the community, it is easy to see why people hold such high esteem for it.

The stadium has obvious Foster touches, from the geometric panels around the top of the bowl that are reminiscent of the glass panels in London City Hall and the Canary Wharf tube station. Yet the most striking feature is the white arch that stretches across the stadium. This arch is the stadium’s pièce de resistance, shooting 133 m high in the air, over four times taller than the twin towers at the old stadium, and spanning 315m long. Made of steel, the width of the arch is larger than that of a cross-Channel train. The arch, also known as the “tiara� of the stadium, can be seen from across the city of London, especially from high vantage points such as the London Eye, making it a true London landmark even though it is somewhat out of the way of the central part of the city. None of the new developments will be taller than the arch; rather the buildings will rise gradually the closer they are to the stadium, as if they are all pointing up to the stadium, which is the apex of the community.


[1] http://www.wembleystadium.com/GloriousPast/celebritycomments/johnMotson.htmmcclain5_05.jpgYet the arch was not built merely for aesthetic purposes. It provides the support for the large retractable roof of the stadium, quite an impressive feat of engineering, allowing the stadium to be built without columns which would have impeded the view of the pitch for spectators. The roof can be opened now to let in sunlight for the natural grass on the pitch but also retracted to protect fans from the elements, making Wembley the world’s largest stadium that has such protection.

Further innovations in the stadium include its bowl-style seating, a change from the former model of four separate stands. Because no columns are needed to support the roof, Foster was able to create seating to where all 90,000 spectators would be on the same plane, creating a more cohesive and dynamic feel during events. Likewise, the acoustics were specially designed to enhance the roars of the crowd, accentuating the already-manic energy that emanates from fans on a match day. The stadium was also designed to be much more comfortable than not only the old Wembley, but also other football stadiums around the country. There is now more legroom in every seat than was in the Royal Box in the old stadium, and an increased number of turnstiles allows for more efficient entrances and exits to the stands. A large exterior concourse leads fans directly from the Wembley Park tube station right up to the stadium, which is filled with various vendors and quite a cast of characters on game days and allows for a safer, quicker way in and out of the grounds. For events that do not involve football, a large platform can be erected that is placed over the lower bowl, which, though it limits the crowd capacity, allows for more variety in the events that take place at Wembley. In short, the fan’s experience at Wembley Stadium is unparalleled.

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In the short time the stadium has been open, it has already played host to many grand events, on its way to having the same great history that its predecessor had. Highly charged football matches have been played on the pitch, most notably the FA Cup match in May and just last week, the Community Shield match, both between top teams Chelsea FC and Manchester United. Furthermore, internationally broadcast concerts such as the Concert for Diana and Live Earth have also taken place at Wembley. Later this year, two American football teams will travel to Wembley to play the first regular-season NFL game outside of the US. The stadium will also host the quarters, semis, and final matches for football in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and London is currently placing its bid to host the 2018 World Cup which will be centered around the stadium as well. The great history of this stadium is just beginning!

The stadium alone has already provided a great deal for the surrounding neighborhood without even taking the other developments into account. On event days, the stadium provides 5,000 new jobs for residents, and over 100 year-round jobs have already been created for locals in the banqueting and hospitality facilities in the stadium, giving a great many opportunities for the stadium’s neighbors. In addition, it is expected that upwards of 2.5 million people will visit Wembley Stadium every year, spending ₤229 million in the community which will no doubt help local businesses to prosper. Even more revenue is expected if Wembley is chosen as the site for future World Cups and European Championships. Yet the immediate financial benefits of the stadium are just the start in terms of benefits for the community.

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The city of Wembley is undergoing a massive regeneration project that spans nearly twenty years, involving billions of pounds, thousands of people, and endless opportunities. Wembley as a neighborhood wants to bring itself up to the grandeur of its new stadium, and is doing so through very ambitious projects spearheaded by the Brent Council, Quintain Estates, London Development Agency, and many more. These groups are all committed to transforming Wembley into a full-scale leisure destination with a vibrant cultural and urban life, not just a place to trek to on a Sunday afternoon to see great football. While work on the new developments is well underway, there is still a great deal to be done.

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Going to Wembley on a non-event day was obviously much different than being there on a match day. The area directly around the stadium was very still and quiet with only the sound of construction vehicles driving around nearby, but then when I went to the main road of the neighborhood, it became more bustling as people scurried around the street visiting the different stores and markets. On the game day, it was just the opposite experience. The energy around the stadium as 90,000+ people crowded around the stadium simply cannot be expressed in words, so I will not try. Suffice it to say, the atmosphere was electric. Yet I found that aside from the little strip of shops by Wembley Park tube station, it was somewhat difficult to make my way down to the same road I had been on the week before. This is in part to construction barriers impeding the walkways down to the streets, but it illustrates the idea that as of now, the stadium and the neighborhood are still separate entities.

Yet the new vision of Wembley wants to change all of that. The plans for the neighborhood illustrate an area that is seamlessly integrated with the stadium, with more apartments, shops, and the like making a smoother transition from the stadium to the existing community. For this task, Quintain Estates was enlisted to make this idea a reality.

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Quintain is responsible for the 70 acres of land directly surrounding the stadium, and the projects are just as grand as one would expect being in the shadow of Foster’s work. Probably the largest single building within the space is the redeveloped Wembley Arena which is another world-class venue for concerts and cost a cool ₤35 million to refurbish. The company is also building many new apartments on the area, anywhere from studio to 3-bedroom apartments, all promising to be stylish, accessible, and a good investment for buyers. The Quintain website details plans to build designer outlet stores, multiplex cinemas, new public green space, and a new pedestrian Wembley Boulevard. They make the bold claim that this area will, upon completion, measure up to the likes of Covent Garden and Leicester Square in terms of cultural appeal combined with quality living. The picture featured above is the computer-generated model of what the area around the new arena will look like.

