COMMENT

Takapuna is one of the great mysteries of this city. Down at the shoreline the beauty is breathtaking. With clear warm water, good surf, rocks to explore, bushclad headlands, clifftop walking trails, so much lovely sand and a gorgeous volcanic island to look at, is there a better city beach anywhere in the world?

And just a block or two back in the town, you might as well be in Palmerston North. A provincial centre far inland. I know, that's unfair to Palmerston North and I apologise, but the town centre of Takapuna seems like it was developed by people who hate the sea. Who hate any kind of quality, actually.

Not that they like it that way now. The Business Association says it's desperate for change. A group called Heart of Takapuna says the same. So does Auckland Council.

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Takapuna is identified in the city's Unitary Plan as a metropolitan centre: it's a big focus area for growth, where tens of thousands more people will live, work and play. And in response to local pleading, Takapuna was included as one of nine centres to get major development support through the "Unlock" programme of the council's development arm, Panuku.

Everybody, it seems, wants the same things: better interaction between town centre and beach, better public transport, more good housing, more economic vitality, more events and activities, a vibrant town centre.

Panuku has been consulting on how to use the big public carpark to achieve some of these ends. But in a strange twist of fate, Heart of Takapuna argues that people should reject the two options for change (options 1 and 2) and vote for option 3, which is to do nothing. Are they a bunch of clowns?

The case for no change was put to a meeting last Sunday afternoon by Ruth Jackson from Heart of Takapuna. Both Panuku's options were unacceptable, she argued, so the only option was to vote for no change now and demand something better soon.

Jackson sounded plausible. She had visuals that showed Panuku's new "town square" ideas would produce narrow corridors of public space, closed in by tower blocks. Only a small part of the carpark would remain a public amenity; the rest would be sold to developers.

She said the council talked a good game about how its proposals would create a wonderful, flexible public realm for all sorts of leisure activities and events. But they were being conned. The proposals were "a Trojan horse for nine-storey blocks on the rest of the land".

"We want kids to have the maximum amount of open space," she said.

"This is about selling public land and the rest is smoke and mirrors."

She liked her metaphors, did Jackson.

Mayor Phil Goff was there, as were both the local ward councillors, Chris Darby and Richard Hills, and other councillors and local board members. Darby ran through the history of how the council had spent years trying to consult on plans for Takapuna, and noted that the current proposals were the direct outcome of that consultation to date. Many of the people opposed to them now were in favour not so long ago, he said.

Goff explained that the plans had to be largely self-funding. Sell some land, and exercise careful controls on its use, in order to provide revenue to develop the rest as high-quality public space. Is that a bad approach?

He assured the meeting that council would follow the wishes of the local community, but reminded the meeting they were not the only locals involved. Indeed, it's hard to believe Takapuna is as overwhelmingly white and middle class as the people in that room. Three times, though, Goff gave his assurance that council would accept the outcome of the consultation process.

It didn't take long for the meeting to get weird. No one from Panuku was asked to respond to Jackson's analysis. Are the proposed town square options big enough or not? Is it true about the tower blocks?

David Rankin, the chief operating officer at Panuku, was asked to answer some other questions, but he was gruff, cryptically short and uninformative. He seemed irritated even to be there.

Here's a tip, Panuku: don't let Rankin out of his cubicle ever again. He's a backroom official. You've got several inspired designers and planners: let them do the talking.

It wasn't Panuku's only mistake. The consultation material is definitely confusing. Online and in printed brochures, the language is loaded with promises of sun, views and amenities but there's no clear explanation of what is proposed. You have to take an awful lot on trust.

There are artists impressions and even an online 360-degree tour of the project, but they don't help. The images show buildings and trees that don't exist, so it's impossible to recognise the place, get your bearings and know what you're looking at.

Still, it doesn't follow Panuku's plans are wrong. Or that they can't be improved. In fact, if options 1 or 2 are adopted, the next stage will be to produce a more fully worked-up concept, with consultation, that everyone can understand. That's an important, generally overlooked, point in this debate.

And the answer to Heart of Takapuna's critique of the Panuku plans? It's that yes, they have misrepresented what is proposed. The town square will not be surrounded by walls of nine-storey buildings, because the Unitary Plan requires those buildings to be stepped back, to ensure the public space is open and sunlit.

It will also be big enough to accommodate all sorts of activities. The proposed public square is about the same size as Takutai Square in the Britomart precinct, although it's longer and narrower.

Still, I agree it should be bigger. But a vote for option 1 or 2 should allow that, because it will mean planning continues. A vote for option 3 will send Takapuna and its shabby carpark straight to the back of the development queue.

Representatives of the Takapuna Business Association at the meeting understood that. They got shouted down, but they did make it clear they dreaded the whole thing being dropped.

Why has Panuku said option 3 will mean nothing gets done for years? On a site visit this week project planner Kate Cumberbatch said the three options were the clear favourites from earlier rounds of consultation and they really didn't know what else they could do that would please people.

She didn't say it, but from the meeting, social media comments and other coverage it's obvious this dispute is being used to undermine the local councillors, Darby and Hills. The council election is due next year and this is a political battle some of those involved have no interest in resolving.

That's Takapuna, home of the beautiful beach, slapping custard pies in its own face.

Online consultation closes today. Find the form at the Auckland Council website.