Mallard's loss may be people's gain

By Geoff Cumming

Aucklanders can have their waterfront and eat lunch on it too.

From the ashes of the waterfront stadium debacle a bigger prize is within reach.

Trevor Mallard's meddling should prove the catalyst for public access to the finger wharves near the bottom of Queen St: The town basin. The port company says it will vacate over time - but political leadership can speed up that process.

Ports of Auckland chief executive Geoff Vazey said some or all of the wharves could be freed for public use within 10 years through a combination of new technology, planned reclamation and efficiency gains.

That's a vast step forward from the vague pledges in Waterfront Vision 2040, the plan for waterfront redevelopment agreed by the port, city and regional councils.

"Change in the use of Captain Cook and Queens wharves is a medium to long-term consideration until port operations consolidate eastwards," says the plan.

The stadium spectre has vanished but the debate sent a clear message that Aucklanders value harbour access from the foot of Queen St much more highly than from the western reclamation, which agencies plan to redevelop over 25 years - before looking at the town basin.

Mr Vazey says the port company is listening and the stadium debate forced it to focus on how quickly it could vacate the finger wharves.

"I can foresee a time when they will no longer be needed. It could be 10 years out."

He acknowledges that political will, and unity, could reduce that timeframe even further.

Politicians, however, have refocused on the wrangling over control and use of the Tank Farm land.

The Auckland Regional Council - which owns the ports through its investment arm, Auckland Regional Holdings - needs to change tack, while getting the city council on board. Shippers, trucking firms and importers stress any changes must not impede operations, such is the port's importance to business and trade. But they agree there is scope for improvement.

The prescription for progress requires a sea-change in political thinking. The focus on the western reclamation needs to be broadened to the central wharves.

The ARC needs to go further and exert more influence on the port.

"It's pretty messy really," says regional councillor David Hay.

"Day-to-day governance is with Auckland Regional Holdings - we stay out of it." The ARC has treated the ports as a cash cow: the port company's objective is to maximise revenue and it expects to deliver $1 billion for much-needed public transport and stormwater improvements over the next 10 years.

Investments to speed-up consolidation of the port may mean accepting lower revenue for those projects for a time. Alternative funding could be sought.

The focus on revenue also pervades the port company's approach to surplus land - it seeks the maximum price, which has been a source of friction on the western reclamation. Says Mr Vazey of the finger wharves: "If we free-up space we would be looking to get its rezoned market value for that space."

Mr Hay and fellow regional councillor Joel Cayford have been arguing that the port company's land ownership and operational functions should be separated. Financial incentives could then be used to bring efficiency gains.

"The port doesn't have to pay to store a container or a car on the land," says Mr Cayford. "I think they should. The public hasn't been asked: do we want these pieces of land to generate revenue for public transport or freed-up for public purposes which don't generate revenue."

City Mayor Dick Hubbard and regional council chairman Mike Lee must bury their differences over the stadium proposal and funding for Eden Park.

Deadlines need to be set - and longer than two weeks.

It's unrealistic to expect the town basin to be fully redeveloped in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But what about Queens Wharf as an overflow venue for fans to watch the games on giant screens?

That suggestion came from waterfront stadium advocates talking up its potential to open up the waterfront. The legacy of Mr Mallard's meddling could yet be the people's waterfront.

EASTERN PROMISE

The port's options for consolidation include:

* Investment in rubber-tyred gantries - giant container movers - allowing containers to be stacked six-high on Ferguson Wharf.

* Car stackers to reduce the area needed for imported car storage and logistics changes to speed up their removal from the port.

* Further reclamation on Ferguson Wharf.

* Reclamation to extend Bledisloe Wharf.

* Development of the "inland port" storage facilities at Pikes Point and Wiri.

* Conventional shipping and car carriers transferred from Queens and Captain Cook wharves to Jellicoe and Freyberg.

* Efficiency gains through new technology such as computerised booking and electronic dispatch systems.

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