Bidders for Dome 'more interested in the land'

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The Millennium Dome's future as a long-term London landmark now looks in doubt. Six private groups who are bidding to develop the site from the end of the year are paying lip service to the merits of the controversial structure, but it is clear that for most of the consortia, it is the surrounding land that really interests them.

The Millennium Dome's future as a long-term London landmark now looks in doubt. Six private groups who are bidding to develop the site from the end of the year are paying lip service to the merits of the controversial structure, but it is clear that for most of the consortia, it is the surrounding land that really interests them.

Last week a shortlist of the proposals by six private consortia, who are bidding to buy the site at the end of the year, was unveiled by Lord Falconer, the minister who oversees the New Millennium Experience Company running the Dome.

Close scrutiny of the six proposals show that four consortia are after an additional 120 acres of land, which given the Dome site's 999-year lease, and its proximity to Canary Wharf, makes it one of the hottest pieces of real estate in Britain.

When Mr Blair took the decision to back the project in 1997, he decreed that after its central role in the millennium celebrations it would be a permanent legacy to the nation. "It must remain in Greenwich forever and become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country," he said.

The proposed developers have tried hard to show they are "on-message" about the Dome's future but the strain is already telling. Proposals include a scheme to convert the Dome into a technology-based theme park and another to reinvent it as an indoor sporting arena. All are said to have met the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions' criteria of "reflecting the Dome's significance as a cultural centrepiece".

None of the bidders has been so bold as to suggest that the "white carbuncle" should be pulled down and make way for something profitable. They have phrased their plans in delicate, government-appeasing terms. Bidders variously promise to create "a sophisticated immersive multi-media experience", "an ideas centre" or "a virtual hub for a range of community and web-based activities" to add to or replace the troubled Dome Zones.

Significantly, all six of the contenders have proposed secondary plans to "complement" their creative concepts, mostly involving lucrative retail parks, hotels and conference centres.

Under the department's specifications, the winning bidder will be obliged to retain the Dome for a minimum of only 15 years while the leasehold for the site is 999 years. Estimates of the shelf-life of the building in its current form range from 25 to 50 years, raising the question of what will happen when its masts, fabrics and cables start to wear out.

Ray Smith, a spokesman for the Greenwich Society, a local interest group, said: "It is obvious that all the bidders see the value of the land and the development of the land around as potentially more profitable than the Dome itself."

The importance attached to the Dome varies widely among the contenders. Tony Danaher, a spokesman for the consortium that consists of Monex, the South African leisure developer, and MEPC, a UK property company, said: "This is a massively prominent site which is near major landmarks and well-served by public transport. In some respects, the structure is immaterial."

The group has grabbed headlines, claiming to rival Disneyland Paris with its plans to recast the Dome as a "City of the Future" boasting a dizzying array of rides and Europe's largest covered water park. But less well documented is its agreement with Whitbread, owner of the Marriott chain, to build "a number of major hotels" in the 120 acres surrounding the Dome site or its plans to construct a deep-water terminal for cruise ships, a convention centre and a retail and science park.

Derek Cheng, a spokesman for the International Merchandise and Cultural Centre consortium, said: "We think that the Dome is great. It's wonderful." But his team's proposal to turn the Dome into a "cybertainment centre" is also backed by a scheme to build a commercial, leisure, retail and hospitality complex on the 120 acres of land around the Dome.

Paul Dimoldenberg, a spokesman for the Greenwich Media World team, said his group considered the Dome and the land to be "equally important". And a spokesman for Chelsfield, the property company backing the Sports Dome 2001 project, said although the Dome would be the focal point of its development, the consortium had yet to decide what it would do when the structure begins to age. He said: "In 15 years' time, it will be pretty clear whether you can strengthen it up a bit or build another one or whatever."

The favourite to clinch the Dome deal is Nomura, the Japanese investment bank. Under its proposals, the group would retain the structure, including many of its current exhibits, and request merely 15 extra acres of associated land for additional development.

The shortlist is to be whittled down to two or three by April and the final winner will be announced in the summer.

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