Brian Rudman: Heavies down at Princes Wharf to be reined in

On Wednesday evening, Auckland politician Paul Walbran headed down to the fabulous public lookout at the foot of Princes Wharf with his wife, Bronwyn.

How better to begin a wedding anniversary night out than with a little romancing at the harbour's edge?

But sadly, the stairway to the public viewing deck last Wednesday at 7pm was locked and barred - even to the man who chairs the Auckland Regional Council strategy and planning committee and the region's waterfront political liaison group. This despite a May 19 ruling by Judge Laurie Newhook of the Environment Court that it stay open until 11.30pm.

Mr Walbran fantasised for a moment about cutting the lock off with a portable grinder - he reckons it would have taken 30 seconds. But sadly, he had not thought he would need such a tool on a quiet night out in the city's prime dining precinct.

Now he's determined that this on-going "colonisation of public space" by the Princes Wharf companies, PW Investments and PW Hotel, and the bad example it sets as the region plans the development of the rest of the waterfront, must end.

"If people like this can do it and get away with it, then what does it say for the rest of the area?"

Furious ARC chairman Mike Lee is equally determined, threatening "to go down there with bolt-cutters". On the legal front, he says, the council is going to issue an environmental infringement notice.

Given more than three years of defiance from these companies - part of David Henderson's Kitchener Group - I can't see the infringement notice making much of an impression. My vote is for the bolt-cutters - or perhaps a gas axe to remove the whole offending gate structures.

There's a certain irony in one of the reasons Mr Henderson's company puts forward for wanting to ban the public from the lookouts after dark. In a 2003 hearing, the company claimed they were being used for drug-taking.

Mr Lee was one of the three planning commissioners hearing the application and remembers the claim well. He asked for evidence and was told none would be presented.

Last month, we discovered that if the lookouts had been used for drug-taking, it wasn't the only place on Princes Wharf. In the Auckland District Court, Judge Simon Lockhart, QC, convicted Mr Henderson, a resident of a Princes Wharf penthouse, of attempting to buy a class-A drug, cocaine.

But moving quickly along, Mr Henderson's companies have long been trying to squirm out of the original 1998 resource consent provision for a 24-hour, first-floor public viewing platform at the end of both wharf buildings.

Complaints about restricted access began when steel gates were fitted to the stairways going up to each platform in early 2002. Then, just before the America's Cup regatta began at the end of that year, the Hilton Hotel, which opens out on to one of the decks, put tents, tables and chairs on the platform and cordoned it off for private functions.

In December 2003, PW Investments sought to change the conditions of its resource consent, trying to restrict public access to between 8am and 8pm in summer and 8am to 6pm in winter. It also sought to make the Hilton canopy permanent.

Three commissioners, ARC councillors Bill Burrill, Dianne Glenn and Mr Lee, rejected the application.

PW Investments appealed to the Environment Court and Judge Newhook decided in an interim ruling that the decks could be closed from 11.30pm to 6am for safety reasons.

That was in May. But PW Investments took little notice. In fact, in July the gates were closed round the clock. Hilton management was reported as saying police had ordered them permanently locked while the visiting Lions rugby team were in the country.

Mr Lee said it was "absolutely preposterous" that they be closed permanently, particularly when the Lions were playing in Wellington.

Yesterday, despite the court orders, two tiny and obscurely placed signs, headed "Princes Wharf - explore, dream, discover", erroneously declared summer closing time of 10pm and 6pm for winter.

Mr Lee plans to change those, and also to erect a large sign at the wharf gates inviting visitors to visit "one of Auckland's best-kept secrets" .

He's hoping Mr Henderson may like to do the honours, by way, shall we say, of community service.

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