It's been six years since Aucklanders were promised a new vision of open spaces and access to harbour views on the city's waterfront gateway, Queens Wharf.

Remember the sense of breakthrough when Queens Wharf in downtown Auckland was secured as the people's wharf?

For a city whose finest assets are its harbour and gulf setting and volcanic field, this was a big deal. For generations, the thousands who visit and work in the city centre caught only fleeting glimpses of those views thanks to the physical and political sway of the port. Opening up Queens Wharf at the foot of Queen St was the holy grail.

Six years on, the imported cars and bananas have gone but the berthing of giant giant cruise ships there still overshadows the evolution of the people's wharf.

"Auckland's stunning waterfront sets the scene for what should be one of the world's most attractive downtown precincts," says one of many Auckland Council (and predecessors') reports on the area. The countless consultations and master plans have long promised low-intensity, high-quality public spaces and promenades providing the downtown-waterfront access that Wellingtonians and Sydneysiders enjoy.

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The Downtown Framework talks of "rethinking ferry and cruise ship berthing options ... to open up more of the harbour's edge for people to enjoy". It's about "establishing a welcome mat and celebrated harbour edge. Transformation of Quay St, [opening] the red fence and redevelopment and new water-edge public spaces."

What's there now, even the council concedes, is a long way short. And making sense of the 3ha of public space is on hold until a raft of surrounding developments and obstacles are sorted.

"Interdependencies between projects in the area are extensive and changes in one aspect or area can result in compounding effects elsewhere which are not obvious," says one of the jargon-heavy documents.

For much of summer, the main activity is not people connecting with the harbour but tour buses, goods vehicles and taxis servicing the cruise ships, cars dropping and collecting ferry passengers and airport buses arriving and departing. The council estimates about 120,000 people come into the CBD each day; between 300 and 400 saunter on to Queens Wharf, on average.

Granted, quayside promenades have been developed to the west - around the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter; public seating around the ferry basin. But the 400m-long wharf promised not only an up-close experience of the "theatre" of the water - ferries, yachts, ships and tugboats coming and going - but connection to world-class harbour views: a panorama sweeping from the harbour bridge to Stanley Point, Rangitoto, Devonport's twin cones and down the harbour to Waiheke and Browns Island. These views define Auckland.

In 2009, the Government and the Auckland Regional Council paid the council-owned port company $40 million to free up the wharf for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. "Party central" is a faded memory but the "people's wharf" remains a prize the city can't quite grasp.

The wharf's eastern strip, from where the best views unfold, is off limits behind a steel grate fence as the city's preferred cruise ship terminal. Shed 10 - the sole surviving cargo shed which cost $18.6 million to restore - appears effectively privatised as the cruise ship gateway, though it's available for hire when no boat is tied up. The wharf takes most of the 100 ships that visit over summer. It was billed as a temporary terminal until other options were developed - with an extended Captain Cook Wharf next door the preferred option. But once it opened, Mayor Len Brown and his council rather dropped the ball.

A licence to occupy the wharf perimeter and close off areas for Customs purposes costs the port company just $1 a year. (It pays, however, for sub-structure maintenance and cruise-related operating costs.)

As for the public realm - it's shambolic. For first-timers, there's no coherence to the visitor experience - no sense of arrival, where to go nor what the wharf has to offer. For repeat visitors, there's only bemusement at the possibilities going begging. And, for three years while the Downtown Shopping Centre is rebuilt into a three-level mall and office tower, some displaced tenants will operate from "pop-up retail" containers on Queens Wharf near the entrance. Services such as shoe repair, dry cleaning, banking and food and beverages are envisaged, says the council - "not a high street-style shopping mall or a souvenir market".

The Cloud, a $10 million "temporary" addition, built to leverage trade opportunities during the Rugby World Cup, is badly under-utilised. The length of two football fields, it serves mainly to block the view.

$20 million is set aside in the council's 10-year plan for redeveloping Queens Wharf but the vision remains a blank. The only significant development on the books is the Barfoot and Thompson-funded Michael Parekowhai "Lighthouse" sculpture, to be positioned by mid-2016 among the panoramic views near wharf's end.

