Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Developers' dreams our nightmare

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It's hardly a surprise that property developers are lusting for two slivers of prime downtown waterfront land. What is incredible is that the Auckland Council, owner of the two irreplaceable public spaces, seems so starry eyed about the overtures.

The privatisation of public space should have a better justification than helping the adjacent property owner fulfil a development dream.

Yet in the case of Queen Elizabeth Square, across Lower Queen St from the Britomart railway station, Auckland councillors have voted 14-7 to approve in principle the sale or barter of this $60 million public square to Abu Dhabi-based Precinct Properties.

The justification put to councillors by their bureaucrats is that the square is "an underutilised and poorly performing space".

Councillors were told the proceeds could be "reinvested" in "new and/or enhanced public space in the area". Two examples given were a new public area at the foot of lower Albert St, or at Admiralty Steps west of Queens Wharf.

If those two spaces became the beneficiaries, I'd be hoping for gold-plated drinking fountains as both are already owned by council entities.

At the very least, the council should be holding out for a land swap in the same block. If Precinct Properties wants to build a three-storey retail building across the existing square, we should be asking for an open space of equal value elsewhere on the huge site.

How about a grassed park on the harbour side of the 36-storey commercial tower planned for the corner of Customs St and Lower Albert St?

This could stretch along Lower Albert St, giving the afternoon sun and harbour views the existing square lacks.

Instead, our councillors - well, a large majority of them - were herded into line without such basics as a waterfront masterplan to guide them.

Trust us, say the bureaucrats, we'll produce one in due course.

It's history repeating itself. In the 1960s and 70s, it was the Auckland Harbour Board, in cahoots with big developers, that created the existing mess, with the acquiescence of Auckland City Council.

There's no doubt the public square was less than successful, but that was because it was plonked on the shaded side of the "prestige" tower the city council had permitted, turning the whole area into a bleak and unfriendly wind tunnel.

In the report to councillors, their advisers revealed a few of their ideas for "improving" the area. Some seem contradictory.

For example they want to limit the section of Lower Queen St fronting the Britomart train station and a similar area in Lower Albert St to pedestrians.

But in the same breath they want to retain Lower Queen St as a bus interchange, and create another in Lower Albert St.

There is no explanation how buses and pedestrians would co-exist, particularly in an area recently identified as having nitrogen dioxide levels approaching the World Health Organisations maximum for air pollution.

Perhaps a better idea might be to add an underground bus station while the diggers are excavating for the city rail loop and for Precinct Properties proposed new carparks.

Talk of new carparks leads on to the other attempt to privatise precious public open space.

This is the bid by a mystery Cayman Island-registered consortium, fronted by Mayor Len Brown's long time supporter and funder Sir Noel Robinson, to build two large three-storey commercial buildings, stretching half the length of Queens Wharf.

All we know about the backers is that mining magnate Gina Reinhart, Australia's richest person, is not one of them. Nor, says Sir Noel, is he.

The deal is that in return for providing some extra ferry terminal space on the ground level, the developers will privatise a large space of the "people's wharf" for commercial activities - carparking included.

Since my colleague Bernard Orsman revealed these plans, there has been no comments from the mayor or senior bureaucrats.

Once again, what's missing is a grand plan for Queens Wharf or the wider downtown waterfront area against which to measure the proposal.

It's true, additional ferry terminal space stretching along the west side of Queens Wharf has always been part of the long-term thinking for the wharf.

What the shy Cayman Island Abu Dhabians are doing is trying to use this long-term goal for their own advantage.

In both these cases, the council must clarify whether what is good for the developer is necessarily good for Auckland.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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