David Wilson: Waterfront option overlooks Metro Project messages

By Guest Columnists

As the Auckland stadium and waterfront debate reaches its zenith in the countdown to "the final decision" tomorrow, let's remember why we are having this debate and who will benefit from any such development.

First and foremost, the beneficiaries should be Aucklanders. They will be the ones to benefit most - or suffer - from the legacy of a huge sports stadium on the waterfront.

As the New Zealand member of the Metro Project international review team I am fully aware of the imperative to move Auckland towards being an internationally competitive and world-class city. The alternative of playing second fiddle to other major cities in the Pacific region is not a path we should choose.

Somehow, however, in the urgency that has been sparked by the Metro Report some of the fundamental assumptions about why we should do certain things to promote the increased functionality and liveability of Auckland have been lost. Meaningful economic development is about providing opportunity for people.

One of the key messages from the Metro Project report, as highlighted by AUT University Chancellor Sir Paul Reeves at the launch in October, is that development is about people and communities.

I am concerned that some essential components of the Metro report have either been lost or put on the backburner. Those components, by and large, are the ones that primarily address the need to see any development in the light of what it can do for the people who choose to live and work in Auckland and New Zealand.

A multipurpose multifunctional stadium capable of seeing us right for the Rugby World Cup and other large events is one thing, the waterfront redevelopment connections to the CBD and the functionality and liveability of Auckland are others. A stadium on the waterfront must be seriously questioned in light of these other considerations. As the Metro report said:

"Waterfront developments have proved to have major economic benefits for many cities and the further development of the Auckland waterfront is strongly supported. However, a few words of caution.

* First, more attention must be paid to integrating the waterfront development with the city.

* Secondly, the waterfront mustn't be allowed to become divisive in that it is perceived to only be catering for high income residents and visitors. It can be a strong social integrator and provide employment opportunities for all levels.

* Thirdly, there appears to be very little commercial/retail activity within the waterfront development other than restaurants. Really successful waterfronts - Sydney, Cape Town, Baltimore - are characterised by a great deal of seven-day-a-week activity that comes from a balance and blend of cultural, sporting, residential and commercial activities as well as the fact that they are in themselves working harbours."

Those cautionary words resonate with me and I'm sure many others. So far I have not seen any sign that this development will deliver a better functioning CBD and waterfront, ongoing and long-term employment and business opportunities - beyond the actual stadium construction. There is no concrete evidence that this will actually deliver the intended economic return to the city. The world is littered with uneconomic monuments to sport.

The Waitemata Harbour is a national treasure that should be available to all residents and visitors to Auckland. The waterfront development should be a mixture of functionality, liveability and accessibility, and most importantly a symbol of inclusiveness.

Let's not lose this opportunity to do something truly special for Auckland and New Zealand by developing a waterfront that demonstrates the integration of people and place and that truly represents our distinctiveness - as a city, region and nation.

Building a citadel that sits between the residents and workers of the city and the harbour is not what we need. It will only be used sporadically, will require large areas of valuable real estate to cater for access and parking, is in serious danger of becoming a long-term cost rather than an asset, has the potential to benefit only certain sections of the community, and has little connection to our people and our place.

To quote from the Metro report again:

"Cities need to ensure that all of their public structures are 'special'. 'Special' does not mean that the structure has to be unbelievably expensive, which is so often the case with the modern iconic building or structure. 'Special' does mean that the city offers its citizens and visitors a range of excellent public structures and not just one, designed usually by an international architect at huge cost.

"That is not to say that the 'Bilbao Effect' has not been incredibly successful, for it has. But, for example, a city such as Melbourne has added generously to the liveability of its citizens by ensuring that its many public structures are excellent. In doing so it has also raised the level of private sector design resulting in a vibrant and cosmopolitan city.

"Auckland has the opportunity to build on its unique history and heritage and place in the world. Colonial history and architecture is readily apparent, along with modern and post-modern, however Maori and Polynesian cultures are what set Auckland apart from the rest of the world and are not as readily apparent in our buildings and artefacts and sense of place. This is a strategic competitive advantage for Auckland that should be capitalised upon in partnership with those communities."

I see little evidence of developing a uniquely Auckland approach to the opportunity that the Rugby World Cup 2011 presents. I see plenty of evidence that "we will build something", which unfortunately demonstrates a limited and outdated understanding of economic development.

In the words of Enrique Penalosa, president and founder of The Foundation for the Country We Wish and Want, and a former mayor of Bogota: "The least a democratic society should do is offer people wonderful public spaces. Public spaces are not a frivolity. They are just as important as hospitals and schools. They create a sense of belonging. This creates a different type of society. A society where people of all income levels meet in public space is a more integrated, socially healthier one."

Auckland has a unique opportunity to create a wonderful public space that will benefit our multicultural society and appeal to our international visitors. Let's make sure our policymakers get it right.

* David Wilson is deputy director of the Institute of Public Policy, AUT University, and member of the Metro Project international review team.

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