Back in 2009, a rushed design competition turned up myriad ideas for creating a high-quality public environment: sunken swimming pools, a cultural whare, produce market, performance amphitheatre, steps leading down to the water ... Aucklanders have since made it clear they favour high-amenity public spaces - not "iconic" buildings nor a Wynyard Quarter-style restaurant/bar strip. The overwhelming wish is to see harbour views.

The cash-strapped Auckland Council has other priorities. With major works scheduled for the downtown area and the headscratching over the future of the port, it's a wharf tied up in strategic knots. There's the Auckland Plan, the Waterfront Master Plan, the Central City Master Plan, the Downtown Framework and the Central Wharves Strategy. All talk up the transformative potential of connecting city and harbour via the Queen St-Queens Wharf "spine".

Urban planner Joel Cayford says the various plans contain all the right words and the public's preferences for the type of development are well-established. But there's no sign of implementation - just further consultation.

"Public open space is always the last cab off the rank and we've had 40 years of that," Cayford says. "Gradually it just gets appropriated or encroached on."

Joel Cayford speaks at the final meeting of the Auckland Regional Council. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Joel Cayford speaks at the final meeting of the Auckland Regional Council. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Cayford is completing a PhD comparing Auckland's waterfront redevelopment with Wellington, where traffic diversion paved the way for people-friendly promenades and wharf amenity. He says divided management is a factor in Auckland's failure to make similar progress.

"There's not been a coherent plan for the whole area. There's no detail in the central city and waterfront master plans in terms of implementation."

It probably doesn't help that the property is managed by arms-length CCO Panuku Development Auckland and, since the admirable, but expensive, Shed 10 renovation, the wharf hasn't been a priority for lame-duck Mayor Len Brown.

Cayford sees worrying parallels with past projects approved on the promise of public access and amenity benefits - examples include Princes Wharf and the failed Chase Plaza, in the middle of a high-rise office development, in mid-town. "We've had this recurring theme where public space is used as the carrot and then it is either not delivered or taken away and privatised."

It's happening again, Cayford notes, with the sale of nearby Queen Elizabeth Square to Precinct Properties for the Downtown Mall development. With past councils allowing high rise towers to turn the square into a windswept canyon, the current council depicts it as a failed space.

The council promises to spend the $27.2 million it gains from the deal to extend the seawall and enhance public spaces in the ferry basin (between Princes Wharf and the Ferry Building) and upgrade the Admiralty Steps, east of Queens Wharf, but not on the wharf itself.

Cayford warns that neglect of Queens Wharf risks a similar scenario of a future council declaring the area, or part of it, a failed space. "They could say a few people sitting under umbrellas or trying to catch a fish on a 3ha space in that location is unsuccessful so let a private sector developer do something. This is what's happened with Queen Elizabeth Square."

He adds that "temporary" facilities - such as The Cloud, the cruise ship terminal and the new "pop-up retail" area can assume permanence unless the public is vigilant.

So many dominoes need to fall it could be another five to 10 years before the wharf offers the high-quality environment for so long envisaged. These "interdependent" projects include: construction work for the City Rail Link; the Downtown Mall redevelopment; lower Queen St pedestrianisation, with buses diverted to a new interchange in lower Albert St; changes to Ferry Terminal operations and the new ferry basin seawall; turning Quay St into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard ...

The biggest wildcard is the Future Port Study which aims to cater for growing trade and longer ships without encroaching further into the harbour. Consultancies were appointed last month but they have only six months and a $600,000 budget to weigh up the options.

City Centre Integration spokesman Oliver Roberts says it's recognised that the wharf is not fulfilling its potential and improvement is needed. But a long-term wharf plan must await decisions on the port's future configuration, including any scope to move the cruise ship terminal.

Former regional council chairman Mike Lee was instrumental in securing the wharf for the people. Now chairman of the Auckland Council infrastructure committee and a Waitemata ward councillor, Lee is far from disappointed by what's unfolded since. "I saw it as an opportunity to open up the waterfront - simply for people to get close to ships again. We've got 26 regional parks with high conservation and landscape values - I never saw Queens Wharf in that light.

"It's about people and recreation places and it's a working place - it's bustling. My only concern is that it needs somehow to be made more inviting at the Queen St end."

Lee opposes shifting cruise ships to an extended Captain Cook Wharf. "There are so many things we need to do in this town - we've got a working terminal, it's good enough. Queens Wharf will evolve over time - it's up to future generations to do with it what they will."

