Property editor of the NZ Herald

City Rail Link: Mapping the impact of Auckland's big dig

City Rail Link could transform Auckland -- if planned projects are built

Billions of dollars worth of development is planned along Auckland's City Rail Link corridor, according to an eye-catching map.

It shows a string of 88 new blocks and towers that could arise above the rail corridor, stretching from the waterfront's Britomart area to Mt Eden. It all just proves the benefit of spending some $2.5 billion of public money, right?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let's take a closer look.

The map comes from Emerging Auckland, which is run by Brett Robertson as a way of tracking the city's development.

From Precinct Properties' 39-level Commercial Bay development at Quay St on the waterfront, to suburban apartment blocks like Mt Eden's The Citizen, the map details projects which, if they go ahead, would utterly transform the city.

Robertson created the huge map showing plans directly along the City Rail Link (CRL) route, but is the first to acknowledge that not every project can be directly attributed to the planned rail link - though he certainly believes it has an influence.

"I think they would have had these plans, regardless of whether CRL is built or not," says Robertson. "These have always been development sites. But CRL has been a catalyst or an opportunity."

A cynic might observe that Robertson would say that, given he is employed by Auckland Transport on CRL, as project office manager/project co-ordinator.

And though some of the projects on the map are well advanced, such as the refurbished Copthorne Hotel on the waterfront, and some are under way, others - such as the giant NDG tower between Albert and Elliott Streets - are still just empty sites.

But whether the projects are linked to the CRL, and even if not all of them go ahead, the map does illustrate the project's potential to change the city.

NZX-listed landlord Precinct is building the $681 million-plus Commercial Bay project and has expressed enthusiasm for CRL.

An executive at another NZX company, SkyCity Entertainment Group, is also a fan. The company is building the $700m NZ International Convention Centre (NZICC) near the planned Aotea Station, and Simon Jamieson, NZICC group general manager, has noted the benefit CRL will provide to SkyCity's plans.

Public transport and cycling advocate Patrick Reynolds says about $10b worth of work has been estimated as being planned above the CRL route.

But it's not just the CDB that will benefit, he says: suburban areas well away from the city centre will suddenly become more accessible.

"It's already having an impact on land values. I've been telling people to buy land around the western line."

Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton uses a past project to explain the project's scale. "CRL is the same dollar value as the Clyde dam, if you brought that project's dollars into today's values," he says.

Graphic / NZ Herald
Graphic / NZ Herald

Auckland Transport says CRL will allow the movement of about 30,000 people an hour in peak periods, delivering travel time benefits calculated at some $1.3 billion.

As for speculation about cost blow-outs, AT chairman Lester Levy says the business case was based on a 20 per cent cost range, "plus or minus. But things may change and as we work through that, we're working with Government to negotiate how the funding will actually finally be achieved, and the bottom line is both Government, the council and AT are working simply to get the best value for money as possible for ratepayers and taxpayers. We're not yet in the competitive tendering process."

Asked if CRL could cost more than $3 billion, he says: "That's not what we're thinking at all."

The Government had committed to funding half the cost of CRL, he says, but many issues remain, including who will own it. "We're working through that."

The sceptics remain vocal, particularly right-leaning Auckland councillors.

One of them, Cameron Brewer, is concerned that work on CRL has begun without the money to finish it.

These have always been development sites. But CRL has been a catalyst or an opportunity.

"I'm not necessarily against the City Rail Link," he says. "I certainly think it will be a transport benefit to Auckland. However I remain nervous as to the end cost and too much being loaded on to Auckland ratepayers present and future, while other worthy regional transport projects are forced to stay on the back burner.

"According to council's own long-term budget forecasts, an operational shortfall of over $100 million remains for each and every year and that's after collecting fares and rail subsidies."

He says city councillors still don't know the total cost of construction, who will cover any blow-outs, and how operational costs will be paid.

"Despite all these unknowns, construction has already begun, which is a big worry," says Brewer. "The Auditor-General has since given us her assurance that her office is over it and we now await to see the joint funding agreement that Government and council officials are now working on."

George Wood is another councillor worried about the council beginning building without knowing the final cost.

An artist's impression of the Auckland City Rail link from 'Karangahape Rd Station'.
An artist's impression of the Auckland City Rail link from 'Karangahape Rd Station'.

But as things stand, Auckland Transport is about to embark on a crucial next stage.

It has already bought 66 above-ground properties which it needed to secure the route. Given that New Zealand properties are owned right to the centre of the earth, it also needs to acquire subterranean properties.

It hasn't yet begun buying the underground sites, but those deals are due to start shortly, perhaps even in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, on Victoria St, a block above Queen St, the latest sign of the project is a new gantry that has just been built, surrounded by a large glassed-in building.

The structure is above a shaft being dug for stormwater work under Albert St, says a CRL spokeswoman, and will allow work to continue without noise disturbing the neighbourhood. "It'll be there for the rest of the year."

Much of Albert St is barricaded off, as is part of Queen Elizabeth Square on the waterfront, where Precinct is about to start demolishing the old Downtown shopping mall.

Despite the sceptics and the worries about funding, the giant task of creating two 3.4km tunnels as much as 42m below the city centre's streets is already under way.

For now, the questions remain: if they build it, will the funding -- and the associated development projects, and the passengers -- all come?

- NZ Herald

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