The Albert Park tunnels and Bill Reid's magnificent obssession - Greg Bruce looks into the long and winding tale of a man with a mission
The campaign to open the tunnels under Albert Park has been semi-permanently in the news for most of my adult life and I've never quite been sure where to place it on the continuum between the pipe dream of the borderline obsessive and the pipe dream of the borderline obsessive visionary genius.
I now know the man behind the project, have met him, been to his house, spoken with his family and acquaintances, spent weeks reading about him, talking with him and about his plans for the tunnels. He may be a genius; he is definitely obsessed. It's like he's unable to see anything outside the tunnels that have so occupied his mind since 1986.
I first emailed him in September, saying I was thinking of writing a story about him. He replied: "What could be of more interest to you and for the Canvas magazine, is the original map, a page from the Auckland Star, September 4, 1945 and numerous photos I have compiled over quite a few years."
That was not of more interest. That was of much less interest. What was of interest was why he cared so much about some tunnels that he spent two years researching them in secret, not even telling his his wife what he was doing, to the point she assumed he was having an affair. What was of interest was why he, a butcher, had spent so much money on the project that his family of four once went two weeks with no food in the fridge. What was of interest was how and why he has kept going for 33 years, after endless knockbacks and rejections and hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into a literal hole in the ground.
Shortly after that initial email, I visited his house in Henderson to ask about those things but he kept steering the conversation away from them, showing me the original map, the page from the Auckland Star on September 4, 1945, the numerous photos, the manuscript of a book he's writing, and many other things. Even if I had been interested in that side of the story, it's a story that's already been told over and over. It's hard to say exactly how many journalists had seen these documents before me, but in an industry where second is last, my competitors had already finished the race, taken showers, left the stadium and retired from the sport. Reid himself told me Newshub's Tom McRae has been covering the tunnels for a decade.
Time and again I tried to manoeuvre him back to the subject of why he's spent so much of his life fighting over some tunnels. He would listen to my questions, then ignore them: "What's missing in this story, Greg," he told me, "is not Bill Reid. It's the 114 men who built [the tunnel] back in 1942."
Part of the reason I had become interested in Reid and his project was a post on his Albert Park Tunnels Facebook page (9800 likes) in September: "Exciting times! Our vision for reopening the main Albert Park tunnel as a transport link features heavily in the Auckland City Centre Masterplan refresh."
This news of this official endorsement offered the promise of history in the making. In his posts on his Facebook page, and again when we met, Reid himself sometimes seemed to believe in its imminence, but in an email two weeks after our initial meeting, he presented a bleaker picture:
"I don't think much will short term change for me until a Politician whoever that may be, has the balls to stand tall and tell the Auckland Council, Auckland Transport or the New Zealand Transport Agency publicly, that this project should and is going to happen.
"I strongly believe that Auckland Council would prefer me to fall off the perch and take it over themselves without any recognition of the author. I do not see AC/AT or NZTA inviting me to consult with them on this project, History has proven this, quite shocking actually.
"In dealing with AC over many years, this is my firm belief."
He suggested I seek comment from a person he had been dealing with at Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED), so I emailed ATEED's communications team outlining my story and asked to speak with the person. It was a simple request: The only relevant responses were to put me in touch with the person or decline to put me in touch with the person. In an acrobatic feat of communicative misdirection, they did neither:
"I'm not sure where this is at," a communications person replied. "However, I've included one of my comms colleagues at Auckland Council to assist with your enquiry." We exchanged a couple more emails. I reiterated that my request was to speak to the aforementioned person. They replied: "No problem. Thanks Greg. I'll see what more I can add."
Add to what? I didn't need anything added; I needed a contact. I was only asking out of politeness. When nothing had been added a week later, I found the contact myself and emailed the person directly. His response suggested nobody from communications had communicated with him.
I told him I wanted a quick chat about Bill Reid. He replied: "Thanks for your note. Yes Bill is quite the guy. I would be happy to chat about him."
Unfortunately, he copied in the communications person. A few minutes after that, my phone went. It was the communications person asking me to hold off on the interview while he did something vague-sounding. I know a death knell when I hear one and sure enough, later that day, Bill Reid's man at ATEED sent me the following email: "For clarification, my association with Bill Reid has resulted from the work I have done in facilitating and providing introductions to other agencies and key decision-makers in council. It's now my understanding that you want to focus on the personality not the project, however it's the project work that I have been involved in."
He signed off his email: "I hope you understand my position and I apologise for any confusion."
I didn't understand his position. I replied: "You write one email explicitly agreeing to talk about the man rather than the project, then you write a second suggesting you thought you were going to be talking about the project rather than the man. "Could you clarify for me?"
He never replied.
