The greening of Queen St

By Geoff Cumming

Heartland Ellerslie, with its resurgent town centre, is the latest suburb threatened by Auckland town planners' relentless drive to squeeze in more people.

A model doing the consultation rounds shows multi-level apartment blocks springing up on commercial land handy to the railway line and motorway.

But the preliminary model is not the brainchild of Auckland City's "arrogant" planners bent on bringing intensive housing to bungalow and villa neighbourhoods. It was designed by residents and local businesspeople.

Ellerslie is the latest traditional centre facing radical change, following Panmure, Glen Innes, Newmarket and Avondale. But after an initial residents' revolt against intensification in Panmure, it seems the council has learned a bit about consultation and the need to involve "stakeholders" at an early stage.

Not that any reader of the Herald would think so. The hot summer topic for Aucklanders has been the move to replace 20 exotic trees in Queen St with natives.

It's not just the trees or the "political correctness" backlash that's upsetting people, it's the arrogance of planners with their grand designs, who undertake sham consultation and ignore feedback or don't bother to consult at all.

The tree replacement is part of a grander plan to turn the CBD into a "world class, 24-hour city". But the "chainsaw massacre" is just the latest PR disaster - following the Vulcan Lane pavers and the suffrage mural in Khartoum Place - to threaten the designers' baby.

In July, after fashion retailers went public over council plans to replace red pavers with a bluestone variety and put in tui-feeders, the Herald was flooded with letters. An editorial seemed to sum up the response: "Large numbers of our correspondents consider the Vulcan Lane alterations were being sprung on them unannounced by a group of anonymous backroom boys with an agenda to which the public has never subscribed."

But the emotional tug of red pavers pales beside the previously undetected love for Queen St's deciduous liquidambars.

Says the Herald's December 28 editorial: "The city council feigns consultation ... but appears to force predetermined change upon the huddled retailers, commuters and ratepayers ... The council has consistently failed to bring the central city community aboard."

Readers' letters about the trees accuse the council of not consulting, or not listening. For Aucklanders, the accusations are all too familiar.

Whether it's the eastern corridor, approval for office towers without public input, or apartment blocks laying siege to character neighbourhoods, many residents feel their voices are not heard.

The reality is more complicated - and at least part of the problem lies in public and media inattention to the tortuous processes of local bodies.

The problem with consultation, says local government expert Graham Bush, is that it means different things to different people. "For a lot of people, it means compliance by the council with their wishes. And if the council doesn't heed their advice, they label it as sham consultation.

"Consultation means the council hearing what they say," says Bush, an honorary research fellow at Auckland University's political studies department. "Activists on specific issues often mistake hear for heed.

"There's a huge gulf in many people's minds about what consultation is and what the law says it is."

The veteran local body observer says there are more opportunities than ever for consultation, with the 2002 Local Government Act requiring special consultative processes for major works.

But apathy is a constant. "A lot of the people who've jumped up and down about trees would be totally indifferent to a lot of things the council does. Something grabs them and they get converted from apathetic into activist or obsessed.

"The issue goes one way or the other and they loop back to being uninterested."

He finds the furore over the trees fascinating and bizarre. "There are a lot more important issues surrounding rejuvenation of the CBD than what kind of trees to have on Queen St.

"Redevelopment of the tank farm and access to the harbour edge - almost no one seems concerned about that.

"There was a lot of consultation on the Queen St upgrade but people forgot about it. Then, when the council made a decision and notified them they said, 'It's not what we wanted'.

"Many never made submissions in the first place. It's an almost insoluble problem."

The problem has certainly dogged local body efforts to implement the regional growth strategy, which calls for 70 per cent of population growth to be housed in established suburbs.

Penny Pirrit, the council's manager of environmental planning, says it is hard to get community input when projects are in their infancy and plans are vague. "You get these mother-pie statements like, 'Do you want to retain the Waitakeres for open space?' And people agree.

"It's only when we get down to zoning changes that people realise 'it's going to happen in my backyard'."

Pirrit says the council has strengthened its consultation, using community networks to reach minority groups and encouraging early participation in planning.

But consultation can still be hit-and-miss. In Ellerslie, so few residents turned up to a weekend design workshop in November that the exercise is being repeated.

Pirrit says: "There are those in the community who say: 'We pay rates so elected people and officers will make decisions'."

Professor John Hunt, of Auckland University's school of architecture and a member of the city's urban design panel, says Auckland City consults very conscientiously.

"You get to the point where you simply cannot meet the expectations of everyone. What's happened, in my view, particularly in regard to Vulcan Lane, is that a small group of people have held Auckland City to ransom and by doing that they are undermining the whole CBD streetscape upgrade. "Vulcan Lane is going to look like the bit that got missed when the streetscape upgrade is done."

Although the council acknowledges mistakes over Vulcan Lane, it's an urban myth that the public was not given a say on the Queen St trees, or that feedback was ignored.