Making a place for the people

The long walk to wharf's end and back is as puzzling as the wharf itself. Approaching from the Queen St canyon, there's the bus interchange in lower Queen St and the heavy traffic of Quay St to negotiate. While the famous Red Fence has been prised open, the wharf entrance itself is a busy thoroughfare when a cruise ship is in. The public square in front of Shed 10 is given over to tour bus boarding and disembarking.

When a boat is tied up on Queens or a car carrier on adjacent Captain Cook, views to Devonport's cones and down-harbour are hidden until the wharf's end. The ferry terminal and placement of The Cloud alongside Shed 10 add to the sense of enclosure.

In the midst of all this is a public seating area - where fluoro-coloured shade umbrellas match the garishness of the fake grass - with barely a glimpse of the harbour.

An information kiosk staffed by volunteers draws a few curious tourists. Office workers make use of the deck-slab furniture to eat lunch.

Surely a bit of paving of the pockmarked concrete surface and other landscape touches would leaven the industrial feel?

Even the effervescent wharf manager, Connie Clarkson, agrees the front yard could do with a makeover.

"It's a concrete wharf and a working wharf but it needs some softening, which can be flexible," Clarkson says.

Upstairs in Shed 10 is a wonderful space when available: chunky floorboards, exposed steel trusses and timber sarking, with windows giving elevated views of the harbour and port. But it is primarily off-limits since the decision to use Queens, rather than Princes Wharf, for most ship visits.

To its left, The Cloud - built as a trade venue for RWC2011 - has become a white elephant. Yet the "temporary" facility has taken on an air of permanence.

The venues, and the wharf itself, come into their own on weekends and public holidays for major events such as the Block Party, many of them free. Last summer (from October to February) the wharf hosted 89 events drawing 142,000 people. Venue hire generates around $800,000 a year, which covers operating costs and free events including sunrise yoga and art exhibitions.

Those with time can stroll the 400m to wharf's end where there's more public seating and stunning views of the harbour. One or two try their luck fishing. There's a piano to tinker on in an open container. It's a great relaxation spot - but then what?

At the far end of The Cloud, the deck off the mezzanine lounge offers stunning views of harbour and gulf. Surely these wasted hospitality spaces could be put to better use, enticing more people to wharf's end? No, the council has ruled out commercial lease of the venues - other than for functions.

Why not open the steel fence along the eastern wharf when ships aren't in port? Clarkson says there's a safety problem with young people using the cruise ship gantry for "bombing". Couldn't that be less-drastically managed?

Clarkson is a boundless optimist who sees little wrong with the public's interaction with the wharf.

"The public have rediscovered what it's like to come here," she says.

"There are not many places in any city where you can buy a burger, walk across the road and enjoy just being here - for nothing. People cannot believe there's a facility like this in the heart of the city ..."

She points to the variety of low-key activities: an exhibition by amateur photographers along the steel-grille fence; more exhibits inside a "digibox" container.

When The Cloud isn't booked (which is most days) punters can amble in to play table tennis, badminton or move the giant chess pieces, or just sit. The council calls this "placemaking".

Clarkson's official title is commercial place operations manager for Panuku Development Auckland (formerly Waterfront Auckland).

The wharf's slow evolution leaves scope to try things, she says, to make changes "as simple as shifting furniture into the right place and the people will come".

"It doesn't matter whether we have to wait a long time for the place to be redefined. What placemaking does is allow us to redefine it as we go."

User-friendly wins the day

Last Anniversary Weekend, the council closed off lower Queen St and Quay St and laid out beanbags, deck chairs and children's playthings on fake grass matting - an experiment to see what the public made of a car-free waterfront. They loved it.

The over-riding preference was to get close to the water and see the harbour. Those surveyed liked "fun, quirky spaces" and play areas for children as well as shelter. Environment, including green spaces, and setting were paramount. Arts and culture came in second, ahead of recreation facilities, with hospitality and retail down the track. A landmark tourist attraction wasn't a priority for most. There was enthusiasm for trams or light rail to connect the waterfront with Wynyard Quarter and the eastern bays. Cycle lanes were also important. In short, the same vision that 15 years of consultations and plans have produced.