The wide Waitemata is essential to Auckland's beauty. The expanse of water between the port and the North Shore is wide enough to be enchanting but not so wide that its visual appeal could not be easily ruined. A careless wharf extension could destroy it.
The port enlargement plan highlighted by the Herald today has been lurking just below the public consciousness for too long. Its implications for Auckland's scenic qualities are too serious for it to proceed without proper public scrutiny. Yet that is what seems to be happening as the Auckland Council puts through its 30-year plan for the city.
Patient readers - and the long bromides that planners write require extreme patience - will find references in the draft plans to the port's need of further operation space, and some vague charts of the container wharves, but nothing that specifies precisely what the visual impact would be. For an idea of that impact the Queen St business association, Heart of the City, had to commission the digital representations we publish today.
Their drawings suggest the enlarged Bledisloe and Fergusson Wharves would be about twice as long as Queens Wharf, extending about halfway to Devonport. The harm that this would do the vista from the city to the harbour entrance can be easily imagined. But the pictures do not show the view looking into the harbour, the one that greets sailors, Gulf ferries and cruise ships as they come into the Waitemata.
At present they see a pleasantly wide and welcoming waterway between North Head and Mechanics Bay and the big container base lies well away. If these plans come to fruition, the channel will be narrowed and today's grand harbour entrance could be reduced to a passage past a working port.
The port undoubtedly needs more space if it is to replace what it has given up for public use in recent years, and to retain its primacy among New Zealand's ports when container ships of even greater capacity come into service. The Auckland Council's draft plans declare an unequivocal commitment to the port and its place in the city's economy.
Indeed, the deep water of the Waitemata was the reason Auckland was founded, though it should be noted that the Waitemata was even wider then. All the flat land of downtown Auckland was once harbour. Fort St was the beach of Commercial Bay. Reclamations have provided the city with land occupied today by Britomart Station, Vector Arena and its surrounding developments, the Viaduct and now the Wynyard Quarter. Port development has left the city with some splendid real estate.
At each stage there were probably warnings that too much of the Waitemata was being lost, but that does not discredit the concern. At some point so much could be lost that the harbour is not much more than a port.
If Auckland wants to be a hub for container cargo delivered by the next generation of mega-carriers, it might need wharves and cranes on a scale to dwarf those on its waterfront at present.
But Aucklanders are divided. Many would prefer to see the hub somewhere else, and fewer trucks in their streets. Their council has responsibilities to its city that are wider than those it owes to the asset it happens to own. The mayor must ensure the public is aware of what may happen to the harbour and its scenic value.
As things are proceeding in the Auckland Plan, it looks all too likely the port enlargement will be able to satisfy consultation requirements by stealth.
Submissions on the draft plan have closed with citizens largely unaware of the port extensions envisaged. An open discussion is vital if Aucklanders are not to discover one day that the harbour has been severely reduced and the city has lost a charm.