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The Viaduct Harbour's seaside serenity mixed with a city pulse has turned it into a playground for Auckland's elite, writes TIM WATKIN.

There was a time when New Zealand was the quarter-acre pavlova paradise, with a lemon tree, washing line and maybe even a dog in every backyard.

Suburban life was typically quiet, except for the weekend drone of lawnmowers and a chat with the neighbours over the fence.

In the starkest modern contrast, people such as Tony Brownett, Marlene Dale and Pamela Lim have a basinful of cafes and a fleet of yachts in their backyard, with strangers strolling through at any time. The dog is about the only thing that remains from the old stereotype.

"It's great," chuckles Brownett, a merry management consultant who moved to New Zealand from England 30 years ago. "This is inner-city living and the thing about city living is that it's full of noise and movement and happenings."

Dale loves being able to live with the tranquillity of the sea at her front door, yet where "something's always happening". Something such as the arrival of the Volvo Ocean Race competitors and the council-sponsored festival now running in conjunction with their stopover.

Welcome to the Viaduct Harbour, where home is an apartment and your backyard is the city's newest playground. Welcome to the elite sub-suburb that has gentrified the waterfront. And welcome, too, to 18ha of land which, five years after the Ports of Auckland sold it off for development, offers a new way of life that is the antithesis of the Kiwi tradition.

R ODNEY WAYNE drinks his coffee in bed each morning and looks out over water. In a few minutes he can walk from his apartment in The Point to his downtown office, from where he runs his eponymous hair salons.

"And when I come home I always look at what new boats have appeared and the new things going on," he says.

"The Viaduct's lived up to everything I thought it would be, probably more."

This is the kind of lifestyle, mixing seaside peace with city pulse, that the prosperous have been willing to pay top dollar for. Residential sales at the Viaduct Harbour have averaged a whopping $6221 a square metre, making it instantly one of Auckland's most expensive suburbs.

At a time when the median price for a house in Auckland is $242,333, the average price for an apartment in the Viaduct, at $464,396, is nearly double that.

The recipe for success was simple: start with a basin of water. Add high-class apartments, a handful of eateries, some public space and a few yacht races, and voila, you've got a juicy new inner-city suburb.

Brownett loves it.

"It's vibrant - there always seems to be something going on," he says.

He and his wife, Pat, bought an apartment in Latitude 37 last April, primarily as an investment.

"We had a long-term view of coming down here to retire. But we've moved down earlier than expected. We really just got tired of maintaining a large property. Here, there's no work to do."

Developers say that's a common story. Convenience is a seductive selling point, with water, nightlife, entertainment, and shopping so handy.

David Henderson, head of the Kitchener Group that in 1997 won the $200 million tender to develop Princes Wharf, lives in one of the city's more glamorous addresses, the penthouse above the Hilton Hotel, said to be the largest apartment in New Zealand.

He says with the basin's apartments "you can shut the door and walk away. You don't have to worry about gardens, maintenance, security. It's like living in a beach resort in the middle of the city."

Curiously enough, residents say another attraction is the privacy. An apartment in the basin offers an insulated bubble in the midst of the bustle. Yet, despite all the defences money can buy, the bustle's still there on your doorstep.

Pamela Lim, the owner of The Garden Party stores, who has lived on Princes Wharf for more than two years, enjoys the boats coming and going outside her deck.

"All the cruise ships park right outside, so I couldn't possibly get out of bed without any clothes on. Once I had a French navy boat moored there. There was somebody in the crow's nest and I could've handed him a drink from my deck."

"I don't think I'd like to live there without having somewhere else," she adds.

With a house on Waiheke Island, Lim conforms to the Viaduct norm.

Residents are typically older, with grown-up children, and usually have another house - at the beach or overseas - or a boat as well. This is their city place and they're often at their other house at weekends.

Marlene Dale, who moved to Princes Wharf from Remuera when her children left home, says she and her husband want to be where the action is, living like a young couple again.

"It's given us a new lease of life. God, I would have loved living here when I was young."

