Greg McKeown: Time to rewrite Auckland's waterfront narrative

It's time to look far ahead for the waterfront, writes Greg McKeown. Photo / Brett Phibbs
It's time to look far ahead for the waterfront, writes Greg McKeown. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In a March meeting this year our city councillors grabbed the pen and scribbled a few important paragraphs into the Auckland Plan about the Hauraki Gulf, the Waitemata Harbour and our port.

"Auckland Council ... will lead a study of port development options for Auckland which will take a long-term (30-100 year) view."

I love that. A 100-year view. For once we will look beyond our own lifetimes.

"The study ... may confirm the status quo, identify different configuration alternatives at the current port locations, or identify as yet unexplored alternative locations for port infrastructure."

Brilliant. A breath of fresh air. The Council will at least look at alternative port locations.

"The Plan acknowledges the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf as Auckland-defining assets it seeks to protect and enhance, and it expects the study of long-term options for the port to take this, and other stated outcomes, into account."

Exactly. Port reclamations, bigger cranes, containers stacked twice as high, and long container freight trains passing every half hour through Glen Innes, Panmure and South Auckland communities all conflict with harbour and compact liveable city aspirations expressed in the Plan.

Politicians often get knocked around in the press, or are knocking themselves about, so on this occasion let's acknowledge their work. For too long the port company has advised Council that its massive reclamation option was the only viable one for Auckland. It is not.

Heart of the City has repeatedly made the case that a smaller reclamation would be better, and no reclamations would be better still.

There's two other options right there. And we've also asked the obvious question, if the road, rail and reclamation costs of expanding the current port amount to $2 billion, then is there a better way of spending $2 billion elsewhere?

Hopefully the consultants employed to do the ports study and council staff working on the Unitary Plan will take into account all port development options for Auckland, and not fall back to just the status quo. Auckland cannot afford to be straightjacketed into the current port solution. The councillors who set up the review need to make sure that their aspirations aren't ground back to that.

In our view there are viable port development options which will allow, as a minimum, the cohesive redevelopment of the three finger wharves - Queens, Captain Cook and Marsden - and the western berth and part of Bledisloe. The latter could be used for cruise ships and other port activities, and the three finger wharves could be developed, once and for all, along with the boulevarding of Quay St.

There need not be huge delays or further compromise here. The time is well up for importing and storing second hand cars bang in the middle of our city centre waterfront.

As for what might happen further to the east, in the container port areas, we're happy to wait for the phase one report. That report should at least identify a range of port alternatives for the Auckland region, and among those there will be several alternatives that require reasonably comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. Tauranga has growth capacity and we suspect that the tide is turning on plans to reclaim more of the Waitemata and industrialise our waterfront.

How much can be changed will depend on projections of the future freight task, careful analysis of the costs of developing new port infrastructure, the economic and broader benefits of alternative uses of port land, and the resolve of elected representatives to continue to test the assumptions of those who advise them.

In 1915 Theodore Roosevelt said "keep your waterfront and develop it so that it may add to the beauty of your city. Do not let a number of private individuals make it hideous ... and then force your children to pay an exorbitant sum to get rid of the ugliness they have created". And our Mayor concluded the March meeting by saying "our narrative and will has changed, we need to start listening to our community, not just our port".

So let's imagine ourselves standing on Mt Victoria sometime in the future and looking at the harbour and city centre. What will make us feel proud?

Pity the souls whose first priority is having made a better dividend out of an expanded port. Shoot them please. Great harbour cities have great city centre waterfronts.

Let's learn from some of the best examples ... start by googling "great waterfronts of the world". Then grab the best ideas from Aucklanders and start writing the new waterfront narrative the Mayor is talking about.

* Greg McKeown writes for Heart of the City.

- NZ Herald

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