Shelly Bay has divided an iwi, launched a mayoral campaign, and been the subject of a 525-day land occupation, but famous filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson has managed to have the final say.
In a shock announcement, Shelly Bay Taikuru Limited and The Wellington Company said they would not be going ahead with a planned development at the site and had instead sold the land to Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh.
It is the final twist in one of Wellington’s most controversial, lengthy, and, at times, ugly issues.
Jackson has been a constant figure in the saga between his letters to the Wellington Mayor and his companies bankrolling both Andy Foster’s mayoral campaign as well as an iwi group that pursued legal action.
The filmmaker owns tens of millions of dollars worth of commercial property in Miramar tied to his Weta group of film-making companies.
He actually once looked at the possibility of creating a movie museum at Shelly Bay, but the idea fell flat around 2012.
In 2009 the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust (PNBST) used about half of its $25 million settlement money to purchase land at Shelly Bay.
The trust was established to handle Taranaki Whānui’s Tiriti o Waitangi settlement.
PNBST made moves to sell the land in 2016 but failed to get the necessary 75 per cent majority vote. The iwi was asset-rich, but cash-poor.
The land ended up being sold separately in parcels to Shelly Bay developer Ian Cassels as a way around the deal being classified as a major transaction, it’s alleged by Mau Whenua.
The prime real estate was then earmarked for a $500 million development, featuring 350 new homes, a boutique hotel, and a village green.
Jackson has vehemently opposed this plan.
In March 2019 Jackson slammed then-Wellington mayor Justin Lester in a searing email.
The email, provided to the Herald, showed Jackson and Walsh were invited to a meeting with Cassels and the trust to talk about how they might “be involved” in the development.
“Fran and I are not, and never will be, interested in associating with a team who seem determined to turn Shelly Bay into something that has been described as ‘Sausalito’ but which, in reality, will invoke blocks of Soviet-era apartments dumped on Wellington’s picturesque peninsula,” Jackson wrote.
Jackson acknowledged something needed to happen in Shelly Bay, “but we believe any development should be sympathetic to the environment and, as a unique piece of foreshore, Shelly Bay should retain a large public use component”.
Jackson also made clear he had no plans or desire to build anything on Shelly Bay himself, despite rumours suggesting otherwise.
He sent another letter in April of that year in which he said he was deeply concerned about the council’s approach to the development.
“It has been alleged the conduct of some WCC officers might be reminiscent of the unsavoury political practices normally found in countries like Albania (and that’s with apologies to Albania).”
It also included commentary on several 2016 emails about roading upgrades that might be required for the development to go ahead, and the amount road widening would cost.
He also referenced doublespeak, and said emails between staff have a “nudge nudge, wink wink” tone, and refer to council staff as “snake oil” salesmen.
At one point, he suggested the council invent a new species of giant penguin named Councilphala bullshitis and say it decided to nest under the road, as an excuse for widening the carriageway.
In August of that year, he attended the launch of long-time councillor Andy Foster’s Wellington mayoral campaign, which was held at Shelly Bay.
Foster was also fiercely against the development proposal and went on to win the mayoralty.
At the time, Jackson said he was not a political person.
“I’m not really doing this for politics,” he said.
“I don’t know whether Andy’s left, right, or going around in circles. I’m just supporting him because he seems to have moral integrity.”
Electoral returns later showed Jackson gave Foster $30,000 through his companies, Weta Digital, Park Road Post and Portsmouth Rentals.
In November 2019 it emerged one of Jackson’s companies was also bankrolling an iwi group pursuing legal action over Shelly Bay.
Court documents revealed WingNut Films, of which Jackson is a director, has agreed to meet certain costs over and above those met by the plaintiffs.
Mau Whenua was challenging whether iwi-owned land at Shelly Bay should have been sold to developers.
It said it was a group within Taranaki Whānui representing those who voted not to sell the land, those who have reconsidered their position on the sale and no longer support it, and those who say they didn’t get a chance to vote in the first place.
But in December 2020 Mau Whenua announced it had lost major allied party funding for its court case, leaving members trying to find millions of dollars.
The Herald understands the party was WingNut Films.
Mau Whenua called it a “bitter blow” and member Dr Catherine Love acknowledged the effects of Covid-19 on the film industry and the “difficult decisions” Mau Whenua allies and supporters have been forced to make.
A year later, and unrelated to Shelly Bay, Jackson agreed to sell Wellington-based Weta Digital’s tech division to a 3D game-development company for nearly NZ$2.3 billion.
Mau Whenua went on to hold a 525-day land occupation at Shelly Bay, which came to an end in May 2022 and allowed construction to finally start on the proposed development.
But work was hampered again in June this year when a suspicious fire destroyed a prominent heritage building there known as the Sawtooth Building.
Shelly Bay Rd has remained closed since then because of the asbestos risk posed by the remains of the building, meaning the construction site has been inaccessible.
This brings the saga to its latest chapter, the one where Jackson and Walsh are the new owners of the private landholdings.
The Wellington Company cited changing market conditions and “evolving project dynamics” as challenges and decided to approach Walsh and Jackson.
The couple said their immediate goal is to start landscaping and replanting work to return Shelly Bay to its natural state.
“Longer term, we’re keen to look at ways it could be used for both arts and recreation.”
Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.