Progress being made towards making the most of Auckland's greatest asset, but much work remains to be done

"Each time the tide comes in, it reaches further up the beach" is a saying which predicts many rounds of pressure will ultimately lead to change. It can apply to power struggles and public campaigns, politics, business and revolution.

It is an appropriate maritime description, too, for what is happening in the debate Auckland is holding on the future of its downtown waterfront.

This week the Herald has highlighted the latest thinking on how the port-dominated waterfront can be made accessible to the public. It is the latest in a series of public campaigns and, happily for Aucklanders, its findings are the most encouraging.

The Port of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson acknowledged public reaction to the company's desire for a substantial, long-term reclamation out into the Waitemata Harbour had taken him aback and given the port pause in its planning.


What has gone right?

Formation of the Super City with its dedicated Waterfront Auckland council organisation, public use during the Rugby World Cup, sympathetic wording in the new Auckland Plan and, critically, evidence of a thawing in the attitudes of a once hostile port company.

The Auckland Council itself has not been short of aspirations for the wharves, land and water from Westhaven to Britomart.

Its visionary urbanist Ludo Campbell-Reid speaks of "how we can take Aucklanders back to the water" including plans to limit heavy traffic on Quay St, removing a barrier to public movement.

Through all of this the Heart of the City, the CBD business group, has lobbied to improve plans from the Tank Farm in the west to the port's grand reclamation in the east.

Progress has been made and a more liveable waterfront is theprize.

A study of port rationalisation, potentially raising changed uses of Auckland, Tauranga and Northland, is under way.

Much rests on a fundamental question: should Auckland expand, contract or even sell its land and put its capital to better use elsewhere?

Assuming the Auckland port remains in some substantial form, what to do with Queens Wharf, opened to the public ahead of the World Cup, is the most pressing question.

Decisions are needed not just on how to fill it with facilities to justify its purchase.

If a cruise ship terminal can sensibly be accommodated further east, then that should be pursued ahead of quick-fix and expensive plans for Shed 10 on Queens Wharf.

Innovative and attractive public spaces rather than more eating and drinking venues should be paramount.

On a smaller scale, Waterfront Auckland is wisely testing some public activities on the wharf before committing space and money.

Views differ on whether it is necessary to claim Captain Cook Wharf, currently used to unload vehicles, when Auckland is undecided on the uses of Queens Wharf and the Tank Farm.

Are there enough uses, and enough demand for that wharf-water-wind experience?

The port company seems open to giving up Captain Cook once it has alternative zones for its car trade but Auckland should be careful what it wishes for.

Until we have a clear view further west it may be imprudent for the city to add to its collection of wharf investments.

Either way, good things are happening down on the waterfront. The ongoing, important public debate is opening minds as much as wharves.