Hard News by Russell Brown

87

Fixing Auckland

It's not that we hadn't been told about Wynyard Quarter. The novel and somewhat exciting thing was in seeing the apparently endless story of public agonising about Auckland's dysfunctional relationship with its urban waterfront actually find an end in something.

I rode there yesterday, before the south-westerly change roared through, and was delighted and impressed by what I saw. I go to Halsey Street every week to record Public Address Radio, and I'd snuck around some of the new area on my bike. But actually seeing the whole place in action was something different.

There were families strolling along, people sitting in cafes and bars, children playing in the playground -- yes, Auckland has a children's playground a stone's throw from its urban waterfront -- and cyclists. The new Viaduct Events Centre, currently hosting the Auckland Art Fair, even has proper bike stands. 

As my friend Greg Wood put it on Twitter, it was "trippy. Actual people on actual bikes riding amongst actual people on actual foot, as if it happened every day..."

No dude: what's trippy is that the council has specifically stated that it is unnecessary for cyclists to wear helmets around Wynyard Quarter.

There is actually a strategy across the development to encourage people to get around by some other means than the car. That includes the trams, which are vintage jobbies, hired from Melbourne for the Rugby World Cup period (I would rather see modern trams, personally).

Indeed, every Aucklander feeling cynical about the Rugby World Cup, might want to check out this 2007 Herald editorial calling for urgency in waterfront development, which notes that:

The port company is the problem for plans to improve Auckland's waterfront without delay. The port long ago moved most of its commercial operations eastward to the container wharves but it is reluctant to give up its surplus property without obtaining full value for it.

That means releasing the redundant wharves slowly and "sequentially", as ports' chief executive Geoff Vazey, phrases it, lest it floods the commercial property market. Hence it has agreed to develop a few blocks west of Halsey St by 2015, the rest of the Western Reclamation, including the Tank Farm, by 2030 and maybe the finger wharves by 2040. That is an eternity.

Without the imperative of the RWC, it is quite likely we would have waited a lot longer to be able to stroll along our own damned waterfront.

The year before, the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Regional Council had been engaged in what Herald reporter Anne Best described as "all-out warfare" over who would pay what for the "tank farm" land around Wynyard Point, which was soon to be freed up by the expiry of leases to the oil companies that owned the tanks.

The two councils had already been on opposite sides of the argument over the waterfront stadium the former Labour government had offered to fund on or about Queen's Wharf. The issue was essentially the same: the ARC wanted to protect the value of its 100% holding in Ports of Auckland. You might also want to feel grateful that the Supercity unitary authority has made this sort of power struggle less likely in future.

A week after the "warfare"story, the ARC did in fact move. It set up a new company, separate from Ports of Auckland, to manage the redevelopment of the Wynyard Point land:

The ARC also released coastal plan changes to allow for a new "Te Wero bridge" across the Viaduct Harbour to the Tank Farm, a marine events centre on Halsey St and other uses of the water area.

Mr Lee said the ARC was ready to move from the planning stage to the "doing" and start creating the kind of waterfront Aucklanders wanted.

The first plan for the 35ha Tank Farm development was to build the bridge and create an entertainment strip on the other side along Jellicoe St in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

This is basically what you can see there today. There were some other ideas along the way. John Roughan was right in 2008 to condemn the plan to make Te Wero Bridge a bus lane. He presumably also wrote a more strongly expressed editorial along the same lines a couple of months later.

Today, the bridge is a simple pedestrian and cycle span that links the Viaduct Basin area and Wynyard Quarter, and retracts to allow vessels into the Viaduct harbour. It cost $3.5m, As Brian Rudman says, thank goodness that the officials at the old Auckland City Council didn't get their $51m road bridge.

In yet more happy news, I'm told that there is a pretty good chance of the Laneway festival next summer shifting to Wynyard Quarter. Having the festival there by the water, the working wharf and the tanks -- some of which have already been preserved as design elements -- feels like something to really look forward to.

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So where does that leave the rest of the waterfront?

The Viaduct Basin, developed for the America's Cup defences, is a narrow walkway around a basin hemmed in by private buildings: bars, restaurants, a hotel. The original cup village development, we tend to forget, bordered on being a scandal with the council finances, but there was so much luxury yacht money washing around at the time that no one could quite work up the outrage.

It would have been better had the C&R council not allowed the area immediately behind it, vacated by the old Turners and Growers markets, to be filled with shabby, expensive terraces and apartments that basically shut down the neighbourhood where they were built. An urban block that had, in its transitional years, been home to a professional theatre company, and where Shihad once played a 95bFM Private Function, went mute.

It stands as an indictment of that kind of private development and of the "experts" who kept including it in their proposals.

And then there's Queen's Wharf: a story of duplication of roles and poor planning and communication between stakeholders. It has, in other words, Murray McCully's handprints all over it.

It was announced in April that the so-called "plastic waka" would not be sited on Queen's Wharf as announced, but on Te Wero Island in the Viaduct Basin. This is probably a better site, but the uncertainty over locations has been a problem for everyone planning to run waterfront events and installations during the Rugby World Cup.

It's still unclear what will happen to the Queen's Wharf development -- and more particularly the government's "Cloud" structure -- after the tournament finishes, but it will presumably be resolved when the Auckland Waterfront Development Agency (which has a nice website) can get on with its work without input from Wellington.

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On Saturday, I was able to test the state of another project: Eden Park. Our journey to the ground was a straightforward one -- we walked from Elgin Street in Grey Lynn, over the Bond Street bridge, which was closed to cars for the evening.

It was basically a breeze. The only delay was a five-minute wait for the turnstiles at Entry A, which, as the closest entrance to the bus stops and railway station, was probably also the busiest. Getting out of the ASB Stand was also very easy, and we walked home in minutes. The first few buses on New North Road seemed to be getting away pretty smartly, but a Twitter survey later in the evening indicated that some public transport experiences were pretty poor.

Inside the ground is a mixed bag. By general acclaim, the sightlines in the ground are excellent, even from the top of the temporary stands, and even though it's not the same as a permanent structure, the bowl created by the temporary seating at either end of the ground feels big. The atmosphere was marvellous.

On the other hand, the ASB Stand still seems light on bar and toilet facilities for a big crowd. There were long queues for the toilets before kick-off and at half time and I see no real way of fixing that. It's still better than than it might have been in the West temporary stand, where it's a long descent and a long climb back to and from the stand's only toilet blocks, at ground level. Disabled access to those seats looks like a complete washout.

I'm looking forward to being able to make a comparison with the new South stand at the only RWC game I've bought tickets for (I am, of course, extremely open to kind invitations to other matches): Samoa vs Fiji. But basically, problems with trains and buses notwithstanding, it wasn't bad. I wasn't able to tell whether cycle stands have been added, but there has been no announement to that effect. (Mark at Cycling In Auckland rode around the car-banned streets early in the evening and pronounced it "a perfect cycling environment".)

One thing that must be fixed, however: communication with CBD residents. A friend visiting from Whangarei parked his car on Greys Avenue, near where he was staying, on Friday night. Some time in the next 24 hours, his car was towed to make way for match-day bus parking. There had been no notice to residents that this would happen, and the follow-up experience was poor.

My friend was told by an Auckland Council representative where his car was and that there would be no charge for the towing. When he got to the yard, it turned out there was a charge of $111.50 to get his car back. When he called the phone number given on the infringement notice on his car, the operator refused to even take down the the number on the notice. Indeed my friend and his host were told -- in direct contradiction to the information printed on the notice -- that they could not query the ticket by phone.

This really should not happen again.

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