When Auckland said no to all the designs for Queens Wharf that emerged from a hasty contest last year, the central Government would not rest. It had put $20 million into the wharf's joint purchase with the Auckland Regional Council and was not content that it could be temporarily equipped to be "party central" for the Rugby World Cup. There was much desire for something on the wharf that would be an enduring legacy of the event. Unfortunately, circumstances have conspired to put that legacy at risk.

This week, a new design centred on a cruise ship terminal emerged, the product of a larger, $97 million budget discussed with the contest-winning architects. It seemed no grander than a similar design last year for a project of half the cost, and part of it might compromise the wharf's structure for something more befitting the site in the fullness of time.

Of equal moment, Aucklanders were informed they would have to underwrite a $40 million shortfall for Eden Park's upgrade because the trust board cannot make a contribution. There is no guarantee that this money will not have to be written off. That means, in effect, that when the wharf and stadium demands are combined, ratepayers are suddenly staring at a new $140 million impost for the World Cup.

The Eden Park development came at the worst possible time for supporters of the $97 million project. As much as they would like to isolate the two funding demands, that cannot be. And, in their totality, they must affect the planning for Queens Wharf. Inexorably, the wheel has turned back towards a temporary upgrade for "party central".

Three options released yesterday by the Minister for the Rugby World Cup, Murray McCully, provide alternatives for this. The cheapest, at $23.9 million, involves removing the ugly sheds from the wharf and creating a temporary village. The two others, at $27.2 million and $31.3 million, envisage the sheds being refurbished for the "party". That represents no choice at all, given the sheds will remain an embarrassing eyesore no matter how much they are tarted up. They must go.

It is unfortunate these options were not released at the same time as the $97 million design became public. The public has had all too little time to take in the latter. The moderately attractive design seems not, however, to have greatly captured the popular imagination. If it were to go ahead, there must be widespread support. The public, after all, will have to be enticed to the wharf if the development is to be worthwhile. They must see it as a pleasant place, whether for shopping, strolling, dining or visiting its other attractions. The danger remains that Auckland could be lumbered with a little-liked and hastily conceived development that precludes more inspiring ideas and bears no relation to a waterfront masterplan.

The World Cup is just 19 months away. The time has arrived for Auckland to decide. The $97 million project, supported by at least two mayors and seen by civic leaders as the preference of Mr McCully, is further compromised by other issues. Is a cruise ship terminal an amenity the city really needs, or is it just to give the wharf a feature with a function? If it is argued that the cruise industry makes a terminal economic, why has the port company not built one? The fact is cruise ships do not need elaborate embarkation facilities and visit plenty of ports without them.

Equally important, the design will be the first stage of Queens Wharf's permanent development. The $97 million plan leaves little space for a truly "iconic" harbour centrepiece, whether a striking building or something else. That, again, gives considerable reason to pause, as does the fact that time is fast running out for a design to be agreed upon and completed in time for the World Cup.

This, and the Eden Park burden, prescribe a low-cost spruce-up that allows safe and unobstructed access to Queens Wharf, while not precluding the later development of the site to its full potential. Two of the three low-cost options rule themselves out by retaining the eyesore sheds. The decision makes itself.