North Kumutoto – the push for more waterfront buildings (but 2, not 3)

Less than six months after its original plans were rejected by the Environment Court, the city council is being asked to approve the development of two new buildings on a controversial part of the waterfront – North Kumutoto, which is north of the Meridian Building.

The council’s first proposal for this area was three new buildings up to six storeys high, without public consultation. Waterfront Watch challenged these plans, and in April the Environment Court ruled against the council. It said heritage character on the waterfront wasn’t being protected. It found the potential for heritage buildings to be overwhelmed by new structures. The court found that in some cases the proposed new rules were “poorly drafted”. And more: “The deficiencies are numerous and some are fundamental.” The court also shared the concerns of Waterfront Watch about pedestrian access and open space.

A revised design brief for the area was released on Friday, giving councillors six days to consider it before they’re asked to approve it on Thursday. The draft document reflects instructions from the Court. Instead of three new buildings, there are to be only two. Instead of six storeys, the maximum height will be four storeys. The smallest of the three sites is to be kept as open space, with the design yet to be developed.

There’s also provision for a wider promenade on the seaward side of the bigger of the two new buildings. Again, this was required by the Court. (A wide promenade has been one of the core policies promoted by Waterfront Watch since it was established 17 years ago.)

At Thursday’s meeting, councillors will have to consider whether or not they should rush to approve the draft design brief. No doubt the council-owned waterfront company is anxious to be allowed to pursue discussions with potential developers. But the company has a record of showing an injudicious eagerness about building projects. Just before the start of the Environment Court hearing, with lamentable timing, it released drawings showing a new six-storey building on one of the North Kumutoto sites. The court noted that the company had been “enthusiastically endorsing” the building. Participants in the hearing found it strange that the drawings and the endorsement had been published before the Court had given its decision, which stopped the six storey building from being constructed.

A similar cart-before-horse process is emerging again. Though there hasn’t been public consultation on the revised design brief, councillors are being asked to instruct Wellington Waterfront Ltd to go ahead and select building projects.

Yet the court’s ruling agreed with Waterfront Watch that public participation in the planning process should continue, instead of being ended (which the council wanted to do.)

“Waterfront Watch holds that public participation should not be dispensed with in such a special environment. Underlying its position is an unspoken but readily discernible view that the council cannot be relied on to get it right, and that only public opinion and action, litigious or otherwise, has averted poor planning and design outcomes on the waterfront in the past.”

The council is clear that there must be public consultation on the building plans, once they’re selected. But with the background of criticism from the Environment Court, councillors would be wise to pause and offer time for public consultation on the revised design brief as well – before initiating another premature rush to approve new buildings on the controversial North Kumutoto land.

UPDATE October 4:
The council agrees, votes for consultation on the design brief


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