Cricket: Uni Oval boundary dispute may be solved

The University Oval pictured during the test between New Zealand and the West Indies in December...
The University Oval pictured during the test between New Zealand and the West Indies in December last year. The Otago Cricket Association would like to expand the ground and the Dunedin City Council has allocated funds in the annual plan to shift the media centre (top left) and sightscreen.Any expansion hinges on the removal, or part removal, of the former art gallery (left of media centre).Photo by Peter McIntosh.
For the past three years, the former Dunedin art gallery building at Logan Park has stood in the way of the Dunedin City Council and Otago Cricket Association's shared vision to expand the University Oval cricket ground. A resolution now appears imminent. Cricket writer Adrian Seconi reports.

It is easy to get swept away listening to Otago Cricket Association chief executive Ross Dykes talk about his vision for the tree-lined University Oval.

He paints a picture of a cricket Utopia where fans can spread out generous picnic lunches and lounge on the grassy embankments while watching the drama unfold in the middle.

There is just one cloud on the horizon.

The venue's dimensions - specifically, its boundaries - are limited by the location of the former art gallery, built for the 1925 New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition.

Such exhibitions were large affairs and rank among the most important events staged in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

And the former gallery, at the northern end of the Oval, appears to be the only surviving in-situ building from any of the exhibitions held in New Zealand.

Despite its historical significance, part of the building was removed in 2001.

But when the Dunedin City Council (DCC) recommended its removal in June 2006, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust pounced into action, upgrading its status from a category 2 to a category 1 building and vowing to fight its demolition in the Environment Court if necessary.

With the DCC determined to press on with its planned development, the battle lines had been drawn and a lengthy legal encounter loomed.

That was three years ago, and with time the language has softened on both sides.

The DCC is now talking about finding a sensible solution and the Historic Places Trust is resigned to reaching a compromise position.

"All I can say is those discussions are ongoing," DCC city life general manager Graeme Hall said when asked if the Historic Places Trust had changed its stance.

"To remove the building has significant planning issues and we're working through it. But, I think, we'll be in a position where we'll know the answers to many of those questions before the end of this year."

New Zealand Historic Places Trust Otago-Southland area manager Owen Graham is of a similar mind.

"We come at it from different perspectives but the important thing is we remain open to opportunities to change the position that we are holding," he said.

"In this case, I can say with time, it has been possible to enter into some more positive negotiations. The whole objective is to find an outcome which actually addresses the important issues from each side."

Perhaps part of the reason the Historic Places Trust appears to have given ground is because it seems the building's category 1 status will not shield it from the bulldozers.

"The [Historic Places Trust] registration, let's be very clear, is not a form of protection. It is a recognition process," Graham said.

On the DCC's District Plan, which was reviewed in April 2008, the former art gallery remains a category 2 building, which means it is afforded less protection.

How that would pan out in court is uncertain but in a clear indication the council believes it can go ahead with its plans to remove the building, or part of it, it has allocated funds in the annual plan to shift the media centre and sightscreen.

The possibility more of the building may be lost does not sit well with art historian Peter Entwisle.

He believes it is the council's duty to restore the two bays that were lopped off in 2001 rather than hack into the building further.

"Their duty is to restore it - that is clear," Entwisle said.

"It is one of the few exhibition buildings still on the original site and it is also a very fine design, especially on the inside."

Entwisle would like Otago cricket to consider shifting back to Carisbrook, but that seems unlikely given $8 million was spent getting the University Oval ready for first-class and international cricket.

Dunedin architect Ted McCoy said the gallery was designed by renowned architect Edmund Anscombe and, while it was originally intended to be a temporary structure, it was a purpose-built facility perfect for displaying art.

"Architecturally, the exterior is fairly plain," McCoy said.

"Not what you would call a brilliant piece of design, but the interior was quite magnificent. Anscombe developed a system for using natural light which, at that time, was quite revolutionary and well-regarded in architectural circles. So the interior was a great space for displaying art."

McCoy said he would love to see the building restored to its former glory, but if the decision was made to trim the structure further, the building might as well be removed completely.

"You'd either have to restore it to what Anscombe had designed, or you'd have to pull the darned thing down, I'm afraid, because they've already taken a chunk out of it."

When the South Seas Exhibition closed, Sir Percy and Lucy, Lady Sargood made a significant donation to help the Dunedin Art Gallery Society and DCC secure the building.

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery occupied the building until 1997 and it is currently tenanted by the Otago and Highlanders rugby teams and the New Zealand Academy of Sport South Island.

Should part of the building be demolished, the Highlanders and Otago teams would have to find new training facilities.

Otago Rugby Football Union chief executive Richard Reid said he was well aware of the development plans and was prepared to shift the team's training home if required.

"As for where the Highlanders go, that is yet to be decided but we are in the loop of what's going on.

"[The Forsyth Barr stadium] is not being built or designed as a training facility for a professional rugby team. So I don't think it will ever be the training home."

Academy of Sport South Island chief executive Kereyn Smith said the academy was looking into its options but its preference was to be closer to the new stadium if it needed to relocate.

Both Reid and Smith said they supported plans to expand the Oval, after which the venue would rival Hamilton's Seddon Park, Napier's McLean Park and even the Basin Reserve in Wellington as one of the country's premier test grounds.

In Dykes vision, the 53m-long northern boundary that Black Caps skipper Daniel Vettori once described as "farcical" is 65m long, and the ground's capacity has increased from about 3000 to 6000-plus.

"They [the DCC] realise we need bigger boundaries and whether the art gallery is removed totally, or abbreviated further, I guess cricket's concern is we get enough space to allow us to have a decent boundary and an adequate capacity," Dykes said.

"I want to see the University Oval as the No 1 test venue in the South Island and one of the top three test venues in New Zealand."

To make that happen, Dykes believes the ground needs to be enlarged by 30-35m.

If the association gets its way, it plans to relocate the wicket block and expand it from five to seven strips.

It would also like to re-lay the pitch with superior Kakanui clay, which has a higher clay content than the current base, with a view to retaining moisture longer to improve the pace and bounce of the pitch.

Even if all that transpires, doubts remain over whether sides such as England or Australia would play tests at the ground.

Flights in and out of the city and a lack of quality accommodation to cater for the players, and the fans and media which would follow such teams, could hold the venue back.


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