Now that it has finally been confirmed that Arena Island will not be the site for Bristol’s long-awaited arena, the door is open for the Brabazon Hangars in Filton to be transformed into the UK’s third largest arena.
With a capacity of 16,000, the future YTL Arena Bristol would be built within the existing structure on the edge of the former Filton Airfield. Currently separated from the runway by a railway line, that line could be brought back into use with a new station built almost directly in front of the cavernous building.
The middle hangar – large enough to house the O2 in London within it – will be where an arena could be built, with the two smaller (but still huge) hangars either side able to become “entertainment hubs” with bars, restaurants and possibly smaller stages for local acts.
On a recent visit to the ‘Brab’, as it is affectionately known by the people still working on the site, YTL’s arena project lead consultant Andrew Billingham gave Bristol24/7 a tour of the hangar with one of the largest continuous footprints in Europe, which now has the potential to be turned into a unique arena.
Billingham is the former chief executive of Bristol Sport, where he oversaw the bringing together of Bristol City, Bristol Rugby, Bristol Flyers and the £45m rebuild of Ashton Gate Stadium.
Unlike the planned arena in the city centre, sport could be a very large part of the YTL Arena, with Billingham saying that he has already been in very promising talks with some high profile governing bodies to host major international events.
Forty-two per cent of the shows at European arenas are not music and it is clear that high-profile sporting events are a major part of YTL’s plans, something that undoubtedly would have the support of Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, who is proud of the pro-sport stance of his administration.
E-sports are also an integral part of the plans for the arena, with the latest digital technology employed both inside and outside to put the crowds at the heart of the action.
In a first for a UK arena, there could also be a ‘tunnel club’. First unveiled by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium and planned to be a major part of the hospitality offer at Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium, the main selling point of a tunnel club is a glass-walled restaurant and bar area giving a behind-the-scenes view of the players’ tunnel to the pitch, which in the case of the YTL Arena could also offer a unique view of artists walking onto the stage.
“It was quite clear that this amazing building could be re-purposed should the Temple Island decision go the other way,” Billingham told Bristol24/7 within the former Filton Airfield departure lounge, rows of original seats still in place for passengers who will never fly.
Billingham was speaking before Rees had made up his mind, saying that “we have maintained that we are only an option subject to that public decision”.
Things can now, however, proceed at the Brabazon Hangars – subject to planning permission being granted by Bristol City Council.
YTL are already in talks with potential arena operators, with a blank canvas to fill inside the hangars whose dimensions are staggering: the centre floor is 13,500 sq m, the two adjacent hangars are 8,500 sq m, with each 100m-wide.
Other important things to happen include the upgrading of the current freight line passing in front of the building to a passenger service, a £5.2m investment between Bristol Parkway and Brabazon, and improved signalling.
A Temple Meads to Brabazon service could be built by National Rail – connecting to the arena through what will be known as Spitfire Square – and a new Metrobus route is funded but it’s currently unknown when this could be built.
For Billingham, the Brabazon Hangars “are an absolutely iconic part of Bristol” – with much of YTL’s plans for the new arena to give the “Bristol experience”, with Billingham naming the likes of Mark’s Bread and Thatchers cider to be sold around the site.
“This has to become something special, it really does,” adds Billingham. “It’s about making sure that this is brilliant for the next generation and beyond. For me, that’s the challenge: how can we reuse this building for the people of the South West to be proud of?
Billingham is asked what his dream opening act at the arena would be. “Coldplay,” he answers without skipping a beat, before adding: “I don’t know. For me, it’s really important that Bristol decides what they want to see in their city.”