Young like Ryan Orange, a 26-year-old associate at McKinsey Consultants. Not really an apartment person, he's grown to appreciate the lifestyle. He points out: "You have to be the sort of person who wants to engage with what's around you."

For some residents, that means being able to swim or kayak in the deeper, cleaner basin. For others, it's being able to walk around the city. One thing it has meant recently, Orange says happily, is listening to the Muttonbirds do a sound check not far from your bedroom window at 9 am on a Saturday.

Noise is all around you at the basin. That includes restaurants being cleaned with the stereo on in the small hours, rowdy revellers wandering round after the pubs close, and cruise ships arriving at dawn. Lim says it took her months to adapt. Others aren't fazed.

"The most noise is when the charter boats with parties on board come in," says Wayne. "I don't mind it. It adds a fiesta feel."

W HEN Auckland was founded, the Viaduct Harbour didn't exist. Maori would launch waka from the shoreline at the bottom of Franklin Rd and European soldiers made camp on Fort St, which was initially called Fore St because it was there the foreshore met the harbour.

As the land was reclaimed, Auckland historian Professor Russell Stone says the Viaduct Harbour was built as a duplicate of the basins common in the port of London. Timber mills sprang up along Fanshawe St from the Tepid Baths west and, like docklands the world over, it was a poor, rough area. In time, the early Europeans were moved on by the motorway development and replaced in the 1950s and 60s by labourers arriving from the Pacific Islands. The housing was derelict. The basin was home to fishing boats and container ships.

"It was a vibrant, boisterous place," says Stone. "The idea that it would be filled by wealthy people, that was unthinkable."

This was a time when the waterfront was a place, and a word, that belonged to the working class. When the wealthy wanted water, they moved to the eastern bays. However, the surrounding suburbs of Freemans Bay and Ponsonby were soon being gentrified, and come 1997 it was the Viaduct's turn. In typical New Zealand fashion, the old character was lightly discarded and a new style emerged.

A five-year review compiled late last year by Colliers Jardine says public demand for access to the city's waterfront and inner-city living combined with the 1995 America's Cup victory sparked the basin's redevelopment.

The key to its "undoubted success" was the Port of Auckland's decision to sell the land to a single entity, Viaduct Harbour Holdings, the report's author, Alan McMahon, concludes.

"The single land ownership has allowed the whole area to be strategically planned and quality controlled," he writes.

The basin certainly stands apart. Although at the heart of the city, it can seem a detached precinct, a city clip-on. Partly, it's physical, with its archway entrances, strategic sameness and the building equivalent of that new-car smell separating it from the older jumble of downtown. And partly, it's elitist.

Again following the trends of other docklands, such as in London, when the new development came, it was the nouveau riche who moved in.

A place of work became a place of play; the workers replaced by some big players.

The redeveloped basin - utterly modern, urban and trendy - is their natural habitat, just as Remuera and Epsom are home to old money. Equally predictable is that among the basin's moneyed residents there are a number of chancers and wide-boys. It's that kind of place.

Sitting on his deck, Brownett sips at a beer and nods.

"If you can afford to live here you've taken some risks in life. You can't do it on a normal salary.

"If you look in the car park under here, all you'll find are beamers, Mercs, and the odd American sports car. It's not cheap. We are talking around $700,000 for a three-bedroom apartment."

And that's not all. An underground carpark goes for about $40,000. Then you can add body corporate fees and, because the land is leasehold, ground rental. That'll be another $6000 to $8000.

Stone notes: "It's all completely at odds with its history."

Despite the high-profile failure of various construction businesses involved in redeveloping the waterfront, the developers have made a few bob from this one. Nigel McKenna, of Melview Developments, and David Henderson, for example, seem to have rather comfortably ridden out the collapses - such as Hartner Construction, which went under owing its subcontractors and creditors at least $20 million.

Approximately 80 per cent of all units have been sold, and the rest have been profitably leased, according to the Colliers report.

