COMMENT:

It's a much-worn phrase, Catch-22, but sometimes it fits.

The "Waterfront Consortium" promoting a new sunken stadium by Bledisloe Wharf went to the planning committee of Auckland Council yesterday. They didn't want approval for their scheme. They wanted the council to support a feasibility study over the next 12-18 months.

Several committee members were puzzled the consortium couldn't yet answer some of the questions put to them.

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That's what the feasibility study is for, the consortium replied. We believe we've got it right but we don't want you just to take our word for it. The whole proposition needs vigorous testing.

That testing should include the engineering challenge, the impact of climate change, the cost and ownership structure, the various effects on sports, entertainment shows and the rest of the city, the proposed design, the operating model and the way the proposal fits the larger plans for the port and the rest of the city.

"There are lots of plans for the waterfront," deputy mayor Bill Cashmore said. "Why should we support this one? You know the meaning of tāmaki makaurau, it's a place desired by many."

The consortium's Michael Sage, a partner with law firm Simpson Grierson, replied that the best way to decide what to do on the waterfront is "to start with a good idea and stress test it". His meaning: if we starting with nothing, or a general report on all the options, say, which is the same thing, we will end with nothing.

There's truth in that. The sunken stadium proposal has already sharpened debate on what should happen on the site, and to Eden Park and other sports venues, in a way we haven't seen for a long time. That's a good thing.

But why the rush? Because, said Sage, if Ports of Auckland is allowed to put up its car-park building on Bledisloe Wharf early next year that will stop every other proposal for the site in its tracks.

Also, he said, if the city and the country want to host the Rugby World Cup in 2031 and/or the Commonwealth Games around the same time, we have to start planning now.

Councillor Daniel Newman asked if Sage knew the Port Companies Act limits the council's authority over the port. Sage said new legislation would be required.

Councillor Ross Clow said the council would be looking at the stadium issue in 2021, when it refreshed the 10-year-budget.

Dave Wigmore, a real estate executive who chairs the consortium, thought that would probably be too late. It'll take 10 years, he said, from whenever feasibility work starts, till the work is finished.

The consortium envisages that if the project gets through the feasibility study, and council and the Government agree to proceed, a tender process would be opened to find a developer. The feasibility work would incur costs but the developer would be required to repay them, with interest.

Sage also said: "There has to be a viable solution to moving the cars off the wharf." A good place to start.

The planning committee members did not seem convinced.

Auckland waterfront stadium proposal to be built on Bledisloe Wharf. Photo / Incredible Images
Auckland waterfront stadium proposal to be built on Bledisloe Wharf. Photo / Incredible Images

What about public input, asked Cathy Casey. Wigmore said they were keen on it and suggested they might do their own polling.

Liane Ngamane, representing the Independent Māori Statutory Board, told consortium members how disappointed she was there is "no acknowledgement of the treaty partnership. Not understanding that does disturb me."

Wigmore said, "We do understand that."

"No," said Tau Henare, also with the IMSB, "you don't get it.

"I'm a big supporter," Henare assured the consortium. "It's a fantastic proposal and if possible I think you should do it tomorrow."

But it was not acceptable there had been no engagement with mana whenua, or with the mataawaka he represents. That's Māori who don't identify with a local iwi.

Wigmore mentioned Ngāti Whātua and explained that "we respect their desire not to be involved at this stage".

But, he added, "we're determined to engage with all stakeholders".

"But we're not like other stakeholders," said Henare. He talked about the "special relationship" conferred by the treaty. "You failed there."

He suggested, for starters, the consortium might look at committing to having a workforce of at least 15 per cent Māori.

Planning committee chair Chris Darby thought it might be a waste of the site to put an inward-looking stadium there. Architect Richard Goldie of Peddle Thorp said for every two hours people would spend inside the stadium, they'd spend another six outside on the waterfront and in the city.

He might have added there's another inward-looking building on a prime waterfront site and no one seems to complain - the Sydney Opera House.

Councillor Desley Simpson asked if there were any other stadiums in the world sunk into the sea floor like this one would be. Goldie said the Louvre is building one in Abu Dhabi, "so we know this can be done".

As for climate change and rising sea levels, Sage said that if the sea level rose high enough to swamp the stadium it would also flood much of downtown, "so it's not really an issue".

And that's not really an answer. This project, like all new coastal projects, will need to be subject to rigorous future proofing.

There were many other questions, especially about the cost implications and the future of Eden Park. But the biggest right now is this: Can the council deal with a good idea that it didn't have itself? When and how is it going to open its planning processes to great thinking from the rest of the city?

It's not that the council should just jump every time someone gets a flash photo in the paper. But currently the process is you get a pat on the head and that's the end of it.

Why? Because fundamentally, the council – by which I mean council officials, enabled by councillors – believe they are the ones who should be trusted to come up with the best ideas. We need better than that.

Darby suggested the council's own City Centre Masterplan refresh "is the place where we can start to integrate some of these ideas". That plan comes before the planning committee on November 27.

But that plan process will take time and besides, the Waterfront Consortium wants a lot more than "integrating some of these ideas".

It suggests stress testing of its stadium proposal can run alongside the council's other planning and be integrated into it, as and when required. That's good thinking.

Yesterday the council asked questions. Come November 27, councillors may have to start stress testing their own decision-making processes.