Wellington Scoop

Willis Bond pushing the limits, again


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.


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 – not only wider along the eastern side of the wharf, but also extending past the original northern and southern limits.


This was the original building, 12 metres high.


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. 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 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 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.


  1. Alana Bowman, 26. November 2013, 13:22

    As we read today about the failure to sell retail locations in the Herd Street building, WCC proposes another office/restaurant block combination for the very limited remaining open public space on the waterfront.

    And the WCC notice, released today, states that the proposal will be brought before Council “next Wednesday” when it is actually tomorrow. Not a fair opportunity for interested people to comment or even to come to the meeting.

  2. Lindsay, 26. November 2013, 14:02

    The tradition of releasing misleading drawings of building proposals goes back a long way on the Wellington waterfront – when the Events Centre and the (failed) Retail Centre were completed in the mid-90s, everyone said they looked so much bigger than the drawings released by the developer. In similar vein, today’s Willis Bond drawings do their best to make the top (sixth) storey disappear from their beautifully crafted images.

  3. Nora, 26. November 2013, 15:30

    This “new” building is almost a replica of that which Athfield won in the Kumutoto Sites 8-10 competition in February 2008. Just a little “tweaking” here and there to disguise its height. Its mates on Sites 8-9 were monstrous so let us hope they are not still in files in the back room.

  4. Effie, 26. November 2013, 15:42

    Cllr Foster and WWL can spin as much as they wish, but a six-storey building will always look like a six-storey building. The Environment Court must have thought so too, and recommended a 20 metre height limit.

  5. A. Omundsen, 26. November 2013, 16:36

    Although I have not checked the relevant planning documents, maximum height in district plans typically refers to a height limit (or permitted baseline) the Council agrees to, subject to an acceptable design being submitted. The reference is typically more about providing certainity to a developer that a certain height limit would be acceptable, rather than placing a upper bar on the height of development which could be built.

    The general public tend to find the expression “maximum permitted height” confusing, as its meaning is different from what its dictionary meaning would suggest. It reality, the expression is more likely to signal a difference in how a resource consent is to be assessed (that is, what activity status it falls under and whether it requires notification). It does not give any Council the automatic right to refuse development above this limit.

    It is to be expected that developers would seek to push the limit of acceptability. What I find more of an issue – is whether such resource consents should be opened up to public notification, as would be the case for similiar applications in England and Wales? Has New Zealand become overly restrictive on the use of public notification?

  6. andy foster, 26. November 2013, 16:50

    Hi Lindsay – Seems there are three issues to comment on from this article:
    1 – Commercial proceeds. This has been covered before. The dollar a year is a red herring. The OPT deal saw Willis Bond cover the cost of wharf strengthening and pay a substantial sum to the Waterfront Company. For commercial reasons I am not at liberty to give numbers. If you want to think about the ball park kind of numbers I suggest you look at the WWL accounts and at commercial revenue lines and on the cost side at the amount of money WWL is putting into replacing old piles elsewhere.
    In respect of Site 10 – a dollar a year wouldn’t pay for much public space either would it. So again think about there being a significant up front payment – exactly as has been the case in I think all other Waterfront building developments.

    2 – Site 10 building height. To simplify things under the RMA there are permitted height limits and above that you get into the territory – on heights – of requiring resource consent. The question then is what are the effects? If you cannot see the additional height from the ground, and it does not lead to any shading over and above a permitted level then what are the effects? The only apparent affects will be on people viewing from adjacent buildings.

    3 – Willis Bond have in my view done a significant number of excellent developments around our city, and you have listed many of them and recognised them appropriately. The city is much the better for those developments. In my experience they have always been great to deal with. In this case the Athfield designed building is a much better proposal than the Newcrest one – smaller, pulled back from the Whitmore St viewshaft, respects the height of Shed 21, similarly is well set back from the Eastbourne Ferry terminal, is well modulated (ie not a single box – again something the Court noted), and is significantly see through at ground level. The proposal also includes a publicly accessible roof top garden, hopefully with a restaurant in the top floor space. I think that would be great as a public vantage point – and more attractive for those people in buildings we talked about in my second para.

    Undoubtedly there will be issues to be addressed. Vehicle servicing is one I am interested in. However all in all I think it’s a very good proposal which will add a lot of life to this part of the waterfront.

  7. Peter, 26. November 2013, 19:08

    Andy Foster should be maintaining a neutral stance and, when the time comes, acting in accordance with the aspirations of the ratepayers he is elected to represent. Instead, he seems to have assumed the role of spin doctor for a private property development/investment company that has made significant profits from capturing significant access to the city’s resources. In this case, Willis Bond has again been aided and abetted by Wellington Waterfront Ltd, a dubious operation that was established to distance public accountability from private acquisition while claiming to act in the interest of ratepayers. It should have been done away with long ago. It is somewhat surprising that the Councillor has referred back to the company lines he fed Wellington.Scoop regarding the Clyde Quay enterprise. If he reviewed the discussion on this site at that time, he would see that his arguments were held to be pretty unconvincing.

  8. JC, 27. November 2013, 10:11

    Fantastic comments from A Omundsen and Andy Foster. Reasoned debate will always triumph over scaremongering.

  9. Ralph Wahrlich, 27. November 2013, 11:07

    The maximum height limits have presumably been arrived at by impartial experts, after they have made a well-considered judgement about the impacts. Why can Willis Bond apparently not work within the height limits that have been set? What is the commercial justification for having the 6th storey? Does the project really cease to be viable if it is limited to the 5-storey limit?

