If you were planning the suburbs in and around Mt Albert anew, you would not put an 18-hole golf course in the middle. It's a stupid place to have one.
Nevertheless, that is what we have. Chamberlain Park is a beautiful expanse full of mature trees and gently rolling grassland, with a stream running through. It's a public park: we all own it.
But we're not starting anew. The golf course has been there for 80 years. It's an established community resource, much-loved by its users. They come from all over, because it's one of only two public golf courses in the city. They played 1150 rounds a week last year, and perhaps 30 per cent of them are Māori and Pasifika.
As an operating principle of urban planning, you need a very good reason to close down an existing resource.
And yet, as another operating principle of urban planning, you need to look ahead. The Albert-Eden area has new transit systems on the way and it will grow fast. New residents will need access to more parklands and recreational facilities.
Earlier this year the local board voted 5-3 on party lines to reduce the golf course to nine holes, restore the Meola Stream and add a playground, two artificial playing fields and more car parking. The cost: $30 million. Currently, council officers are preparing the business case.
City Vision board members (mainly Labour and the Greens) were in support; C&R – Communities and Residents (the National Party) were opposed. In the election just gone, Save Chamberlain Park (SCP), an independent lobby group, campaigned vigorously against City Vision.
The board chairman, City Vision's Peter Haynes, who had championed the plan, lost his seat. His close associate Graeme Easte almost lost his. The new board is tied up, 4:4, and has been unable to elect a new chair. That's important because the chair has a casting vote and could, in theory, decide the outcome of the park.
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It's not wrong of the golfers of Chamberlain Park to want to keep their course. It's not wrong of the board to try to cater for all residents, now and in the coming decades. That's their job. On balance, I used to think the board was right: that reducing the golf course to nine holes was not too much to ask, in the interests of the greater good.
For several reasons, I've changed my mind.
1 The lack of sports facilities
City Vision says Albert-Eden and the adjacent Waitematā have "the biggest shortfall in sports field capacity in the Auckland region". The original plan addressed this with four new all-weather playing fields. But now only two fields are proposed.
Similarly, the original plan included an aquatic centre, to replace the pool at Mt Albert Grammar which is scheduled to close. But that idea has been scrapped too.
So, the plan now does little to address the need for more sports facilities.
And how big is that need? In this whole debate, where are the voices of the sports clubs who would benefit? They've been silent. If they need those two extra sports fields, they should speak up.
City Vision, by the way, likes to argue golf is declining, but it's not true. Golf is the largest participation sport in the country and Chamberlain Park is especially popular among players who can't afford to belong to private clubs.
2 The jurisdiction is wrong
There's an underlying problem here: local boards are required to plan for the recreational needs of their own citizens, but sport is not organised or played inside local board boundaries.
Many members of the Ponsonby Rugby Club, for example, live in the Albert-Eden board's catchment, east of the northwest motorway. But their home grounds are at Western Springs and Cox's Bay, both in the Waitematā catchment. Is anyone worried? Nope.
The facilities needed by local communities should not be artificially defined by political boundaries.
Related to that, as a public golf course Chamberlain Park is clearly a regional facility. Should the local board have jurisdiction when it has a much wider catchment?
3 The lack of parkland
City Vision says Albert-Eden has "the lowest ratio of park land per capita in Auckland". Let's be generous and say statistics don't always tell the whole story.
The boundaries include Maungawhau/Mt Eden, Mt St John, Ōwairaka/Mt Albert, Potters Park, Fowlds Park, Nixon Park, Gribblehurst Park, Te Auaunga/Oakley Creek, the Waterview Reserve and the string of parks along the new Waterview shared path, Coyle Park and Pt Chevalier beach.
And there's more. Just outside the boundaries are Cornwall Park, the Domain, Western Springs, Meola Reef Reserve, Puketāpapa/Mt Roskill and Akarana Park. It's a green part of town.
The Unitec housing project may increase demand for parkland, but that precinct is right on the edge of Te Auaunga and has direct access to the Waterview Reserve.
4 The green debate
For Save Chamberlain Park it used to be all about the golf. Then they developed an environmental arm to their campaign.
They agreed the Meola Stream should be restored. They've proposed a green bridge over the motorway and Great North Rd to connect the park to Western Springs. They want to save the 1000 trees they say the board would cut down.
City Vision says the 1000 figure is probably wrong, but neither the board nor council officers have come up with a more accurate figure. That seems revealing.
The board does say many of the trees to be cut down are not native, and they will be replaced with several thousand natives. But that's a weak argument. Mature trees should not be sacrificed for saplings just to win the numbers game.
5 The democratic debate
How should we read the outcome of the election? Voters leaned towards "saving Chamberlain Park", yes, but SCP pushed them to it with a sensationalist and very well-funded campaign.
Even so, there was no rout. City Vision held nearly all its board seats and the City Vision ward councillor, Cathy Casey, also held hers.
Speaking of democracy, it was disappointing that both sides made claims that led to official protests. And that wasn't the worst. I came across an SCP supporter after one meeting, outside in the evening gloom, standing over Councillor Casey and shouting in her face. She didn't know him and yes, she was frightened.
Asked to stop, he declared he had a right to behave like that because his cause was right.
Still, the voters have spoken, the balance on the board has shifted and council must take note. To go against the strong and legitimate opposition to cutting the golf course in half, there has to be some critical need. I can't see it.
6 A new solution?
Now what? The decision will not be made after a coin toss to decide the new board chair. That would be preposterous. The two sides have to reach informal agreement and the question of who becomes chair will be part of the deal.
We need a compromise. In my view, it should include:
• Retaining the 18-hole golf course, but with a reconfigured layout to allow some other uses of the park.
• Restoring the stream and wetlands, and creating a shared-path safe zone for non-golfers along its length.
• Adding a children's playground.
• Agreeing to find a new site for playing fields, perhaps as the board's next OLI, to be pushed into a future budget round.
This is not an issue for politicians to die in a ditch over. It should not divide communities as this has done. Both sides want good environmental and recreational outcomes.
A 4:4 divide looks like stalemate. But it doesn't have to be. That balance could provide the impetus they need for a genuinely consensus-based outcome. The new board has set itself a date of November 25 to get it done. Good luck to all.