We all know Auckland is full of problems, writes Simon Wilson, but it's full of potential too

Why don't we put a parking building on the wharf? Like in Miami Beach, Florida.

The immediate achievement of that "parking garage", as the Americans say, is to demonstrate that no type of building needs to be ugly. Beyond that, it speaks of possibility: if you can do this with carparks, what else can you do when you grow a city?

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett has argued in these pages that the imported cars held for a day or two on Captain Cook and Bledisloe wharves have to be there. It's uneconomic and impracticable, he says, for them to be imported through Northport or Tauranga wharves. His argument is contestable, but let's accept it for the moment.

Others have argued that those cars on those wharves represent nothing less than civic vandalism. Store cars on such a valuable and beautiful site? What level of brutes are we?

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Maybe we should try to make both sides happy.

I asked Auckland mayor Phil Goff in an interview what he thought of putting a carpark building on the wharf, and he said, "Oh no, an ugly building, why would you want to do that?"

I asked why he thought it would have to be ugly, and he conceded that no it wouldn't, but still.

But he did add that he didn't think the CBD was the best place to store cars. So is that Auckland? Enormous possibilities, limited vision, stalemate?

In fact, the Miami Beach building isn't quite right for the Auckland wharves, where the cars come and go in frequent streams. No problem. Maybe we should have a cylindrical building, a tall thin tower, with twin ramps winding around it like overlapping ribbons. Inspired by the New York Guggenheim and the Tower of Babel, with a roof that echoes the fronds of the nikau palms up Queen St.

Others may have even better ideas. I concede that, I'm not the architect in the room. The point is, we should not still be stalemated with this absurd debate about the cars on the wharves. There's a solution.

We could build a structure so magnificent that it becomes a tourist attraction.

"Wow!" the visitors will say, "What is that amazing building?"

We will tell them with a self-satisfied smile that it is merely a carpark. Then we will say, "Just wait, there's more".

And we will tell them about the extraordinary building which, I hope, we're going to create for our new Museum of the Sea, away to the west on what is now the Tank Farm. And about Te Whare o Mana Whenua, which could go somewhere along Quay St. And even, perhaps, about plans for a beautiful new waterfront stadium.

When we, as a city, think about any kind of problem, mostly we do so in technical and financial terms. Not enough of our thinking is innovative and creative.

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We would also suggest we return in the evening, because of the summer concerts. One night Aaradhna, the next Jon Toogood and friends, and definitely at some point Sydney Opera's on-the-harbour production of Turandot.

Because with the cars gone and a floating pontoon for a stage, and raked seating on all three sides - along Quay St and on the finger wharves - that spot will become a magnificent performance venue.

The cruise ships would be moved either east or west. Goff favours west, to the Wynyard Quarter. He also favours shifting the container port, although he wants to see "full environment and economic reports" on the options for a new site first, as well as an integrated upper North Island freight policy.

He'll have regional development minister Steven Joyce to persuade about that. Joyce has stated many times that competition among the ports is the Government's preferred efficiency tool.

Auckland's full of problems

Auckland's full of problems, we all know it. And full of potential too. It's changed so much in the past six to eight years, but we are far from finished.

Which is where that carpark becomes helpful in another way. It lays down a challenge. If we could have a carpark that good, how much more remarkable might other new buildings on the waterfront be? If we can solve one intractable problem with a sideways solution, what other problems can we solve in the same way?

Before we know it, we'll really be on the way. Auckland, a city where talent wants to live, as Mayor Phil Goff said in his inaugural speech in the town hall on November 1, quoting the late and greatly inspirational Sir Paul Callaghan.

Auckland, a city that creates its own Bilbao effect with a carpark. Who would have thought? Well, maybe it would be fitting for this commercial town.

So why don't we just get on and do it? The answer makes some people squirm. It's because too much of our planning is in the hands of engineers and accountants and, frankly, politicians.

That's a terrible thing to say, I suppose. And yes, some of my best friends, etc. Sorry about that.

But Goff's response to my question about a carpark was pretty standard. When we think carparks, we think ugly. When we, as a city, think about any kind of problem, mostly we do so in technical and financial terms. Not enough of our thinking is innovative and creative.

This is the fundamental thing Auckland needs to change. If we want to stop doing business as usual, we need to put creative thinking at the heart of our development.

Imagine how much better we could do

Take the City Rail Link (CRL) build. Auckland Transport is managing the disruption by managing the traffic: real-time monitoring, for example, allows them to keep fine-tuning the light phases.

But that's so limited. The CRL build provides an extraordinary opportunity for Auckland to rethink how we get to the inner city and how we move around in it.

Where are the incentives to drivers to leave their cars at the city edge? Do we need a few more spectacular carpark buildings? I jest not.

Where are the stalls and marketplaces that would allow the unfortunate retailers cut off from their customers by construction hoardings, to get out among us all?

Goff's attack on Ateed was not an attempt to burn it down, as some have called for, but to save it by refocusing it. He told me he is not planning to restructure the CCOs.

