COMMENT:

Never mind the stadium, did you know Ports of Auckland (POAL) is about to build a multi-storey "car-handling" facility on Bledisloe Wharf? It will extend about a fifth the length of Bledisloe Wharf and just over a third of its width, with the rest retained for open-air car storage, as now. When that's finished, they're going to build a hotel in front of it.

The plan isn't new: it was included in POAL's "30-year masterplan", presented to council last November. The company now has a consent for the earthworks. Final designs are not complete, but a building consent for the carpark is expected very soon and construction will start "in the first quarter of 2019". POAL intends the hotel to follow.

The 17m carpark building will be five storeys tall. The hotel will fit between the carpark and Quay St and be even taller. Both will block sight-lines on that part of the waterfront. The carpark will probably have a grassed roof.

Advertisement

This is right by the site proposed last month by a private consortium for a new stadium sunk into the seabed. That plan has not been presented formally to Auckland Council or to Ports of Auckland. But once POAL starts construction of its carpark it will scuttle the stadium before it even has a chance to be considered.

When the stadium was proposed, the chairman of the council's planning committee, councillor Chris Darby, was unimpressed. He didn't want anything "crowding out the Waitematā's glistening edge with the enormous footprint of a stadium".

But the port's new buildings will have a similar footprint, will be about as tall and will present a solid wall to the city. The stadium design, in contrast, has glass walls rising above street level so we'll be able to see right through it.

Artist's impression of the proposed new carpark building seen from the Sky Tower. Photo / Ports of Auckland
Artist's impression of the proposed new carpark building seen from the Sky Tower. Photo / Ports of Auckland

Stop Stealing Our Harbour, which campaigned against further harbour reclamation in 2015, is also opposed to the stadium.

"Until we have a workable long-term waterfront plan, the existing waterfront infrastructure should be utilised in the most efficient way to cater for Auckland's needs without any ad hoc incursions on the Waitematā Harbour," spokesman Michael Goldwater told the Herald.

But the carpark and hotel are not existing infrastructure, they're new. And they come with "ad hoc incursions" – extensions to the wharf – on both the north and west sides of Bledisloe.

Perhaps neither Goldwater nor Darby had remembered POAL's plan.

What the hell, POAL.

CEO Tony Gibson accepts the port will probably shift to a new location sometime in the next 30 years, but his job is to run the port efficiently now. In POAL's view, that means storing car imports on the wharf for a few days before they're transferred inland. And repeating, endlessly.

Bledisloe and Captain Cook wharves are both used for this. But Cook is destined to become the main berth for cruise ships, while the port will soon be handling even more cars because of rising demand for electric vehicles. This is why POAL wants the new building.

And the hotel? That's simply POAL using its land to make money, regardless of the relevance to its port functions.

What does Auckland Council have to say about all this?

Mayor Phil Goff says under the Port Companies Act, council is "expressly forbidden from interfering with the commercial decision-making of the port". Even though it owns both the land and the port company. Council can ask questions but it can't direct.

If you want someone to thank for that, it's Roger Douglas. The Act dates from 1988, the heyday of his neoliberal reforms in the fourth Labour Government.

When POAL presented its masterplan to Darby's planning committee last November, questions were indeed asked, particularly about the hotel. The document was accepted but not approved. "Council," says Darby now, "has not made any record of support."

Yesterday, councillors met in a closed "workshop" to consider how to update their own masterplan for the city centre, which includes the waterfront and big changes to the Quay St area. No word yet how they feel about POAL's imminent intention to build on Bledisloe.

So, what about those cars. Do they have to stay on the wharf?

Well, no. It might be "efficient" for POAL to use the wharf as a car storage yard but these things are relative. It would be "efficient" to build warehouses on the docks and dispense all the goods to their endpoints from there. After all, that's what every port in the world used to do.

But every port in the world, including Auckland, accepted decades ago that simple efficiency had to be balanced by other factors: environmental, social, cultural, and don't forget the opportunity cost. If the land wasn't used as a storage and distribution centre, what else could it be used for?

POAL now runs a very large inland port at Wiri, but it still makes decisions about the wharves where it seems blind to larger questions about appropriate use. That proposed hotel, an utterly gratuitous use of the land, is one example.

All those containers stacked more than three or four high are another: they're empty, stored on the wharf only because no one tells POAL it's not acceptable to do that.

And for a third: the cars. POAL could route them directly off the boats, on to rail and to a storage facility inland.

Or, if it really wants to drive them directly into a parking building on the wharf, why not build a taller and thinner carpark tower, inventively designed, on the outer reach of the docks where it won't fill up the view?

Could the cars be imported through another port? Onehunga, suggested informally by the stadium promoters, is not a starter. The wharf has been decommissioned and council is revitalising the whole precinct.

Northport or Tauranga? Both would cost around $1 billion, according to an NZIER report commissioned by POAL. But the Government has an Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy group also working on this and chair Wayne Brown says it's due to report around February next year.

Currently we have no national ports and freight strategy, because the previous government preferred to leave it to the market. The new approach recognises that while POAL will work in its own interests, they will not necessarily coincide with the interests of the country or even the city.

So the working group is considering a nationally co-ordinated strategy for ports, roads and rail. That specifically includes "options for moving the location of the Ports of Auckland, including giving Northport serious consideration".

POAL's new car-handling facility and the hotel are not stop-gap measures until that's done. They're medium-term infrastructure. They will pre-empt the council's own plans for the area, undermine the Government's strategic planning, and shut down debate about a waterfront stadium.

It's absurd this is being allowed to happen. Regardless of that 1988 Act, the mayor and council need to tell Ports of Auckland as clearly as they can that it must stop now.

The original version of this story reported the building was six storeys high and that the development would extend half the length of Bledisloe Wharf and most of its width.