Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Private interests jostling for slice of city

The Ferry Precinct development proposal. Many say a master plan is critical for the area's future.
The Ferry Precinct development proposal. Many say a master plan is critical for the area's future.

Is Auckland for sale? The question arises following a mystery development bid on Queens Wharf and a private plan for Queen Elizabeth Square.

Not far away, at Eden Park, the board have raised the possibility of development of the No 2 ground, which strictly speaking is not public land, but certainly a part of the public realm in Auckland.

All this at a time when Auckland is experiencing fast population growth and the waterfront is being reclaimed for recreational use.

Sources spoken to by the Weekend Herald say privatisation of public space stems from the Auckland Town Hall, where Mayor Len Brown is scratching round for new revenue sources to pay for the city rail link he desperately wants to start building in 2016.

Brown, who refused to be interviewed on the subject, on Thursday found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with right-wing enemy Cameron Brewer pushing through a decision in principle to privatise Queen Elizabeth Square for a giant mall and commercial tower.

Bearing down on Brown is the need to fund his pet rail project after three years of soaring debt and low rates that have left the city's finances in a precarious state and little choice but to slash spending in next year's long-term budget review.

It was no surprise when Sir Noel Robinson, a long-time supporter of Brown who donated $20,000 to his election campaign last year, popped up as the frontman for a company registered in the Cayman Islands seeking permission to build two large commercial buildings on Queens Wharf in exchange for upgrading the downtown ferry terminal.

Robinson, a likeable businessman well versed in council processes, has refused to say who the "very wealthy individuals" are behind the $55 million wharf development, except they are Australian.

Like all good salesmen he produced a glossy artist's impression, prepared by Jasmax architect Tim Hooson, outlining what he claims are the opportunities to improve the ferry terminal and public access to the wharf, underwritten as a commercial development by the mysterious Ferry Project Group. Other images showing the scale of the project have been leaked to the Weekend Herald.

The project would involve the removal of the Cloud and construction of two buildings, each with three storeys, stretching halfway up the 350m wharf. There would be public space at ground level and two storeys of commercial space and carparks above.

Robinson, who does not have a financial interest in the project, said the investors were saying: "Here's an idea. We have got the cash to do it. It is not going to cost the ratepayers any money."

While the Queens Wharf bid is mired in secrecy, Precinct Properties has been more open about a deal with the council to buy 2000sq m of civic space outside the Downtown Shopping Centre where a grove of kauri and a basalt fire rock occupy the shaded and windswept Queen Elizabeth Square.

The square has divided councillors. One, Ross Clow, described it as a "dead-end public space". Brewer justifies the deal as "selling some old family silver and buying some new, better family silver" through the promise of restoring public access through the downtown site and improving public spaces nearby.

Other councillors are wary about privatisation of public spaces, particularly in the absence of robust planning and lack of information about the wider context.

Councillor Mike Lee, who as chairman of the former regional council was instrumental in buying Queens Wharf in 2009 to become the "people's wharf", says foreign companies are eyeing public open space as easy pickings, unaware or insensitive to Aucklanders' feelings about the waterfront.

Precinct's management is jointly owned by Australia's AMP Capital and Middle Eastern interests in Abu Dhabi, which also own 19 per cent of the company's shares.

Precinct owns several buildings at the foot of Queen St, including the Downtown Shopping Centre, HSBC Tower at 1 Queen St and Zurich House. The square would complete a 4.6ha landholding for the property company.

Lee is open-minded on Queen Elizabeth Square if it can improve public amenity, but adamant Queens Wharf is not for sale.

The veteran Lee and first-term North Shore councillor Chris Darby, a growing force and independent thinker challenging the status quo, are deeply concerned at what is occurring and what Lee calls "CCO (council-controlled organisation) barons jockeying for power on the waterfront".

Several sources point the finger at Auckland Transport and the Central City Integration Group (CCIG), a new bureaucracy co-ordinating and focusing activities on the waterfront and downtown Auckland. The CCIG is headed by Auckland Transport project manager Rick Walden, who provided no wider context to councillors before voting to sell Queen Elizabeth Square.

Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton says any suggestion they are muscling in on Waterfront Auckland is nonsense.

He says Auckland Transport has seen the Ferry Project Group proposal for Queens Wharf but has no particular position on it and is willing to look at a range of options that combine public space, transport and cruise ship requirements of the wharf.

Darby says too often Auckland finds itself responding to commercial proposals for public land in the absence of necessary master planning.

"Queens Wharf, the ferry basin, Queen Elizabeth Square, Quay St, Customs St and the reconfiguration of buses in the vicinity are all intimately connected. Treating them as distinct parts poses great risk to the unfolding of what could be a remarkable lower city centre and central waterfront...[it's] time we stopped filling up space and looked long."

There is talk of a "downtown Auckland view" coming to council from the CCIG and Walden is adamant the group, comprising the chief executives of CCOs, is working towards consensus and a consistent approach.

After Thursday's vote and having sat in the sun that morning on the southern edge of Queen Elizabeth Square and enjoyed a coffee at a recently opened cafe, Darby wrote on social media: "A grand square at the bottom of the valley buddied to Aotea Square at the top is something we should explore before succumbing to commercial colonisation. Mature cities covet their city squares. There's nothing quite like the massing of people, markets, performance or protest occurring within the anchor of a vast square."

Waterfront Auckland chief executive John Dalzell is toeing the "council family" line as a member of the CCIG, but says it does not take a rocket scientist to work out where the development agency sits in relation to the waterfront and public open space.

He places his faith in 10 years of master planning, principles and experience in creating a mix of sustainable public and commercial developments at Wynyard Quarter, one of the city's big success stories, and extending that across the wider waterfront. At Wynyard Quarter that has meant a robust process for a $200 million hotel on the site of the old Team New Zealand base, an innovation centre and the first residential development.

The Waterfront Auckland board has developed a "planned discussion with the community" on Queens Wharf, but that document has been diverted to the CCIG and had the Ferry Project Group proposal added to the mix.

Dalzell is restricted in what he can say, but board chairman Sir Bob Harvey dwelled on the Circular Quay experience in Sydney in a recent chairman's report, saying it became a battle ground between major Australian corporations trying to dominate the gateway to the city.

"It was the most contentious issue in Sydney's planning. It was a blight on the design landscape.

"The lesson from the Australian waterfront is do not build walls of glass buildings. Right now the Auckland waterfront has a sense of scale, history and good design. Queens Wharf has an opportunity to survive design pollution. It needs to always keep its options open as a public space, a place to walk and stroll. Its space is its greatest asset," Harvey wrote.

Joel Cayford, planner, blogger and former regional councillor, says Brown has to be reined in to stop asset-stripping Auckland to fund the rail link, threatening an already tight public transport budget and delaying the rollout of regionwide frequent bus services.

Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney says Aucklanders need an expanded ferry service that the private sector can deliver in return for a commercial development on Queens Wharf.

When council funding is limited, Swney says, it is tempting to take a bird in the hand.

"But down there on the waterfront, that's a different story. These public assets have been handed down over generations and command substantial premiums. This is where we need the glare of some public consultation and a plan that has a horizon beyond the next 10 years."

- NZ Herald

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