Imagine a waterfront that lives up to the City of Sails

By Susan Edmunds

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Replacing Auckland's enormous, troubled port with parks and cafes? You may call me a dreamer, but I'm not the only one ... Susan Edmunds reports.

Auckland waterfront's long, spiky red fence, cutting off its residents from the workings of the port, is one of my earliest memories. I remember my father taking me to watch the port in operation at night - cranes loading containers into piles and people on forklifts buzzing around industriously.

It always seemed enormous, particularly the light towers that provided an other-worldly, orange glow and made being out at night feel extra special.

As I look through that same red fence this week, the port somewhat quieter because of the ongoing labour dispute, it seems not much has changed.

The lights are still there, as is the machinery and piles upon piles of containers.

But around me, the city has changed. And if some of its leaders get their way, the port will follow suit.

There was fury last month when it was revealed that the draft Auckland plan - a hefty document bringing together the plans of all the city's previous councils under the new Super City - included plans for the port to increase markedly in size and capacity, from 77ha to 95ha.

The area being eyed for expansion is 50 per cent bigger than the Auckland Domain and stretches into the harbour.

Outraged, some groups hit back by questioning whether there needs to be a port in downtown Auckland at all. Some suggest it be moved to the Firth of Thames on the eastern fringe of the city, as London has done with Thurrock, 45km east of the CBD.

Others say the Government should beef up the Port of Tauranga, where there is more space, or even move the shipping to Whangarei where there is a deep-water port ready to handle the bigger boats.

Instead of rows of imported cars parked behind barrier arms, and empty shipping containers stacked seven-high on the wharf, they envisage an open park area, not just on Captain Cook wharf - where there are already plans for a public area - but right along the space behind the spiky red fence.

They see a place where people can picnic, office workers can walk on their lunch breaks and inner-city dwellers can take their children. Instead of the gym-goers at Les Mills behind me running on treadmills and staring out at the port's cranes, they could be running next to the sea.

Alex Swney, chief executive of downtown business group Heart of the City, says it would be a big boost for tourism.

Auckland's unique selling point is its harbour but, for visitors without the time or resources to venture beyond the inner city, it's surprisingly hard to get to.

At present, international tourists stay in Auckland an average of two nights - the day they arrive and the day they leave.

Swney says increasing that to three would mean a boost of $1 billion a year for the city's economy.

It's obvious the harbour is a magnet for Aucklanders and tourists alike. "The Rugby World Cup was a real eye-opener," says Swney. "They all wanted to be down on the waterfront. If we've got a story to tell anywhere, it's down on the waterfront."

MARTYN EVANS, an urban designer and architect who was involved with the construction of the port city of Ashdod in Israel, says there's a real push by Aucklanders to get on to the waterfront and allowing it would turn the City of Sails into one of the most beautiful cities in the Southern Hemisphere.

"The new part of Wynyard Quarter has been opened up with public areas and a children's area and it has been packed ever since. It's like a pressure valve has been released. It should have happened ages ago."

He says, with the way the city is laid out, there's no choice but for the port to move. Hardly any major cities still have a port in their centres any more. "It's an industrial area right in the centre of the city. All industrial areas need to expand and there's no area except across the harbour."

Swney says moving the port could go at least some way towards paying for itself. The sale of the waterfront land - which could be worth up to $15,000 per sq m if it were zoned for a top-of-the-line hotel - would return a large sum.

And the $2 billion required for the port expansion, in infrastructure and dredging, would be saved if the operation was taken elsewhere.

Swney concedes the loss of an inner-city port would mean a loss to the Auckland Council in the dividends it currently gets, which, it could be argued, will put more strain on the rates coffers. The port currently hands over a dividend of 6 per cent and has been told to increase that to 12.

Maritime Union spokesman Garry Parsloe points out that, on top of that, the port creates manufacturing jobs and factories and helps the city grow.

"It's very important for the city's revenue," he says. "It returns many millions to Auckland every year."

There's also the issue of jobs. Parsloe says without the port there would be massive unemployment.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown has said a working port is critical to the health of Auckland economy.

Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson has said the port needs to grow to meet economic growth goals in the council's own plan, not be sidelined.

WANDERING ALONG the waterfront, I get the impression that a lot of the city's inhabitants would be happy to see the port go.

Jessica Perillo works near the port and says she would love to see the waterfront area opened up.

While the container ships offer an interesting view, she would like to be able to easily get down by the water, to sit and have her lunch in an open park space. "There would be more tourists down here if it was a park. It definitely would be a great idea."

A bit further along, Gillian Stobo is walking her dog, 2-year-old dalmatian Ella. "It would be fantastic if they would but pigs will fly first. I don't know if they can afford to."

She has always walked around the waterfront and has noticed that it has become a lot busier since development started to spread out, especially around Wynyard Quarter.

Connell Townsend, chief executive of the Property Council, says the new ASB head office in the area is likely to draw more businesses down, and encourage Aucklanders to want to eat, work and live on the waterfront.

Stobo and Ella are off to finish their walk - a loop that takes them over the bridge to the Viaduct and back home to St Mary's Bay - as I walk further along the wharf, past men in high-visibility vests, touting walkie-talkies, to where a couple of lonely fishing boats are moored next to the Viaduct Events Centre.

Graham Murray is watching as people are turned away for the lack of an access pass or ushered to the correct door.

He has been working on the wharf since the mid-1980s and says that in the past couple of years he has really started to feel unwelcome.

"What they want to do is get rid of the fishing industry. There has been fishing around the Viaduct for about 100 years and they just want them to go. But there has to be a commercial port and harbour somewhere. Until recently it's been great, but it's got painful."

Other workers around the area say the activity adds character and real-life grit. San Francisco, for instance, somehow manages to balance the industrial smell of machine oil with the desire of tourists to sit by a scenic harbour.

Parsloe says the ideal situation for Auckland would be a balanced mix, with industrial activity at one end of the port and recreational at the other.

Swney is at pains to point out he is not anti-port. "You can't be too critical of the port. They're required to produce a dividend.

"They have come up with the best plan for the port but that's not always the best plan for Auckland. But before we enshrine the plans for expansion, we should stop and review the options."

Listening to the clank of metal on metal from across the water and watching the machinations of the business hoping to hold on to its title as the country's port hub, I wonder what this part of Auckland will look like for my own children.

Will they be like one small girl I passed, dreamily running her hand along the red fence as I did when I was a girl? Or will they pester their parents for weekend visits to the parks and pool and beaches of a waterfront that lives up to the name, City of Sails?

- Herald on Sunday

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