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In the Auckland Plan, Victoria St is proposed as a park-like boulevard with limited traffic. What about a pop-up version of that right now?

What about transforming the Queen St valley during the arts festival in March? Bring in those market stalls, set up an outrageously good entertainment programme, do kids' stuff and shopper-themed events.

Don't build anything, don't spend a cent. Do it with moveable barriers, temporary furniture and balloons. (Balloons is a metaphor for cheap decorations, by the way.)

Make it great for retailers, for the festival, for citizens and for visitors. If all we get is chaos, does it matter? We stop doing it.

But if the city bursts into life, well, bingo. That's when we spend a bit of money on it.

Goff doesn't think creatively

But he is making changes. He restructured the governing body of council, with fewer committees and, importantly, a kitchen cabinet. Comprised of his deputy and the chairs and deputies of the three main committees, it meets each Monday and is notable for the way it reaches across party lines.

He's being inclusive: there are National Party members in that group.

He's also announced budget proposals that include a regional fuel tax, which he does not have the power to deliver. He must persuade the government to do it.

As Brown showed with the CRL, such a thing is possible if you're patient and persistent. But Goff's on a fast track: this is his annual budget, not the long-term plan.

The stakes are high. Does he enjoy the backing of his kitchen cabinet? "Yes," he told me. "All of them support the budget proposals."

He's counting on the election next year to help. A government that wants to take the high ground on strategic transport planning will approve new funding measures. If it doesn't, Goff will take that high ground himself.

Sydney Opera's Turandot on a stage built out from the quayside on Sydney Harbour.
Sydney Opera's Turandot on a stage built out from the quayside on Sydney Harbour.

Already, through the Auckland Transport Alignment Process (Atap), the two parties have agreed to work together to address a transport funding shortfall, over the next 10 years, of $400 million a year. No one proposes the extra money should come from rates and Goff is opposed to strategic asset sales, so they've got some hard talking to do.

Is he good at that?

His experience is in government, where you decide what to do, and in the Opposition, where despite appearances you don't expect to change the government's mind. Oppositions stake out alternatives. But Goff isn't in government or opposition now. In effect, he's a lobbyist.

This is a key reason Goff appointed Cr Bill Cashmore from Franklin, a member of the National Party, as his deputy. In the last council, when Cashmore was invited by Len Brown to work on Atap, he formed a close rapport with Finance Minister Bill English and Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Goff plans to make the most of this relationship. "Bill will sit in when I meet with English," Goff said. One imagines he'll do rather more than that.

Goff's budget proposals also include a "targeted rate" on hotel beds, the details of which he says he wants to work out with the tourism industry. Will he be good at that?

Surprisingly, Goff doesn't do lunches.

I asked him about this and drew a blank. He'd met Michael Barnett, he said, and Kim Campbell of the Employers and Manufacturers' Association, and he had meetings scheduled with John Key and some of his ministers. But those less formal let's-work-out-how-to-get-along sessions? "Lunches are not really my thing," he said.

Goff signals change

Goff also signalled change when he publicly attacked Ateed (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) over The Auckland Story, its proposed marketing campaign for the city.

This episode has been less than edifying. When the Herald revealed Ateed had spent $500,000 developing the project last month, Goff was quick to condemn it. That seemed to play well in the public arena. He looked tough and in charge. But he wasn't an innocent in the affair.

Goff had been briefed on the project and was so impressed he incorporated its ideas into his town hall inauguration speech.

He even presented the campaign slogan, "Auckland: The Place Desired by Many", as part of his own vision for the city.

Then the criticism started and Goff ditched the plan like it was poison.

He said he has asked for a new approach from Ateed. "I want Ateed to be responsible to the relevant industries [like tourism] and I want those industries to be directly involved in its plans," he told me.

If a project is good for them, he went on, they should help create it and share the cost.

Goff's attack on Ateed was not an attempt to burn it down, as some have called for, but to save it by refocusing it. He told me he is not planning to restructure the CCOs.

He'll hold them more accountable, but he's not a fan of relying on organisational change to solve problems. "I've seen too much of that in my time."

Still, council officers will have learned that it's dangerous to be innovative. Even when you think the mayor is on your side, he might not stay there.

The Auckland Story debacle has put Goff at risk of losing their confidence and if that happens they will lose their creativity. That, in turn, will undermine business and public confidence.

Many talented people work for the council

Among them, as in the business sector and elsewhere, there's goodwill and determination for this city to grow in productive, inclusive and exciting ways.

We don't argue much anymore about whether to roll out public transport as fast as we can. Nor about the need to build a lot more homes, especially social and affordable homes. And we revel in the improvements to our built environment, the nightlife and the culture of the city. The spirit of Auckland, its zeitgeist, is strong.

And yet there are lobbyists whose only concern is cost and who cannot find a good thing to say about any venture. Goff needs to stand up to such vision-free cynics. How? By unleashing and supporting the city's creativity. He could start with that carpark.