Auckland's historic Queens Wharf will be reclaimed for public use next April and the two 100-year-old cargo sheds could be restored for a cruise ship terminal and "party central" for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The Government and the Auckland Regional Council yesterday announced they had each paid $20 million to buy the wharf from Ports of Auckland.

Critics and local politicians have long wanted to open the red fence for public access to the wharf, which was built between 1906 and 1914 as a port hub at the bottom of Queen St.

The ports company, which uses the wharf for parking imported used cars and stacking boxes of bananas and pineapples, began restricting public access in the late 1980s.

Under a deal that will see the ports company continue to service cruise ships and maintain the wharf, the 2ha site of prime waterfront land will be made available for public access once again in April next year.

Prime Minister John Key has said the wharf will become "party central" for the six-week rugby tournament and the cornerstone of a wider waterfront programme that will live long after 2011.

Mr Key said the challenge now was for city leaders to move swiftly to begin the job of transforming the wharf into a worldclass waterfront attraction.

Last night, Auckland City Mayor John Banks said the council had started looking at restoring the two cargo sheds on the wharf, which were built around 1912.

One wharf is used as a coldstore. The other is used for for motor vehicles and a back-up cruise ship facility.

Mr Banks said strengthening the wharf and building first-class cruise ships facilities, open spaces and other possibilities, like a home for the Auckland Theatre Company, could cost more than $100 million.

Whatever option was chosen would end up being paid for by all Aucklanders through the new Super City, he said.

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee said there was no need for a gold-plated redevelopment.

All that was needed was a well-designed cruise ship terminal and a new coat of asphalt. It was possible someone like Air New Zealand or Auckland Airport, with experience handling large numbers of passengers, could run the terminal.

Mr Lee, who said the regional council was funding its $20 million contribution through its investment arm, did not envisage putting any money into the redevelopment .

Cruise New Zealand chairman Craig Harris said a new cruise ship terminal in Auckland was vital if the business was to grow from the 73 ship calls in the last summer season to reach projections of 100 visits. At present, cruise ships berth at Princes Wharf and use Queens Wharf as a spillover.

Ann Sherry, who represents P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises in New Zealand, said a worldclass cruise gateway would enhance the regional and national economy.

"It makes sense to make the most of Auckland's rare ability to host ships in the heart of the city - a feature that passengers love," she said.

Ports company chief executive Jens Madsen said the sale - planned for several years - would be a good outcome for Auckland and New Zealand.

The sale proceeds would be reinvested in replacement cargo-handling capacity and facilities.

He said cargo handled on Queens Wharf would be transferred to the Bledisloe terminal, Captain Cook and Marsden wharves.