by Lindsay Shelton
I decided that cleaning-out the garage would be a good holiday chore this week. But I was easily distracted when I found a file of newspaper clippings from 14 years ago. They reminded me of a time when Wellingtonians were roused to defend their waterfront. And how the hated plans were never completely defeated.
One of the clippings, from August of 1999, reported that the city council had voted in favour of building four new apartment blocks to house 700 people on Chaffers Park. A proposal that Mary Varnham, then a councillor, said was “so outrageous the public would not stand for it … it is so patently not what the public wants.”
The Chaffers Park proposal was part of the council’s annual plan which intended to complete waterfront development by 2010. The plan soon became known as Variation 17. It allowed more than 20 new buildings on the edge of the harbour, some of them excessively high. Waterfront chairman David Gascoigne was quoted by the Dominion as saying: “Dead, open spaces, flat stuff, is in itself inherently not interesting.” By the end of the year, he’d discovered that his enthusiasm for new buildings had substantial opposition.
Earlier in 1999, the failed Queens Wharf Retail Centre had changed owners. It was bought by Willis Bond and Co, at the start of what would become a considerable involvement with waterfront development. Willis Bond acknowledged that the huge retail centre “had always had a high public profile.” This was an under-statement. Completion of the building in 1995 (with public land leased for 999 years) had triggered public concern about excessive development on the waterfront.
Towards the end of 1999, campaigners’ protests included a focus on council plans to put a five-storey building on the roadside edge of Frank Kitts Park, blocking city views of the harbour. At the annual carols by candlelight, organisers told the 35,000 participants that the new building would force them off the park.
In December, a petition against Variation 17 and its 20 new buildings was launched by Pauline Swann and Frances Williamson. (It would be signed by more than 11,000 people.) And inside the council, pre-Christmas emotions were running high. Andy Foster, Mary Varnham and Helene Ritchie walked out of a meeting which had been debating a claimed conflict of interest for deputy mayor Kerry Prendergast, because she received director’s fees as a board member of the council’s waterfront company. The three councillors wanted her to withdraw from the discussion. She refused to do so. Other councillors tried but failed to censure the the three for their behaviour.
Waterfront Watch began its campaign against Variation 17 five days before Christmas in 1999. Mayor Blumsky said our claims that the waterfront would be blocked by a wall of buildings were “mischievous and wrong.”
The campaign was joined by the Associate Minister for the Environment, Alliance MP Phillida Bunkle. “If Variation 17 gets through, developers won’t need resource consents to turn parks into millionaires’ apartments or office blocks,” she said. (The parks survived, but the millionaires’ apartments were soon to come, anyway.)
The campaign peaked with a public meeting in the Town Hall on February 1, 2000, attended by more than 2000 people. Pattrick Smellie described “high drama” at the meeting, where speakers opposing Variation 17 included former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. Smellie wrote:
The crowd was not just a goodly cross section of the city but also a who’s who of the liberal elite … Strongly represented were the upper echelons of the public service, barred from political activity at a national level but let loose as ratepayers. One recent ambassador to a European capital summed up the council’s waterfront plans as ‘f—ing crazy.’
A week before the meeting, deputy mayor Prendergast had been asked by City Voice if the council would compromise on its waterfront plans. She replied: “Absolutely not.” But a week after the town hall meeting, Mayor Blumsky said “we got it wrong” and the Evening Post reported that Variation 17 “appeared all but scrapped.”
Regional councillor Chris Laidlaw wrote in the Dominion:
“Variation 17 seems destined to wallow in history as one of the more spectacular misinterpretations of the public mood in Wellington city….The council should have known better. Wellingtonians were appalled by the ridiculous pretensions of the Queens Wharf retail centre and an events centre out of proportion to its surroundings. It was abundantly obvious that most people wanted rather less grandeur on their waterfront than their council did.”
The council received a record number of 2453 public submissions, of which 94 per cent were in opposition. But it wasn’t till April, that councillors finally abandoned Variation 17.
Some parts of it, however, seem to have remained. Writing in the Sunday Star-Times on February 6, 2000, Pattrick Smellie showed prescience about the future:
Most depressing of all is an issue which is only starting to be discussed: all the land which the council sold behind Te Papa in the mid-1990s. Much of it ended up owned by millionaire Alan Gibbs’ cousin, Andrew Wall. If Variation 17 succeeds, this land will be re-zoned and may enrich the private owners even further by changing existing height restrictions and allowing taller buildings.
Variation 17 was dumped. But, nevertheless, height restrictions were quietly changed as Smellie had predicted, and the result was the development of what is becoming a new wall of high-rise buildings along Cable Street – including Willis Bond’s One Market Lane, an 11-storey structure more than four times as high as the old market building which it replaced.
Lindsay Shelton was president of Waterfront Watch from 1995 till 2004