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In addition to the work of Quintain Estates, the Brent Council is spearheading developments that will be seen and felt throughout the entire city of Wembley, not just the area by the stadium. First and foremost, the Council has worked with the Mayor of London in conjunction with the London Development Agency and Transport for London in vastly improving the transportation in and out of Wembley. The Wembley Park tube station, the closest to the stadium, has been completely redone, with the Metropolitan and Jubilee lines coming to the station. A new glass roof and auxiliary concourse have been built, as well as general expansion so as to accommodate the large crowds on event days. Conveniently, the first site you see right after you have swiped your Oyster Card is the stadium right in front of you, just a straight and short walk to the entrances. The Wembley Central station which is a bit farther away has also had new security measures and a new platform for the Bakerloo line installed, though the refurbishment of this stadium is nowhere near as extensive as the Wembley Park station. Finally, the National Rail has added a Wembley Stadium stop right by the stadium, where one can literally just walk up the stairs and be standing next to the stadium. This part of the transportation improvements was the most difficult, as the developers had to figure out a way to bring in extra train tracks without inhibiting movement around the stadium, but they solved the problem by putting the train stop beneath the White Horse bridge. Altogether, almost ₤70 million was spent improving transport, but the expense was worth it since not only will it bring in more people for events but also it will attract new residents to the area who will find it much easier than before to get into Central London from Wembley.

In addition to the changes in transport, Brent Council is overseeing the construction of thousands of square meters of commercial and residential buildings as well as assisting local businesses, schools, and the like. Over 4,200 new homes are being built to lure new residents to the area, and a recent article in a London newspaper encouraged buyers to invest in the area while prices are still relatively affordable, as it will be considered quite a bargain in ten years’ time. 45,000 sqm of leisure and entertainment space as well as 84,000 sqm of office buildings are being built which will provide enough room for not only the new businesses but also for future ventures should the area expand even more. Furthermore, the new London Convention Centre will also be built in Wembley. Altogether, the new businesses will provide over 7,000 new jobs for residents. Brent Council has actually secured funding of ₤2.5 million to help train locals for these new jobs which will be available to them.

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Yet the Council is not neglecting existing businesses either. There is currently a “Enhance Wembley� project taking place where Brent Council works with small businesses in the area, revamping storefronts, increasing profitability and efficiency, and helping finance the improvements. Businesses are actually eligible for grants that will cover up to 50% of the refurbishment. Again, it is of high importance to the Brent Council that current residents and businesses are not shoved out by the new developments but rather integrated into the new plan for the neighborhood.

An additional ₤25 million was secured by the Brent Council strictly for local benefits, including ₤9 million which will go towards a new school, no doubt an attempt to bring more families to the area. Funds will also be allotted to cultural endeavors such as a public art program, museums, street theatre, etc., all in an effort to add excitement and value to the community. Will the money hold out for all of these projects to be completed? I certainly hope so, as the plan represents an ambitious and phenomenal change for this area. With the tenacity that the Brent Council has brought to the regeneration, I feel confident that, even if not all of the details come to fruition, the vision for the new Wembley will ultimately come true.

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When I thought of writing on Wembley Stadium, I had the idea of talking about how the neighborhood and the stadium are completely disconnected and the social and economical chasms between the two. Yet it is because of the stadium that so much is being done to bring new life into the neighborhood as well as to involve its current residents in the developments, rather than pushing them out. Thus, I instead chose to focus instead on the excitement felt by all involved with the various projects since the enthusiasm is far greater than any grumbles. Wembley Stadium is truly a source of pride for this community, and while it did cost a great deal to build, the returns to the community will far exceed the initial cost burden. The community will be greatly changed in the next 15 years, but for the residents of Wembley, as well as people throughout London, the regeneration is seen as a positive development for the area, not an imposition. Wembley Stadium is quite unique in that it does not passively represent progress for the community as other modern buildings do, but rather boldly is the primary reason for such progress to take place. When you take a look at the beautiful stadium from the top steps of Wembley Park Station and see the neighborhood growing up around it, you can’t help but feel incredibly optimistic for the area’s future. The hopes for Wembley soar as high as the arch that now stretches across its sky.

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Sources:

Ahluwalia, Ravneet. “The London Property: The Rebirth of an Old Favourite� The London Paper. 1 August 2007. p. 28

Allinson, Ken. London’s Contemporary Architecture. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2006. p.199.

“Brilliant Future: Regeneration of Community� http://www.wembleystadium.com/brilliantfuture/localcommunity/regneration.htm

“Enhance Wembley� Compiled by Brent Council http://wembleytown.com/images/enhancewembleybrochurefinal06.pdf

“Glorious Past: History Introduction� http://www.wembleystadium.com/GloriousPast/historyIntroduction/

“Regeneration� Compiled by Wembley Town Centre Partnership http://wembleytown.com/content/section/8/47/

“Welcome to Wembley City� Compiled by Quintain Estates and Developments http://www.wembleycity.co.uk/

“Wembley: From Vision to Reality� Compiled by Brent Council http://www.brent.gov.uk/wembley.nsf/2f00221a94fcf01c8025684900360c5e/425cab3d84ed84f9802572f80042afea/$FILE/5471wembleyVision07pdf.pdf

“Wembley Masterplan� Compiled by Brent Council http://www.brent.gov.uk/wembley.nsf/24878f4b00d4f0f68025663c006c7944/15070efabb1a9be180256f2c0048c1bf!OpenDocument

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