The waterfront – as a new city reserve

by Chris Greenwood
The Wellington City Council has been seeking public opinion on a revised design brief which would allow two more new buildings in the north Kumutoto area of Wellington`s waterfront.

Council policy is based on the premise that the only option is to build multi-storey buildings for private use, to gain revenue to fund Wellington’s waterfront. However, in the light of successive Environment Court losses, and the Waterfront Company’s failure to generate significant revenue, it is timely for the council to consider alternative solutions to pay for waterfront development.

The Council cannot ignore the fact that the policy is a risky concept for the waterfront, especially in today’s uncertain economic times. Current challenges faced by the city when making decisions about North Kumutoto, and future building proposals for other precincts of the waterfront, must be considered:

. The Variation 11 Environment Court judgement reduced the height of buildings on Site 10 to 4-storeys to match that of Site 9, and there is to be no building on Site 8. This makes the Kumutoto area a far less attractive proposition for a return on investment for developers.

. Some existing ground floor premises have experienced difficulty in finding sustainable public uses. (Poor weather and the obstacle of a busy six-lane highway has not helped.) In some instances, special conditions have had to be offered to fill empty spaces.

. Surplus office space, and difficulties in selling so many new apartments in the city, make more buildings a risky enterprise for developers;

. Huge increases in insurance premiums to cover earthquake and liquefaction risks will be noted by prospective buyers, reducing the attractiveness of tenancy in any waterfront building.

Council building policy has been of concern for over a decade: a survey in 1996 clearly showed that people wanted park areas on the waterfront and expressed misgivings about the business model pursued by successive councils. In 2000, The Dominion reported that a packed Town Hall meeting had voted overwhelmingly to vest waterfront land as a reserve

Designating the waterfront as a reserve would be consistent with our other protected areas like the Botanic Garden, the Town Belt, Trelissick Park, and Otari/Wilton reserve. Our city leaders could follow the example of their 19th Century counterparts who kept these widely enjoyed areas free of buildings for future generations. For this, we thank them. It is important for today’s citizens to protect the waterfront for future citizens.

The Council cannot keep ignoring the feedback from the public who are not short of ideas and creativity on how to use the waterfront as it should be used – for leisure, recreation, cultural activities, sporting events – not as an extension of the CBD or as investment opportunity for developers. Previous competition ideas, which have been shelved, should be revisited, with maybe another competition for fundraising ideas. There is no hurry. It is important to get it right even if it takes 10-20 years. Complete the vision when finances allow. Rates don’t necessarily have to increase. A portion of the Council Controlled Organisations’ budget could be diverted to the maintenance and improvement of the waterfront.

A review of Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) by Wellington City Council is to take place shortly. CCOs are an ideological concept of the last century and it is debatable whether all have lived up to expectations. Ratepayers pay for directors’ fees, executive officers, staff, premises, and general doubling up of administrative costs. CCOs can be brought back into council and function as departments, reducing costs to ratepayers. Departments are not a new idea; they worked well in the past.

The Council is trying to make a policy work that is clearly unacceptable to many citizens. The lack of genuine dialogue by council, the ‘we-know-best’ attitude of its Waterfront Company, and the focus by both on multi-storey building projects as the only option to fund the waterfront have narrowed the debate. In the past, this has resulted in increased litigation with associated costs to ratepayers. A change of approach is needed.

Alternative funding solutions need to be explored, because sentiment about the waterfront is no different today from that more than a decade ago when the Town Hall vote by 2000 people overwhelmingly supported a reserve.

Chris Greenwood is a committee member of Waterfront Watch.

Submissions to the council on North Kumutoto close tonight at 5pm


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