Sports

Why Liverpool Let Its Neighborhood Go To Hell

Liverpool is one of the richest sports teams in the world, but to make themselves even richer, the team set loose urban decay on their neighbors.

by Aaron Gordon
Oct 1 2014, 12:02pm

Image by Alex France via Wikimedia Commons

There's a set playbook sports teams follow when they want a new stadium. The team announces its intentions, commissions a few architectural designs, and pays for an economic impact study touting the (mostly fictional) benefits a new stadium would have on the community. Few teams have taken the Nixonian approach of poisoning their own community to make those benefits more apparent.

As of last year, Liverpool F.C. owned 150 homes around their historic stadium, Anfield. Almost all of them were vacant. "There are thieves ripping the lead off people's roofs," Chris Coyle, whose mother lived among the vacants, told the Liverpool Echo at the time. This was just the tip of the iceberg: the Guardian reported that over the past decade, miscreants lit some of the blighted houses on fire, threw bricks at the few remaining residents, and in 2001 a woman using one of the vacant homes was murdered. In what one resident called "dereliction by design," Liverpool was accused of buying properties just to let them rot, driving prices down and residents out so they could more cheaply expand Anfield.

Read More: English Soccer Has a Gambling Problem

According to the Guardian, Liverpool bought their first property on Lothair Road—a block adjacent to Anfield—in 1996. The club would go on to purchase dozens of other houses along Lothair and Anfield Roads, ultimately expanding to Hartnup Street, Donaldson Street, Granton Road, Salisbury Road, and St Domingo Vale, according to the Echo.As the neighborhoods deteriorated—even by post-Thatcher Liverpool standards—many residents became more willing to sell their land, ultimately giving Liverpool more leverage to buy them up cheaply through third-party subsidiaries.

America has a wide-ranging eminent domain law that allows the government to seize private property for "market value," and then sell it off to businesses under the pretense of economic development. Eminent domain is occasionally used in stadium development cases. One of the most controversial uses of eminent domain for a sports stadium was for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a nine year legal melee that ultimately saw thousands of people displaced, either directly or indirectly, by the arena.

But the UK's equivalent, compulsory purchase orders, is much more narrow, so developers often have to acquire the property themselves under normal market forces. This can be extremely expensive for buyers, especially if the locals get wind of a rich company's plan, so the buyer might look for other ways to facilitate transactions. This leads to even worse outcomes than the government just taking the land to begin with, such as in Anfield, where entire neighborhoods are laid to waste in the name of complicated, expensive projects getting sorted out.

Blighted homes on Lothair Street adjacent to Anfield. Photo by Alan Murray-Rust via geograph.org.uk

While the houses decayed, Liverpool spent the intermittent decade throwing themselves at a new stadium and missing in spectacular fashion. After little movement on the first plan in 2000, Liverpool announced a new plan in 2003 to build in Stanley Park, which lies adjacent to Anfield. The plan estimated the first match would be played in 2006. (That didn't happen.) By February 2007, not a single spade had been driven into the ground, leading new owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to announce that construction would begin in 60 days. (That didn't happen.) Hicks' motivations were fairly opaque, having already sauntered down this same road with Brazilian club Corinthians in the early 2000s, promising them a new stadium. (That didn't happen.)

By July, with the ground still untouched, Liverpool released a new plan for a Stanley Park stadium that would be ready for the 2010 season at a cost of £300 million. (That didn't happen.) In October, cost estimates rose to £400 million as Hicks blamed China for hogging all steel supplies. In January 2008, Liverpool released yet another, more cost-effective design, ready for the 2012/13 season. (That didn't happen.) With further delays, Hicks displayed classic Texan braggadocio by declaring "we're going to build that sucker." (That didn't happen.) In December of 2009, a Liverpool official told the City Council the plan was to start construction by April of the following year. (Take a guess.)

Fed up with the process and buried in debt, Hicks and Gillett put the team up for sale, ironically the same month construction was supposed to begin. John Henry and the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought the club in October of 2010, taking an untested approach and declaring they would think about stadium plans before throwing out dates and promises.

Two years after purchasing the club, FSG announced plans to stay at Anfield after all, renovating the existing property rather than building a new one. This hardly came as a surprise given Henry's comments about the difficulties of privately funding a sports stadium and his successful renovation of Fenway Park, which FSG also owns. Soon after, the Liverpool City Council announced plans to demolish blocks of homes owned by Liverpool, which had been left to rot over the years. This summer, Lothair Road, the site of the first house Liverpool purchased in 1996, was razed and last week the Liverpool City Council approved the team's plans to renovate Anfield.

It would be far too generous to credit Liverpool with carrying out a nefarious, coordinated plot across three ownership groups when it demonstrated so much incompetence on and off the field. Rather, it seems like the renovations are happening despite the efforts of the prior owners, not because of them. Nevertheless, whether it was incompetence or conspiracy makes little difference to the Liverpudlians who saw their buildings crumble under the ownership of a billion-dollar business.

There's no question Liverpool could have handled this situation better, either by fairly compensating the residents—reports consistently indicated Liverpool would try to underpay the largely senior citizen occupants for their homes—or by keeping the neighborhood functional in the interim. But, perhaps most insultingly of all, the club was deceitful, using third-party brokers to mask the club's motives. As a Lothair Road resident told the Guardian last year, "If Liverpool had been honest from the beginning, said they wanted our houses to expand their ground, we're realistic, we know they're a huge football club, most of us support them, deals could have been done. Instead they were underhand, blighted the area and we've had to live like this for years." Whether Liverpool's neighbors would have been reasonable at the onset is up for debate, but ultimately beside the point since the club never bothered to find out.

One of the main reasons Liverpool needs to expand the stadium is to keep revenues in line with soccer's global powerhouses. Arsenal, for example, has made boatloads of money off its new stadium in North London. But this global presence and ambition comes with a price, often to the people closest to the club. As much as Liverpool—and every sports team, really—wants to market itself as a tight-knit community of die-hards, the reality is the club is governed by a global perspective, often at the expense of their closest fans. After almost two decades of neglecting its neighbors, Liverpool may finally be ready to repair their own home.