The original concept plan, made available for public input in April 2004, was publicised in press releases, the council's weekly City Scene newsletter, and posted on its website.

In addition to seeking public feedback, the council formed a streetscapes reference group, met "stakeholders", including business groups and Ngati Whatua, held a workshop, set up displays in the Central Library, Britomart and civic building, obtained input from its urban design panel, posted brochures to ratepayers and interviewed 179 pedestrians.

Consultation produced 227 responses. The main concerns were from Queen St retailers and property owners worried about service-vehicle access and the loss of parking spaces.

Admittedly, the concept plan was vague, promising "more trees and landscaping". But in October 2004 the council publicised changes in response to the consultation which included "planting native trees along the street".

A newsletter on progress noted: "The species chosen are likely to be native and to allude to the lush green gully that once was Queen St."

In March last year, revised plans made available for a month's final consultation promised "more natives on the valley floor between Aotea Square and the original foreshore, and no trees on the reclaimed land in the lower section [below Fort St]".

The Herald's coverage included a graphic stating: "Nikaus planted from Wellesley St to Fort St. Trees removed below Fort St." It also directed readers how to make a submission to the council.

Columnist Brian Rudman covered the issue at the beginning and end of the final consultation period. His first column mentioned transforming the golden mile with bluestone paving and 80 mature nikau palms.

The second column, published on April 6 after submissions had closed, quoted the final report: "Because of the desire to better reflect Auckland's place in the world, it is proposed to change the exotic trees within Queen St from liquid amber [sic] to suitable native trees."

The column queried the wisdom of planting natives in favour of exotics, noting that neither the cabbage tree nor the nikau could provide the shade nor shelter of a working-street tree.

In October, Rudman had another dig at the native-tree concept. But it was only after the council, a week before Christmas, announced a January 4 start to work on the Queen St upgrade that dissent took root and flourished.

On December 19, in a wide-ranging piece about the upgrade, Rudman could not resist "another bleat about the planned destruction of the thriving foreign trees ... in favour of nikau palms and cabbage trees".

The first letters to the editor were published three days later. The next day it was front page news, with Lesley Max accusing the council of mass vandalism.

Letters flew like autumn leaves and the Herald weighed in with an editorial about culling the trees at the quietest time of the year and the "non-accountability of the autocracy ... Surely the council will not wade further into this controversy without insisting that its thinking be publicly tested.

"No tree, however sick, should fall before hearings are held and true accountability is restored."

Where, exactly, did the council go wrong?

Max, whose Save Auckland Trees protest group plans a court challenge to the consultative process, says consultation was lacking, although "it's very hard to reconstruct precisely how it was lacking".

When she first "discovered" the CBD plans on the council's website on December 23, Max was unable to find reference to the removal of the trees.

She was "not in the slightest aware" of the earlier consultation, despite her role on the Safer Auckland executive and "acute antennae" for decisions affecting trees.

"It's hard to escape the conclusion that they knew this would create opposition and wanted to achieve it at the height of the holiday season to keep things as quiet as possible.

"The original plan did not provide for their removal. There's a pattern of stealth."

On the 13th floor of the council administration building, chief executive David Rankin and CBD project leader Jo Wiggins are coming to terms with the belated public reaction.

"We certainly feel we gave adequate opportunity for people to give input - it's not like this has been rushed," says Rankin.

But he concedes mistakes were made. "[With the wider CBD upgrade], we underestimated the degree to which people didn't want change in certain physical attributes. With Vulcan Lane, people wanted to keep the same look and feel.

"In Khartoum Place there was a very strong view about not changing the suffrage tiles. In Queen St it's the trees."

Public opposition to removing the trees was highlighted by officials as a risk to the project starting on time. But because it was attracting little interest the risk was dismissed.

"We try to pick issues people care about [to consult on]," says Rankin. "It's not in our interest to hide stuff and have it blow up later.

"But with the submissions on Queen St, there really wasn't much [feedback] about trees."

Mayor Dick Hubbard, on a bush-walking holiday this week, says consultation, like market research, is not always an accurate gauge of public opinion. "The Queen St trees didn't register with a lot of people who saw what was proposed. But when they read 'chainsaw massacre' in the paper, it's picked up and they want to be involved.

"It's arguable that we should have gone to more formal consultation on the trees but the reading of politicians and officers, based on the feedback we had, was that we didn't have to go down that path. Clearly, that was not correct."

For the council, the big concern is that a rethink over the trees could delay progress and compromise the overall design.

Hubbard brands himself a prag-matist and there's every chance that on Tuesday the council will cut its losses over the trees to preserve the bigger picture.

And all the letterwriters will claim victory - then go back to sleep.

How different it might have been if more people had taken notice when the council unveiled the plans for comment in April 2004, or in October, or last March.

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