Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Profit gods hunting viewshafts yet again

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Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

That the battle to preserve the invisible network of volcanic cones viewshafts that criss-cross the Auckland landscape rages on highlights just how bad we are at protecting our heritage.

No surprise, I guess. We are the city, after all, that tried to make a virtue out of facadism - that unique school of architecture that ripped down old buildings except for the front wall, which was then glued to the glass tower behind and awarded a prize.

On Monday, Housing New Zealand and other developers, aided by landscape consultants, hired by them and Auckland Council, made another bid to hack away at the elaborate network of sight-lines that took 50 years to put into place.

This hearing before the independent Unitary Plan panel was following up on the panel's earlier ruling that the existing 87 viewshafts had to be reassessed for their "public value," taking into account "employment and economic growth opportunities [including lost opportunities]."

Wading through the evidence, it seems that this had all become too hard. Housing New Zealand's economic report, for example, skirted around the issue, threw in some percentages, and let it rest at that. Fletcher Construction worried about the effect a viewshaft to Big King would have on its controversial plans to develop its Three Kings quarry site.

The battle, in its simplest terms, is whether the viewshafts should be worthy of the same sort of protection as the volcanic cones themselves. That was the original aim, when they were introduced after years of debate in 1977, following the uproar that followed the erection of the view-blocking Pines Apartments on the foothills of Mt Eden. Far-sighted Aucklanders realised that unless they acted, The Pines would be the first of many and Aucklanders could soon lose the constant visual reminder that they lived among a field of 50 or more volcanos.

Over the years, despite the squeals of developers, the carefully selected viewshafts became generally accepted as an integral - if unseen - ingredient of our volcanic landscape. Even the Sky Tower had to abide by this, moving from its proposed Symonds St site to its present location.

Unfortunately, the creation of the Super City has given the developers a chance to relitigate the status quo. They're trying to seize the moral high ground by invoking Auckland housing needs as their motive.

On Monday, the Housing New Zealand lawyers tried to have it both ways. "The promulgation of a Unitary Plan ... provides the opportunity to consider the potential for a more nuanced method of retaining landscape, heritage and cultural values that are important in the Auckland context, whilst still ensuring the region's urban development and infrastructure needs are met."

They argued both for intensification and respect for the viewshafts. Yet elsewhere, their landscape advisers, and Auckland Council's, argued for a broad culling of the network.

Currently there are 87 viewshafts - just in place after 20 years of revision, debate and litigation. In March, councillors rejected a proposal from their advisers that eight of these be removed or downgraded. But this didn't stop the council's landscape consultant Stephen Brown telling the hearing panel that in his professional opinion, many should go.

He said "the landscape expert group" - consultants hired by those who could afford one - had reached, "cross-party consensus" that only 50 of the existing 87 viewshafts remain "regionally significant". Another three were now "locally significant" and 14, "no longer significant."

Of the remaining 20, he felt they remained regionally significant, but the other consultants did not, wanting them to be either downgraded to "local" (18) or discarded. Reading the small print, it seems that some were rejected because vegetation has grown up to block the view - as though a tree is somehow an immutable object.

With the Government and Auckland Council about to seek Unesco World Heritage status for the Auckland volcanic field, it is truly bizarre we are now putting an integral part of it on some sort of scale to be judged alongside the need for more housing, or the lust for windfall profits.

Since 1977, Auckland has grown up around the viewshaft network.

We take it for granted, as we drive about, there'll be a cone in sight - or about to be. Are we going to let the Gods of Intensification and Profit ruin this?

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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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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