When casting around for a model for Auckland's waterfront development, the authorities would do well to consider the transformation of the harbourside of Papeete, the capital town of Tahiti.
Like Auckland, the capital of French Polynesia is a working South Pacific port, but that's about as far as the resemblance goes. Over the past decade the waterfront of central Papeete has been turned into a melange of paved walkway, tropical gardens, boat moorings, a cruise ship dock, craft stalls, cafes, restaurants, art and cultural performance centres and a Visitor Bureau.
Papeete's main waterfront vehicle thoroughfare, Boulevard Pomare, is the equivalent of Auckland's Quay Street in that it separates the harbour from downtown Papeete's shops. Traffic on the boulevard is also dense. However, alongside Boulevard Pomare, from Place To'a Ta at one end to Place Vaiete and the Moorea ferry terminal at the other, comprises a delightful, 3km harbourside promenade. It's easy to disregard the boulevard traffic because the views of the adjacent harbour and its waterborne activities - yachts, outrigger canoe teams, ferries and cruise ships - are a constant source of interest.
By day the restaurants at the Place To'a Ta are busy as the locals enjoy their protracted, French-style, alfresco midday meals. But it's at night at the other end of the waterfront, at Place Vaiete, a broad paved and planted area, that the harbourside bursts into life. Here, from early evening onwards, Papeete's dozens of family-run roulottes trundle down on to the waterfront and open up for business.
A roulotte is a small caravan with flaps which are raised on both sides. Inside the van are cooking facilities which enable their proprietors to produce fast meals: steaks, seafood, pizzas, curries. Because Papeete society consists of a conflation of three races - Polynesian, French and Chinese - the cuisine reflects this blend. The waterfront meals are reasonably priced, averaging $20 for a main, and are eaten at tables placed around the roulottes. Alcohol is not served, and therefore cannot be abused. The delicious smells of roulotte cuisine pervade the waterfront as Tahitian, French and Chinese people dine en famille, while cruise ship passengers and other visitors, stroll across Place Vaiete, and bands entertain with Polynesian music.
Could this happen on Auckland's waterfront? It's already occurring in the Wynyard Quarter.
What now needs to be done is transform the wharves adjacent to the Ferry Building, from parking lots for car imports to dining and entertainment precincts. There's ample room on Queens Wharf for roulotte-style dining and outdoor entertainment. Auckland is a working port and always should be, but there's no reason why its shipping functions can't co-exist with leisure and dining activities as Papeete shows.
Perhaps Bob Harvey and the other visionaries who are looking at further possibilities for Auckland's waterfront development should get on a plane, fly to Tahiti and spend a few days on Papeete's waterfront. That would give them food for thought.
Graeme Lay is an Auckland writer, the author of several books on the South Pacific.