That's a much-condensed summary of my baffling, fruitless, multi-week attempt to get one portion of our city's bureaucracy to respond to a simple and seemingly trivial request about the person behind one of our city's most fascinating and long-running non-projects. I wondered what it might be like to be caught in that sort of organisational vortex for 33 years.
His first knockback came in 1988, following the two years of secret work that led his wife to her suspicions of infidelity. In that year, he took his plans for the tunnel to Auckland City Council's CEO and asked for sole and exclusive rights to develop the Albert Park tunnels into a tourist attraction and also as a potential exit for traffic from the city centre. They said no.
Talking about it now, decades later, after dozens more knockbacks, deliberations obfuscations and rejections, he still makes a sound of profound exasperation.
"The going was very hard," he says, "because I was on something like $250, $300 a week and I was paying bills of $1000, $1200 for designers, draft engineers, reports.
"I owe my wife. I took a lot from my wife and my two children back then. I owe it to them. It's a motivation to me to continue to succeed so hopefully I can give what I took away from them back then."
What he wants now, he says, is to be called into the mayor's office, be told that the Council is going to take over the development of the main tunnel and for them to bestow on him a memorandum of understanding giving him and his partners the right to develop the other tunnels into tourist attractions.
"That is my ultimate," he says, "my ultimate for my wife and family, my wife and two children.
"My wife and two children, they suffered, and I was guilty, but that was my dedication back then."
I spoke to his wife and son. Neither talked about suffering. His son doesn't remember not having any food in the fridge. They both said they really want the project to happen - but for his sake rather than their own.
I asked if money had ever been important to him.
"S***, would I have liked to have some money! Put some food in my fridge for my two children."
I asked if money had ever been a motivating force.
"No, s*** no, and it's not now. But my wife and my two children, I still have to look after them for what I took away from them."
He said: "I have to keep working. People who retire at 50, they die in about five to 10 years. I don't want to die. I can't afford to die. I can't. I've still got a lot to do for my wife and two children."
The more I tried to make clear to him I wanted to write about him and his astonishing multi-decade dedication to a potentially hopeless cause, the more he bombarded me with non-relevant tunnel-related arcana. His knowledge of and attention to detail was astounding. Some things he mentioned during our interview, all without reference to documents or notes:
There are 11,400 feet [3500m] of tunnels under Albert Park, originally built to house 22000 people, lined with 3.2 million feet of heart rimu, kauri, stringy birch and larch. The tunnels were sealed on 28 February, 1946, filled with 8.5 million clay blocks, each measuring 10 inches by 10 inches by 4 inches, made from dirt from a pensioners' home in Pt Chevalier, transported by trucking contractors McKenzie and Hughes Ltd to Crum Brick and Tile in New Lynn, where they were extruded through moulds and cut by wire, wet, dried, then put into the tunnels. There have since been 11 collapses throughout the park. There were nine entrances to the tunnels, eight remain - he listed precisely where they all are, including entrance six, where he installed a steel door and later welded it shut after someone in Auckland Council upset him. "Throwing my toys out of the cot," he called it.
His plan is no longer to use the main tunnel for cars but rather for pedestrians and cyclists, connecting the CBD to Parnell, with two elevators taking pedestrians up to Princes St and Symonds St. The side tunnels will be used for a diverse range of tourism activities, potentially including glow-worms, a troll cave, wine and cheese caves and blackwater rafting.
It would be wrong to say the project hasn't made progress - at times it's made so much progress it's seemed to be gaining the weight of inevitability but each time the momentum has failed to deliver the desired result. In 2001, with Reid's pushing and what he estimates at $17,000 of his money, the Auckland Improvement Trust Amendment Bill was introduced to parliament. When passed into law, it allowed for the development of the tunnels.
Then-MP Judith Tizard said the opening of the tunnels would help Aucklanders understand our history and geology, develop tourism opportunities and look at new public transport options.
That was 18 years ago.
In March, 2018, Reid, his partners and a consulting engineer were asked to attend an Auckland Council meeting downtown. "We were told that mayor Goff doesn't attend these meetings" he said. Goff did attend the meeting, though, and sat next to Councillor Darby. (In November last year, Darby told Newshub, regarding the tunnel project: "It is a magnificent idea and one I think really worthy of pursuing.") Reid's presentation was shifted from second on the agenda to first and no councillors offered any objections. The point was that, 31 years after Reid first began work on trying to open the Albert Park tunnels, there were signs of hope.
That was nearly two years ago.
