COMMENT: There are good dolphins and bad dolphins. Everyone knows the good ones: bounding with gay abandon through the water, turning with heads up to laugh at you, showing those rows of surprisingly prehistoric teeth.
The bad dolphins aren't even real dolphins. They're unwanted wharf extensions, given a friendly name to disguise the fact they're stealing a bit more of our harbour.
The council agency, Panuku, intends to put two "dolphins" off the end of Queens Wharf: platforms joined by a permanent walkway, to allow mega-cruise ships to tie up there as other cruise ships do already. The governing body of the council has voted its support. Mayor Phil Goff voted for them, even though he campaigned in the last election on a policy of no more wharf extensions.
Ports of Auckland (POAL) is dead keen – it's its idea – and the cruise industry loves the idea too.
But not Urban Auckland and other groups with a more progressive view of how this city might develop. They've been at an independent commissioners' hearing this week, arguing the dolphins are wrong for the city and the logic used by Panuku and POAL to support them is badly flawed. A decision is expected within days.
Curiously, the objectors' view has been supported by a substantial report by planner Richard Blakey, which was produced on commission from the Auckland Council.
The obvious problem with the dolphins is that they will extend the wharf further into the harbour. But although that's important, it's not the biggest problem. With the dolphins in place, POAL and Panuku will be able to push on with their larger strategy for the central city finger wharves, and that's disastrous.
The strategy has several components. First, Queens Wharf will remain a key berth for cruise ships. This means that wasteland in front of Shed 10 – the turning bay for taxis, trucks and other vehicles – will remain. It also means a bus route will be established up the west side of the wharf, along the top and down between Shed 10 and the Cloud.
I kid you not: the buses are for cruise ship passengers and trials of how it would work have already taken place.
Queens Wharf belongs to the council, not the port. In 2009 it was bought by the Auckland Regional Council and the Government, from POAL, for $40 million. It was to become a "people's wharf" – a wharf with a focus on recreation and entertainment – and to that end the red fence was opened with much fanfare, in 2010.
The Cloud was erected and Shed 10 was renovated. There are now food stalls at the city end, while Michael Parekowhai's magnificent Lighthouse sculpture graces the harbour end, along with a cluster of recliners and benches. All steps in the right direction.
But none of it works very well. There's not enough shade, priority is given to vehicles and that means great parts of the wharf are barren. It feels like it's been set up to fail. The Lighthouse and the beautiful Shed 10 excepted, it's all pop-up, living on borrowed time. Cruise ships compromise the whole place.
Adding even more pressure, the west side of the wharf will soon be lined with ferry berths. Thousands of ferry passengers coming and going will be squeezed onto a narrow strip of wharf next to that dedicated bus route.
And meanwhile, as another component of the master strategy, POAL has begun work on its proposed new holding facility for imported cars on Bledisloe Wharf. Don't call it a carparking building, they say. But that is what it is. And they still want to put a hotel in front of it.
This is nonsense. Urban Auckland chairwoman Julie Stout told the hearing commissioners: "The 350-metre length of Queens Wharf could be broken down into episodes of different character, not unlike the promenade of North Wharf, a 400-metre walk from Te Wero Bridge to the children's park. People would be led along to the end, where the harbour and the view out to the islands are revealed before them. It could be engaging, rough, charming, quiet, active and unique to Tāmaki Makaurau."
True that. And it could be safe for pedestrians: a plaza full of people.
How? By shifting the cruise ships along to Captain Cook, which is supposed to be part of the long-term plan anyway, and to Bledisloe Wharf. The little Marsden Wharf has been partially dismantled; with that work complete, the mega-cruise ships will have 450m of Bledisloe to tie up at.
And how will that be done, when Cook and Bledisloe are currently used for short-term storage for imported vehicles?
Two answers to that. One, Bledisloe currently has an average of 10 days a month free of other ships. POAL could already schedule cruise ships to berth there, if it wanted to.
Two, shift the cars. Northport is likely to be a pretty good option, all things considered.
Remember, two years ago the Port Future Study working group, with POAL as a participating member, agreed the Auckland port would outgrow its base on the Waitematā, and that new solutions for shipping and freight would be needed. Planning, said the group, should start sooner rather than later.
POAL, enabled by the council and its agency Panuku, is simply ignoring that.
Panuku told the hearing there were strong economic reasons for building the dolphins. It also said it had "excluded those effects of the Project that cannot be easily monetised".
What? The "non-monetised" values of a waterfront aren't important now?
And why is the economic argument limited to cruise ships? Wouldn't they be able to make a buck or two from concerts with the band on a floating pontoon moored between Queens and Captain Cook wharves, surrounded by crowds on three sides? And from NZ Opera doing the same?
Besides, whatever the cruise industry likes to say, it's not credible its big ships will stop coming to Auckland – this is the best city in the country for passengers to start and finish their cruises. There's also a big provisioning industry and it's central to a lot of tourism.
Even on an economic basis, the argument for the dolphins is spurious.
Think about Sydney for a moment, and the wonderful busyness of Circular Quay. Everyone on foot, heading for ferries or bars and restaurants, the movies, the magnificent Museum of Contemporary Art or a show at the Opera House. Or just hanging out, because it's a very cool place to do that too.
Think about the innovative, seductive and varied ways in which Wellington, bleak old windy Wellington, has made its waterfront so appealing.
How is it we're not inspired by those cities to do better for Auckland?
We smugly tell ourselves we have a lovely harbour and we did so well with Wynyard Quarter, blah blah. But we're decades behind with our downtown waterfront planning. And the council, the mayor, Panuku and Ports of Auckland are to blame.
Independent commissioners have saved us before from the predations of that lot. Fingers crossed they do it again. Meanwhile, a protest is planned for Sunday afternoon, March 10, on the wharf and on the water.