The whisper is that if property developer, John Love, can rustle up $3 million — the price of a tarted-up Ponsonby villa — by next Wednesday, he can become the proud owner of Auckland Council's 18-storey Civic Administration Building along with around 3,500sq m of hugely valuable adjacent land.
It sounds like the property sale of the century, slap bang, as it is, in the middle of the Aotea Centre entertainment precinct and next to the planned Aotea rail station, which is predicted to be the busiest stop on the rail network when the underground line is completed.
Yet mayor Phil Goff and the city's development arm Panuku are refusing to reveal details of the deal to elected councillors. At a secret meeting on Thursday, our elected representatives were warned of legal consequences if anything becomes public.
A key detail being sought was would the property and land revert back to council ownership if the developers failed to complete the grand redevelopment plans they sign up to. Leading the rearguard action are the council's two most experienced local politicians, former Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee and former Auckland mayor, and one-time MP, Christine Fletcher.
Between them, they've had years of experience representing the public interest in negotiations with property developers. So when Lee calls it "a thoroughly bad deal for Aucklanders" and Fletcher asks, "why all the secrecy if it's such a good deal for the people of Auckland," we should be taking them seriously.
Instead, Lee's resolution to last Thursday's council meeting seems to have done the opposite. Lee proposed the suspension of the sales process until Panuku provided commercial details of the proposed transaction, including the price, along with details of how outstanding heritage concerns related to the Category A building were being handled. The resolution was defeated behind closed doors 13-4 and, it seems, the sales process sped up.
After the formation of the Super City, there were those in the leadership, both in the bureaucracy and the political side, who saw the CAB as symbolising the old Auckland City Council and the bad old days of eight squabbling councils. In early 2014, the bureaucrats proposed its demolition as "the economically rational decision".
This sparked the heritage wing of council along with Heritage New Zealand and the Civic Trust to demand it get heritage status, which it duly gained. While this heritage row bubbled away, the bureaucrats voted with their feet, muttering about asbestos and low ceilings as they headed to flasher digs. After a long search, Panuku, in September 2016, finally came up with a potential purchaser for the deserted CAB — John Love and his Tawera Group. The deal was that they would remove the asbestos coating the structural steel, preserve the heritage exterior and convert the tower into apartments, with bars and eateries at ground level. Tawera would also gain around 3,500sq m of surrounding land on which they'd build a boutique 100-room hotel, and a mixed use block with a performance space fronting Aotea Square. Details of the deal were kept secret.
Work was supposed to start mid-2017, but sales of the CAB apartments proved slow. In September 2018, Panuku talked of it being "challenging times for apartment sales", admitting the deal had yet to go "unconditional".
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There is speculation this might have occurred last Friday, conditional on the developer counter-signing within 12 days.
I've thought it daft to privatise this integral part of the Aotea precinct. Political drama occurs in the Town Hall so bureaucrats should be nearby.
Meanwhile, as Fletcher argues, the opening of the Aotea station will make the surrounding real estate the most valuable land in the country. In Hong Kong, developers pay a premium for the "value capture" new rail lines bring. Adjacent mall owners have to hand over a share of their profits to the rail corporation to "pay" for the extra customers the rail delivers. This helps fund the railway. There's no evidence that such commonsense has spread this far south. But who would know amid such secrecy.