I'm rather an agnostic when it comes to the merits of the proposed 41-storey skyscraper opposite the Britomart train station. The existing Westfield shopping centre is such a manky dog's breakfast that it's hard to imagine anything going there being worse.
What does beggar belief is that Auckland City, in persuading its planning commissioners to rubber-stamp the resource consent application, has made no effort to protect the crucial rail tunnel, which is planned to pass through the site a few metres underground.
Only in Auckland could one branch of officialdom calmly give the nod to a vast above-ground development seemingly oblivious that, just down the corridor, their colleagues were finalising plans for a giant transport tunnel right where the skyscraper's foundation pillars need to go. The irony, if one can find any humour in this, is that the Waitemata Harbour Crossing Study, which revealed its latest plans last Friday just as the resource consent decision became public, was commissioned last year to ensure such a clash did not occur.
In the case of the harbour crossing study, the task was to ensure any future harbour tunnel or bridge project did not clash with redevelopment plans for the Wynyard Quarter Tank Farm. This has been achieved in the new recommended options, with proposed road and rail tunnels now skirting under or around the Tank Farm, instead of popping up in the middle as originally planned. But one of the new tunnels is supposed to carry passenger rail under the harbour then under the proposed skyscraper site into Britomart.
Even if this North Shore rail tunnel seems an unlikely proposition, the proposed 3.5km tunnel west out of Britomart running under Albert St south to Mt Eden is not. It is a vital link in the region's long-term plans to put 400,000 Aucklanders within 30 minutes of the CBD by rail.
Yet the Auckland City bureaucracy, which has been intimately involved both in the harbour crossing study and overall rail planning, recommended to the commissioners hearing the Westfield application that the consent should go through on a non-notified basis. That any adverse effects it might have would be at worst "minor".
Hearing commissioners Greg Hill and Conway Stewart went along with this. They noted that the Auckland Regional Transport Authority had advised Auckland City that "it intends to lodge a notice of requirement (NOR) for a CBD rail tunnel which, according to ARTA, will affect this site", but that "no NOR had been lodged at the time of determining this application". The commissioners said that "accordingly, while acknowledging that any proposed CBD rail tunnel is a significant strategic issue for the city/region, it has had no influence in the commissioners' determination of this application". If ever one needed further evidence for governance reform of Auckland, this nonsensical decision to turn a judicial blind eye to the obvious impact this building will have on the future traffic artery is it.
Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, a leader in the fight for better public transport, says the decision is "outrageous", "irresponsible" and "absolutely arrogant". He says the visual impact of such a building on the waterfront is going to be significant enough alone to entitle people to comment. "But the fact it's going to severely compromise the future rail tunnel is another reason why you would let it go through proper open process. What's the rush? Who are they working for, the public or the Australian property developers?"
Mr Lee said Auckland City planning general manager John Duthie had been "intimately involved in the harbour crossing work. Why the hell would you do this?"
The ARC and ARTA will now have to seek a judicial review of the resource consent decision and also begin the process of placing a designation, or NOR, over the tunnel site to protect the route.
Just to complicate the issues more, ARTA, the independent transport authority, has no power to place a designation over the transport corridor, but the ARC can.
How long all this will take is anyone's guess. But thanks to Auckland City, one thing is certain: glass tower lawyers will again enrich themselves at the expense of city and regional ratepayers. Many of us will fund both sides of this pointless battle, which only makes it worse