Michael Stevens: Leaders stand by as city is desecrated

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There are reports that more and more people are leaving Auckland City. People talk of a sense of disengagement with what should be the vibrant heart of this country.

Auckland once had, believe it or not, a beautiful if shabby and grimy Victorian heart to it. There were architectural treasures such as the Victoria Arcade, a superb fantasy in Gothic revival brick.

There were Victorian office buildings and warehouses. There were small, noisy pubs scattered throughout the city. There was a coherence and warmth to the feel of the city.

Nearly all of that, alas, is now gone. The planners and their political masters on the city council have happily overseen the wholesale degradation of the heart of the city over the past few decades. And let's not forget those maestros of aesthetic nullity, the developers.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Auckland was built on dodgy and corrupt real estate deals from the beginning. When Logan-Campbell tried to swindle Ngati Whatua out of a huge slice of their land he was setting the tone for how the city's economy would run in the future.

But why do we allow this situation to continue? Why do we allow the same barbarians who destroyed the Victoria Arcade to then go on and destroy the Jean Batten Building? Why were they allowed to desecrate the beauty of the BNZ building downtown?

Why do we have a council planning department that can seriously put forward the idea that no trees should be planted in the ground below Shortland Street, to symbolise this is reclaimed land? Why do they then allow developers to chop down ancient trees in the heart of the city without even a suggestion that this is not a good idea?

Who in the planning department decided it would be a good idea to surface the footpaths of Karangahape Rd with tiles that become as slippery as ice once they get wet?

How can the council seriously consider allowing even a tiny portion of Albert Park to be sacrificed for the art gallery's expansion?

Why are the volcanic cones that so identify this piece of land we live in not being protected by the planning department, as is mandated by an act of Parliament?

And why does the council continue to allow the planners to approve such barbarities as the cheap and shoddy apartment buildings blighting Hobson St, the slums rising behind Broadway in Newmarket, and the enormity that is the proposed Soho Square development on the Ponsonby ridge?

There was a time when the council and its planners had some vision and sense of design. If you walk through parts of Freemans Bay you will see some beautifully built townhouses and flats. These were once the property of the Auckland City Council and provided excellent inner-city housing.

Solid, spacious in feeling, and cleverly using the space to give the best possible results, these are examples of urban housing that all architects, council planners and developers should be forced to study.

Unfortunately, these beautiful publicly funded buildings fell victim to the same abuse of power that so much of what we all once owned collectively did: they were "privatised" for no good reason except one of ideology, thus transferring valuable assets out of the hands of the ratepayers and into the private sector. We were robbed.

The heart of downtown Auckland was likewise destroyed over the past two decades as rapacious, ignorant and philistine property developers decided to pull down or damage nearly every building of merit in the area.

When the council wasn't applauding, it stood by at best in impotent ignorance, and at worst in silent complicity.

Without strong and forceful political leadership from the council on this issue, Auckland is doomed to become more and more architecturally banal and desolate as the developers line their pockets at the expense of the citizens.

Why do we have to continue to live with this? Why are developers allowed to proceed without public hearings into the merits or otherwise of their proposals?

The rights of private property matter, but so do the rights of the citizens of a city, especially when the effects of the architectural vandalism the developers push, the planners sign off on, and the council says nothing about have such a dramatically dispiriting effect.

Beautiful cities, proud of their heritage, attract tourists and their dollars. Beautiful cities inspire a sense of pride and belonging. Beautiful cities make people feel happy.

New Zealanders travel widely, and often rave about how beautiful cities overseas are, yet for some reason we allow our own cities to be vandalised and desecrated.

It is almost as if the notion of beauty, of aesthetic pleasure, is seen as something that is "un-Kiwi", something that should not be taken into account. Certainly it is a concept that escapes those developers who now want to destroy everything that makes Ponsonby Rd work as an urban environment.

When was the last time a new piece of major development in this city really captured people's hearts?

I want to see the council show some real leadership in this area, and not kowtow to the money of the developers and the inanities of its planning department. I want to see them make a commitment to preserving and enhancing our environment and not allow the developers to ride roughshod over everything in their pursuit of the almighty dollar.

I fear I wait in vain, however.

* Michael Stevens is a resident of Freemans Bay in Auckland.

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