    Peter’s comments above about Andy Foster’s neutrality are also a fair point.

  10. Peter, 27. November 2013, 14:44

    What a facile comment JC. Could you please make it clear who is scaremongering? Here here are a few starter questions so that you can contribute to an informed debate. Is it appropriate that the Mayor and some councillors are doing a sales job for a private investor, when they are charged with deciding on the merits of the case for a commercial development on land owned by the ratepayers? Have you done any research on Variation 11 and do you know the basis of the Environment Court decision establishing the current building restrictions that were endorsed by the Council? Do you have a view on public assets being converted for private gain? Also, you could comment on the probability that future generations will have very little, if any, return from buildings on land that the city inherited at no cost from the former Harbour Board. Of course, we are supposed to be pleased that WWL might finally be able to pay back the multi-million dollar loan the ratepayers have had to provide to keep the empire afloat. But don’t hold your breath – they haven’t made any headway yet despite all the development on the waterfront.

  11. Rosamund, 27. November 2013, 15:49

    What bothers me (amongst other things!!!) is the mis-representation of the size of the proposed building which is said to be 25.74m above mean sea level set against the 42 metre high Post Office bldg. The graphic makes this proposed building seem miniscule rather than roughly three quarters of the size of the Waterloo Quay building.

  12. Peter, 27. November 2013, 21:45

    The pictorial mis-representation is pretty typical. Think of the renders of the new OPT building. Initially they depicted something of about the height of the original Fowler-designed building, then they were replaced by a view from a Mt Victoria perspective. I am not sure if it was deliberate but the images displayed at the Council meeting today were very much elongated which diminished the apparent height but depicted Wellingtonians as being very short and rotund.

  13. Hel, 27. November 2013, 22:08

    Personally it looks to be a good solution for an area that is a car park. The environment court height comments were purely a guideline, not a ruling… plenty of conspiracy theorists around! The images look in scale with the adjacent shed 21. Doesn’t OPT look brilliant and what an improvement and transformation this will make to another area that was an eyesore.

  14. CC, 28. November 2013, 4:51

    Yep Hel, apart from the fact that you don’t seem to know exactly what areas you are talking about at Kumutoto, some people are getting to like it more and more all the time. It appears from the Willis Bond website that the finance for the proposed Shed 10 site and also for the new OPT apartment building comes from the Cullen Fund, the retirement fund of public servants and ACC so, for committed socialists, it’s a serious win-win situation. Pity that in a bit over 10 years we greedy left-wing parasites will have closed the door for future Wellingtonians to decide what they would like on the waterfront because we have continued to worship the architect gods and the money merchants. This of course is in addition to having an insatiable need for more empty bars and cafes which make up most of the required ‘public spaces’ in the built-up areas of the waterfront.

  15. F Hendriks, 28. November 2013, 8:29

    It seems from reading the comments that the “maximum” height is negotiable. Do we want the deal to fall over for a few metres, if all the rest is satisfactory?

  16. Rosamund, 28. November 2013, 13:25

    I was at the Transport and Urban Development meeting yesterday. Justin Lester both spoke and voted. He is a member of the Wellington Waterfront Ltd board and has a clear conflict of interest which he did not declare. One wonders; at which Governance Finance and Planning committee meeting chaired by Justin Lester will the discussion take place to consider the leasing of Site 10 on the waterfront. Hopefully all discussions will be held in an open forum with the public included and elected representatives setting aside the “commercial considerations” of the Local Government Information and Meetings Act 1987.

  17. CC, 29. November 2013, 8:16

    F. Hendriks: If the developer planned to build in accordance with the Environment Court decision that was adopted by WCC, then development could commence pretty much straight away. If the deal falls over for a few metres, another less aggressive developer might step in so that the ultimately we will not end up with a Willis Bond Waterfront with airport-type entry and exit barriers and usage fees for non-corporate users.

  18. Polly, 29. November 2013, 18:27

    Reading all this praise for Willis Bond and Athfield Architects, I was reminded how we nearly lost the view not just from the Michael Fowler Centre but from Cable Street as well, when Willis Bond wanted to move the Free Ambulance building to the site where the waka house is now. It was to be replaced by a monstrous car park next to the Odlins Building. Fortunately this plan was defeated in the Environment Court.

  19. Alana Bowman, 29. November 2013, 22:18

    Returning from a meeting today, I took a short cut through site 10 and it was wonderful. The open space, the sense of the waterfront being part of the CDB, and the open views across the harbour.
    Why the rush to fill this space right now? Using this space creatively seems beyond the reach of Wellington Waterfront Ltd. Again, they can only come up with the idea to fill up this space with a 6 storey block – a proposal already rejected by the Environment Court.
    And Andy Foster seems to be inviting a legal challenge – is he that unconcerned with WCC finances and history of many losses in court?

  20. Renard, 5. December 2013, 10:11

    This proposal is a great step forward. It is a well designed building with great appeal and not a boring bland box. Planning processes need to be adhered to ensure quality buildings are constructed on the waterfront.

    The developments further south of this site, in and around the Kumutoto public space, are fantastic and well used unlike the mostly barren site 10.

    Well done.

  21. Renard, 17. December 2013, 8:12

    I drove past the site over the weekend – all I could see was campervans and an iron fence covered by climbing plants. The view from the roadside was minimal. The development and contribution from the developer should outweigh the blight of campervans in the middle of the city, and will contribute to waterfront refurbishment and maintenance.