Reid has many stories of mayoral meetings dating back to Dame Cath Tizard and including mayors Mills, Fletcher, Hubbard and Banks. During his most recent meeting, he says he interrupted Mayor Goff mid-sentence: "'Oh, excuse me, Mayor Goff,, I said, 'My partner Nick's got something to show you.' We were sitting about this far apart, there was a low glass table in the middle of us, and Nick got this black box and put it on the table and he opened up the lid and he pulled out a jar and he said to the mayor, 'Inside this jar there are two glow-worms. I'm going to use those two glow-worms to set up a colony to put in one of the Albert Park tunnels.'" He says Goff excitedly came off his seat to get a closer look.
Goff couldn't comment for this story but late last year he told RNZ's Matthew Theunissen: "We're supportive of the concept. It's a private sector, commercial proposal so we expect it to be largely self-funding. But we think it has real potential as something that Aucklanders and people around New Zealand would be interested in, but also as part of our tourist trade."
When I first contacted Reid, I had assumed his dream must be nearly a reality, that it might be possible to accompany him and his partners to a series of meetings like those already mentioned, at which the enthusiasm of councillors and mayor would build like a wave until the triumphant moment Reid would be invited to blow open the steel door he had welded shut in 1998 and lead Auckland into a dynamic new underground era.
When I first met him, in September, Reid said, "I think we're very close, Greg. We're very close to getting the recognition these historic tunnels deserve for Auckland." (At one stage, he said to me, "When you talk about the tunnels, Greg, please talk about the tunnels as not just 'tunnels' but 'these historic tunnels.'")
He seemed so confident, possibly justifiably: "Somewhere along the line, somebody will thank Bill Reid," he said. He paused. "Not sure when."
"It just has to happen. It's part of our national walking and cycling path. It's a connection opening up the CBD to Parnell, history, it's the disabled and the wheelchair people and the young families with pushchairs, it's the access to Albert Park."
I asked why he was still so confident after so many years with so little progress. He said: "There's been so many doors close in my face. My father said to me, 'In your life, there's going to be doors that open and doors that close. The ones that close in your face, you try and get them open.
"And another saying, 'If someone says no, use it as a stepping stone to get them to say yes.'"
Nevertheless, at times his optimism seemed to run up against the reality of the last 33 years.
"Everyone says, 'We've got no money,'" he said. "Well that's bulls*** because it's publicly advertised that the New Zealand Transport Agency have put away $390 million for walkway and cycle paths. This is a walkway and cycle path. You see, at the present moment, everyone to keep their job has got to say no to everything to do with money. That's bulls*** and you never hear me swear. That riles me."
"The money's there. If you drive on the Southern Motorway between Manurewa and Papakura there is a massive concrete bridge walkway being built. What's more important? That walkway or Auckland's history with these tunnels? To me, there's a lot of hypocrisy."
The one that really sticks in his craw, he said, is the Sky Tower. He used to walk up Nelson St when the construction site was being dug.
"There was this big hole," he says, "And now look at it."
"If it wasn't for me and me alone," he told Newshub three years ago, "nobody whatsoever in New Zealand would know of the existence of these historic tunnels."
I believe it. His appetite for the promotion of this project, after 33 years, remains enormous. Last weekend, he sent me three emails. They are the most recent communications I've received from him but not, I would imagine, the last.
Friday: "Something for you to possibly consider Greg, 114 ACC workmen in 1942 built 3.5 kilometres of tunnels in just 8 months, in your NZH archives there are photos of some of those workmen, there should be a "drive" by a "news media" to see if there is anymore memorabilia or other photos of those men. I worked it out some years ago, there must be around 3500 descendants of those workmen, who and where are they?"
His next email, on Saturday, just after the 6pm news, expressed outrage about Tourism NZ's $100,000 contribution to the visit of American comedian and The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, which he described as a "gift" from Tourism NZ's CEO. "That absolutely gauls [sic] me," he wrote. "What a hypocrite, does he not know of my 33 year dedication to Auckland History and tourism."
On Sunday, he wrote to tell me he had just posted on Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis' Facebook page, calling him a hypocrite for giving "an American" $100,000 to promote tourism in New Zealand. "That pisses me off no end," he wrote, "as I have received not a single dollar or thanks from him, or Auckland Council."
I tried one last time to get him to understand that this story would be about him rather than the tunnels: "You see what I mean, right?" I said. "When you talk about the tunnels, you're not just thinking about them because they're a hole in the ground. You've shown me all these people, you've shown me the 114 people ... it's all these people we relate to in all these stories, and you are now inextricably a part of those tunnels' history. And I know you don't want to be the centre of the story but you are going to be the centre of the story."
I may as well have been talking to myself. He'd buried himself so deeply in the tunnels he couldn't see anything else.
"I'm not sure whether it's going to take up too much of your time," he replied, "but every one of those men - they are named. If you ever want the names of those men, I'll give you a copy."
I didn't, but when the story of the tunnels is finally written - Reid's working on it now and looking for a publisher - those names won't be forgotten.