For property owners, capital gains have been minimal thus far. But estate agents point out that contrary to other inner-city apartments, Viaduct apartments have been reselling at, or slightly above, what their owners first paid for them. They've proved a safe investment. The occupancy rate is virtually 100 per cent and there's a waiting list for people wanting to rent.

Yet the lifestyle has its drawbacks. The flipside of the Viaduct's newness and the developers' emphasis on privacy and security is a distinct lack of community.

"It's different from Freemans Bay or Ponsonby," says Brownett. "There's a community spirit there that isn't down here. You know your neighbours and talk to them in that part of the world. Here, you don't."

"It's like living in a hotel," says Lim. "I walk out of the car park, down a long corridor with numbers on the doors, and don't know a soul in the building. I suppose the anonymity is strange for New Zealand. I associate it more with London or New York."

The Viaduct is, after all, the prescribed work of craftsmen, not an evolutionary development. A sense of community, in contrast, is organic and takes time to grow.

"Long-term it will develop some sort of community, but that's some years away," Brownett believes.

Nevertheless, the Viaduct is acquiring some traits of its own. It has introduced the concept of promenading to the city. It is a uniquely pedestrian space and, in a tentatively Continental fashion, people go there just to walk, watch and be watched.

It also has a distinctly international flavour. Residents say the accents around the buildings are many and varied.

What the speakers have in common is they are almost all adults. The Viaduct, with the notable exception of the school-holiday programmes the Maritime Museum and city council are running there, is largely a child-free zone. Wayne says it's too confined and too public for raising families.

"It's not really a place for kids," agrees Chris Cotton, who has lived in the basin since the apartments went up and has stood for the Auckland City Council. He says the council failed by not making a community centre part of the redevelopment. It's desperately needed and not too late to fix.

"There are some wonderful things here, but we also need some of the wonderful things that are out in the wider community."

A dairy would be a good start, says Wayne. But retail, hospitality aside, has been less than a roaring success in the basin.

Wayne says he wouldn't consider opening a salon there, for example. The city's too close. Lim, whose Viaduct shop holds its own but is less successful than its Ponsonby and Newmarket counterparts, says the basin "was originally advertised as having more retail, but it hasn't worked".

Michael James, owner of restaurant MJs, agrees it's not the place for retail. The commercial success of the Viaduct is that it has become "the third hospitality place" alongside Parnell and Ponsonby. Even so, his restaurant would do little more than break even if it weren't for the catering arm of the business.

Wandering around the Viaduct, it still feels like a partially formed idea, more a thing of potential than maturity. James says until it finds its identity, it will struggle commercially.

Residents point to the promising but struggling Cuisine Market on Customs St West. It seems just right for the market, but it may be a few more years before there are enough customers to sustain it.

Despite the council's efforts to get people into the inner city, to give it the energy and streetlife of a small-scale Sydney or New York, and while it fails to commit to public transport and developing further along the waterfront, the Viaduct lacks a critical mass of people.

You can't improve supply if there's not enough demand.

Two more apartment buildings under construction will help: the 83-apartment Viaduct Point (from $205,000 to $590,000 per apartment) beside The Point and, across the road, The Parc (initially 28 apartments priced from $528,000 to $968,000), an exclusive development complete with a private, rugby-field-sized, landscaped park.

However, these two residential buildings will be the last in the Viaduct. Come the start of the America's Cup in October, all the available land in the basin will be occupied.

There are plans for further development between the basin and the harbour bridge, most controversially McKenna's plans for luxury apartments on what is known as the log farm site in Halsey St. An advisory group, set up by the landowners and headed by property consultant John Whitehead and Sydney urban planner Malcolm Latham, has begun work on a 20-year blueprint for development.

Of course, one day we will lose the America's Cup. Predicting what impact that will have on the Viaduct is as fraught as predicting the winds on the Waitemata. It might take the loss for it to find its identity. It may lose some of its charm. The developers say no, it's now established as a suburb, a home, in its own right.

What they, and the residents, seem to be saying of the Viaduct is that - to borrow a line from Tim Finn that's becoming synonymous with the place - "There's a wind in its sail, will protect and prevail."

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