Come November, many of property’s rugby-mad execs will be being wined and dined in six floors of new hospitality at Twickenham for the autumn internationals.
What they might not realise, though, is which real estate firm has been at the heart of revitalising the home of rugby.
Palmer Capital-backed Wrenbridge, through its Wrenbridge Sport division, has been the lead consultant on the project, taking on a de facto property director role and reporting to the Rugby Football Union in order to bring it forward.
The Cambridge-based company has established itself as a major player in the niche of sports development under its chief executive, Ben Coles.
Wrenbridge Sport is run by director Richard Arnold, the former project director of the Olympic Delivery Authority, who was central to delivering many 2012 venues, including the velodrome.
Wrenbridge Sport’s work is split evenly between providing consultancy, as it has done at Twickenham, and taking on development management on projects. In instances where it is undertaking the development itself it will team up with a financial backer such as Legal & General, Grosvenor or a Palmer Capital fund that funds and forward purchases commercial or residential elements that adjoin the stadium. The sports division now makes up around a third of the Wrenbridge business.
While projects such as those for the RFU may have the glamour and the prestige, it is far more common, particularly for projects where Wrenbridge is taking on a development role, for its schemes to be a driver for regeneration, often coming to try to help fix a town or club that has been plagued with problems.
It has been involved in the redevelopment of stadiums for football clubs including Cambridge United, Scarborough Town, York City and Brentford.
Its latest project is the redevelopment of the former national stadium for Irish football, Dalymount Park in Dublin. Working for Dublin City Council, it is expected to submit a planning application at the end of the summer to renovate the crumbling stadium to create a new home for Bohemian FC and Shelbourne FC, as well as restore it so it could host Irish women’s football and rugby matches.
“It has so much history but it’s falling down,” says Arnold. “We need to work with the clubs and look at the public investment needed to keep it going. We are undertaking consultancy and feasibility work on what the options are. There is a desire to build a UEFA four-star stadium but we need to find a way to make it all come together.”
Wrenbridge Sport is most experienced in working with football clubs but is now looking at expanding its reach to rugby, horse racing and cricket.
“A lot of the opportunities we look at are for lower-league football clubs and minor clubs that have land and a stadium but zero money. There are so many stories where clubs have got it wrong, sold themselves short and not had a fall-back option,” says Coles.
“Brighton sold their ground and were homeless for 15 years. Scarborough went bust and had to move 15 miles down the road – and it took 10 years to get them back to the town. York have been trying to trying to deliver their ground for 15 years – and if it had been done quicker, they would still be playing in the Football League now.
“The top Premier League clubs will always have the capital to do what they want on their own but the smaller ones have to be enshrined in their communities and do what is needed to breathe life into those communities. They can’t be corrugated tin sheds that open up every fortnight; they have to become destinations that are used on non-match days.”
The historical model for small clubs to unlock the capital necessary to redevelop stadiums has been to work up plans for and prelet a supermarket by the ground and use the proceeds from a forward sale to undertake necessary work. However, this has become increasingly difficult and falls short of what is needed to meet an area’s true needs.
“Before we set up, the model was much simpler,” says Arnold. “You got planning for a supermarket, which got you £20m and you built the ground. Now it’s much more challenging. It can’t just be a sea of residential or just a Tesco. Supermarkets are not always taking those prelets and planning is much harder. You used to be able to have huge amounts of car parking, but now it is very strict with public transport and you need a complex concoction of things to bring a project together.”
In order to make expensive and difficult projects involving stadiums stack up, it is now often necessary for the public sector to contribute – but Wrenbridge argues that it is usually advantageous for the local council to do so.
“Every project now needs a concoction of different things and funding streams and that can mean the council writing a cheque or gifting land to the project,” Coles says. “The outcomes for the council can be huge, though, where you have a leisure centre, jobs and housing.”
The complexity of stadium development, the long period of time the work takes to carry out and its propensity to become a political football locally means that many developers shy away from such projects. This is to Wrenbridge’s advantage: the company says that because of its track record it is able to attract backing from investors that might otherwise be deterred.
“People are scared to death of stadiums as the design can go wrong and they don’t really understand it. We can say to someone like L&G that we will be able to build a stadium project; but if a normal developer came along they wouldn’t have the experience to get the facilities in right place – the corners, the orientation of the pitch, where the media need to be and the detail,” says Coles.
“They run away from it and as a result they over-price the risk. We know how to go about it and have a benchmark and offer a shopping list of what can be provided. Do you want a Chelsea, a Brentford or a York? Do you want to pay £3,000 per seat or do you want to pay £1,000 per seat?”
It may be an area that many developers would shy away from, but for Wrenbridge sports development has become a lucrative avenue, now making up a third of its business. And with many clubs often struggling to find the funds and expertise to undertake their projects, this niche sub-sector is one underpinned with plenty of demand.
Wrenbridge Sport’s fixtures
Led the project for the Rugby Football Union to develop 12,000 sq ft of hospitality at the home of rugby over six floors. The facilities will open for this year’s autumn internationals.
Dalymount Park, Dublin
Providing consultancy to redevelop the former home of Irish football into a modern 8,000-seater stadium for Bohemians and Shelbourne. Due to complete in 2022.
Abbey Stadium, Cambridge
Working with Cambridge United and landowner Grosvenor to redevelop an 8,000-seater stadium, 25,000 sq ft of retail and more than 500 houses.
Community Stadium, York
Partnered with Legal & General, which has forward purchased the £35m Vangarde project. This includes 50,000 sq ft of retail and leisure scheme to help develop a new 8,000-seater stadium.
Scarborough Leisure Village, Scarborough
Scarborough Borough Council appointed Wrenbridge as its development partner to build a new 2,000-seater stadium for Scarborough Athletic FC as well as for community use. The project also includes a new Lidl supermarket and a new education facility for Coventry University.
Author: David Hatcher
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