Open spaces versus buildings – the battle against Variation 17

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



  1. Kara Lipski, 30. December 2013, 16:39

    I remember the Town Hall meeting on Variation 17 quite well – mainly because the demeanour of the Mayor and Councillors who were in favour of it, became less and less self-confident as the meeting progressed.

    High time we had a few more public meetings like that one, especially with the height restrictions being varied left, right and centre in the CBD. Talk about wind tunnels!

  2. CC, 30. December 2013, 22:12

    Thank you Lindsay and Kara for backgrounding one of the longest running rip-offs of ratepayers in Wellington. Pity we still have so many councilors (including most of the green ones) and a Mayor who appear to be so totally enthralled by developers that they bend over backwards to appease and enrich them.

  3. Pauline Swann, 31. December 2013, 8:49

    A reminder of how much time and energy so many supportive Wellingtonians have shown for our battles for open public recreation space on our wonderful waterfront.

    With current plans by Wellington Waterfront Ltd to spend at least $1m on rearranging the children’s playground on Frank Kitts Park, what a surprise to find a brochure “A Place for People” put out by its predecessor Lambton Harbour Management Ltd in 1994 describing the innovative features of the new park’s natural amphitheatre “available for amateur and professional groups and aiming to provide a concert or performance venue for the city’s youth.” The park included a children’s playground because “in an urban project like this it is extremely important to cater for children, where elsewhere in a large city their needs have been overlooked”.

    What a surprise when Frances and I discovered Variation 17′s plans for a large building on Frank Kitts Park and made our decision to take up a personal petition. When we made our final presentation to Mayor Blumsky, we had reached a total of 12,000+ signatures.

    However not so good in this 1994 brochure were the plans for the Chaffers Bay Area where the site was to have been redeveloped for inner city housing. So thank you Mary Varnham for her campaign which was supported by Waterfront Watch. There will be lots more reminders of why Wellingtonians are continuing to battle for their waterfront not to be privatised.

  4. Richard MacLean, 31. December 2013, 15:12

    Lindsay given most of our planners are on holiday, it looks like it’s left to a layman like me to clarify your final comments. There has been no change in the height restrictions in the area (inland from the waterfront) in the past few years. You may recall that the consent application for the overheight plans for the old markets site was publicly notified about 10 years ago, granted by commissioners, appealed by the Duxton and then allowed by the Environment Court in 2005. This hardly qualifies as a “quiet” change in overall height restrictions. I also just looked out the window, down Cable Street – but I couldn’t see the “wall of high-rise buildings” that you mention. Are you talking about the three 9-floor apartment buildings built in the past few years? Feel free to correct me but by my calculation they appear to comply with the height limit in the area. Happy New Year – Richard MacLean WCC Communications

  5. lindsay, 31. December 2013, 17:21

    Richard: Thanks for reminding me about the Duxton’s attempt to preserve their view of the harbour. I remember their dismay when they saw the plans of what was to be built in front of them. And as for those three nine-floor apartment blocks – they are indeed the start of a wall of buildings along Cable Street. Just a few more gaps to be filled …

  6. peter@east-welly., 31. December 2013, 17:35

    The merchants of “spin” come out to justify the Council’s stance, not the people’s wishes…
    Try the wall of high rise buildings on Taranaki St, adjacent to Wakefield St. A bit like the walls of high rises you’re going to inflict on the people of Johnsonville, Kilbirnie and Newtown, with their mandatory 4 storey high block towers, which will turn those communities into glorified slums in years to come.

  7. Nora, 31. December 2013, 18:46

    If my memory is correct, the 3 commissioners at the first hearing were ex councillors, Baber, Piper and Shaw, so no surprises there. And, from memory, there were a number of recommendations from the Environment Court to the original developer who went bankrupt, which have long been forgotten by the current developer.

  8. Driver, 31. December 2013, 18:57

    Why would anyone want to allow a new 11-storey building to be erected in front of one of the city’s biggest tourist hotels, known for its harbour views. Crazy!

  9. peter@east-welly, 31. December 2013, 19:48

    Driver: in a word, money.

