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Willis Bond pushing the limits, again

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by Lindsay Shelton
Willis Bond are continuing their tactic of pushing the limits for new waterfront buildings.

Faced with an Environment Court recommendation that any building on Site 10 on the waterfront should be no higher than 22 metres, they’ve come up with a plan for a new building that would be 25.7 metres high. And they seem to have persuaded the council to support them, though the council’s planning documents specify 22 metres as the maximum height.

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In the Willis Bond drawings released today, the top storey is kept almost out of sight so that the full height of the building is minimised.

Willis Bond have a successful record of quality development and redevelopment of city buildings. Their new Market Lane building (with 45 apartments, and three floors for Trade Me) is nearing completion next to their re-developed Xero building. Their Chews Lane redevelopment has given new life to a previously neglected area of the CBD. But they’ve also shown a talent for getting approval for structures that are bigger than you’d have expected.

Their rebuild of the Overseas Passenger Terminal, for example. Now that it’s nearing completion, you can see how much bigger it’ll be than the Michael Fowler-designed original. Willis Bond have replaced a building that was 12 metres high with one that is

17 metres high at the northern end
15 metres high in the middle
18 metres high at the southern end

When the Environment Court approved the project five years ago, Judge Thompson said it was “quaint” that Willis Bond described its plan as “refurbishing” the building. He said the reality was that the building would be demolished and replaced by a significantly larger structure [3] – not only wider along the eastern side of the wharf, but also extending past the original northern and southern limits.

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This was the original building, 12 metres high.

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And this is the much more massive structure, that will be completed next year.

The judge also stated that the new building would be “much larger” than permitted in the regional coastal plan (which states that additions or replacements must not exceed the dimensions of the existing building by 5 metres in vertical projection or 5 per cent … whichever is the lesser). And he commented that it would “undoubtedly be substantially different in external appearance . . .” As can now be seen. But he approved the plan.

Willis Bond also has a history of being chosen by the city council as its preferred developer for waterfront sites. Not only the Overseas Passenger Terminal, but also three buildings which it restored rather than demolishing – the Odlins Building (renamed the NZX Centre), its neighbour Shed 22 (now Mac’s Brewery), and the Free Ambulance Building. Its deals with the city for these three buildings have never been made known – they’re hidden behind the excuse of “commercial confidentiality.” But its deal for the Overseas Passenger Terminal was revealed by the DomPost last year – a dollar a year for 125 years. [6] Peter Love of the Port Nicholson Block Settlement said this was a joke.

Let’s hope that council negotiators have been able to get a better financial result for the city with the Site 10 project [7] which they’re so keen on. In the DomPost this morning, Councillor Foster seems to have capitulated on the issue of height. But he’s quoted as saying [8] that commercial proceeds from the lease would be reinvested in the development of public space, and would also pay back Wellington Waterfront’s loan from the council. Is he telling us that the deal is better than a dollar a year? As it directly effects ratepayers, there should be no need to continue the “commercial confidentiality” excuse. If he can prove that there’s a real financial benefit for the city, he could then (perhaps) argue that the income is worth swapping for the increased height. But not it it’s only a dollar a year.