  10. Richard MacLean, 1. January 2014, 14:56

    Just by way of further clarification. Nora claims that the Environment Court’s rulings on the markets site have been “long forgotten” by the current developer. This, of course, is nonsense – the Environment Court decision applies to the site, regardless of its ownership. Also of interest is Lindsay’s response to my initial comment – instead of acknowledging that he’s been caught out writing misleading stuff about height limits and walls of buildings, he has shifted the discussion to one about views of the harbour. He will be aware that, in general, views of the harbour from most buildings within the CBD are not sacrosanct and that the Environment Court would have supported that – otherwise the building would not be under construction. Regarding your ongoing concerns about the ‘wall of buildings’ on Cable Street, Lindsay, would you prefer the existing open sites stay open? And what is it about Cable Street being built out that so offends you? Is it because the wall of buildings will block views of the harbour from Wakefield Street and Courtenay Place – much as the wall of buildings in Featherston Street blocks views of the harbour from Lambton Quay? cheers Richard MacLean WCC Communications

  11. CC, 1. January 2014, 17:09

    “Just by way of even further clarification”, the Council’s PR person has not provided much clarification but has provided assertions and opinions in the intemperate style that he has previously used in relation to contentious matters on this blogsite. The lack of constructive dialogue is hardly surprising as the Council can be somewhat obscure and manipulative when it comes to the interests of developers, the District Plan and matters relating to Environment and High Court hearings.

  12. Nora, 1. January 2014, 18:34

    Of interest Mr McLean: surely a new resource consent should have been applied for, as the Environment Court’s decision to the original developer bears no resemblance to the current plans. Or will the answer be “just a few tweaks.”

  13. Phil C, 3. January 2014, 0:03

    As I fly over London these days I despair at the walls of apartments along the shores of the Thames that our mendacious Mayor rubber stamps with glee. It is interesting to note that such conspiring in the favour of commercial interests is not confined to our coterie of Conversative charlatans.

  14. Guy, 3. January 2014, 7:02

    Peter EastWelly, I’m intrigued by your assertion that allowing 4 storey high buildings in Newtown and Johnsonville will make them into “glorified slums.” They’re both rather run-down, raggedy places at present, and Adelaide Road is an architectural disaster zone of car yards, petrol stations and car yards. I would have thought that, properly managed, a scheme of well designed medium density housing in these areas would strongly raise the quality level in those areas, certainly not create a slum.

  15. JC, 3. January 2014, 11:36

    Richard Maclean 1, Scoop and supporters 0.

    If there are any “merchants of spin” here they are the scoop bloggers. Thanks for taking the time to write in Richard.

  16. Mark Knopfler, 3. January 2014, 15:53

    And we don’t mind if Richard don’t make the scene
    Dick’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright
    He can play the journo like anything.

    But we are the merchants of spin.

    We get a shiver in the dark,
    cos they’re ruining our park, but meantime:
    down on the waterfront, you stop and you hold everything.
    Cos the WCC is blowin’ Dixie, double-four time.
    You feel downcast when you hear that music play.

    Cos we are the merchants of spin.

  17. Shylock, 3. January 2014, 16:17

    I am a Merchant of Spin. Hath not a Merchant of Spin eyes? Hath not a Merchant hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as does Richard of the WCC? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

  18. peter@east-welly, 3. January 2014, 19:52

    Guy – have a good look at many of the “modern” apartments being ‘thrown” up. They are destined to become slum dwellings in 10 – 20 years. By which time today’s urban planners, Council Consent agents, and Councillors themselves will have moved on. But those living in those communities will be stuck with the outcomes for eternity. This is fostering bad designs on a vocal minority by the rich elite.

  19. Peter, 3. January 2014, 21:52

    Careful peter@welly, you could be taking on a well qualified adversary here – if the guess is right, he has some responsibility for the platinum alternative to the flyover at the Basin. However, some of us would be vindicated if time proves that the rich elite’s pads that are replacing the instant anachronism that was on Clyde Quay Wharf succombs to your prognosis. On that count, can anyone explain why the recommendation in the initial Officer’s Report for the OPT development was reversed?

  20. Guy, 3. January 2014, 23:17

    Peter, well, yes and no. The crop of low quality student apartments along Sussex St, and upper Taranaki St, I quite agree are atrocious. But have faith, there are better schemes, like the Council housing recently built in Newtown, which are award-winning fantastic design. Given a decent architect, with a decent budget, and Council urban designers prepared to say No to indecent developers, we can end up with worthwhile developments that are not slums and never will be.


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