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Car park battle becomes fight for democracy

The fight to save a Sunday market on Auckland's North Shore has turned into a battle for community voices and their democratic right to decide their own future

The Devonport-Takapuna local board is taking unprecedented action against the Auckland Council for failing to listen to it, or take into account its views. 

It is using the Local Government Act to "raise a dispute" that it must legally take notice of. If that fails, it will take its complaints to the Local Government Commission for a binding determination. The board's chair, Grant Gillon, says to his knowledge there has never before been a complaint made by a local board to the government body in relation to a decision they have made, or to the LGC about an unresolved dispute. 

The dispute is over a car park. 

To Auckland Council and its development arm, Panuku, it's a council-owned car park in the middle of a metropolitan town centre in an age when the city is increasingly looking towards public transport, walking and cycling. It's an asset which would be better off sold - achieving the twin aims of housing more people in apartments, and funding developments which would tart up Takapuna. The change has been approved and work begins in October on building an alternative car park on a site a couple of blocks away, so that no car spaces are lost to the area. 

To Takapuna locals the 8000 square metre Anzac St car park is more than that - it's also, on Sunday mornings, a thriving market. Groups fighting the change say the plan they've seen to put three nine-storey buildings on the site is poorly thought out, and has been bulldozed through with little consultation and against the wishes of the local board (they says it's theft) and it's an assault on democracy. Local retailers say they will have to pack up and leave if handy car parking disappears.

The board unanimously opposes the sale of the Anzac St car park. Gillon's latest report (April 17) details the board's struggles to be heard over the issue. 

"While it could be conceded that the Governing Body has a regulatory role in deciding to change the use of the site the other aspects are clearly the role of the local board under cl.48k of the Local Government Act (updated 2017)," it says. 

"The Anzac Quarter development does not sit alongside any regional planning or other regional transport project and so is distinctly local ...  There is nothing in the project that should allow its planning and design to outweigh the 'needs and preferences of the community'. "

"What we and many other communities are discovering is that the Governing Body is muscling in on local issues and hijacking the decision making process. They're power-mad ... they're overstepping the mark. They're ignoring not only the wishes of the community but the needs of the community ... because they can."

Gillon asked the board to raise a dispute under section 48R of the Local Government Act 2002 because of its dissatisfaction with a decision of the governing body over the issue. If a dispute is raised, the local board and governing body must make reasonable efforts to reach a mutually acceptable and timely resolution of the dispute. If that dispute isn't resolved, the board will take the issue to the Local Government Commission for a binding determination. 

Gillon told Newsroom while the car park was the breaking point, there was a high level of frustration over a number of issues. He says Devonport-Takapuna is the only board to take this step so far, but other boards are also angry. They believe the governing body is taking over the decision making in local issues by deeming them to be regional. 

"We are not against the transformation of Takapuna, we are just asking to be a part of that in the service of the community," he says. "How could a little place like Takapuna be a regional issue? Once it's all completed and you step back, who is going to use (the facilities)? It will be the local community, not someone from Pukekohe."  

As for promises of consultation - he's heard that before.

"We've been asked - and then our views have been ignored. Our input has come down to the placement of trees, park benches and gardens. We have a statutory obligation to represent the views of locals ... that's just been ridden over."

Auckland Council's planning committee says the Devonport-Takapuna local board has been "part of the journey since the beginning". 

But dissatisfaction from the board over the power imbalance with the council has been simmering for quite some time. Local board member George Wood, once North Shore's mayor and a former councillor, complained a year ago of being hamstrung, and said the governance review being carried out by the council was a waste of time. His particular bug-bear was the traffic mess that is Lake Rd, a problem being addressed in the latest Auckland Traffic Alignment Plan. But funding cuts being forced on boards that were in turn affecting libraries was also an issue. 

Nothing in concrete

Panuku has been tasked with big-picture projects to transform Auckland's major centres as the city prepares for more population growth. "Unlocking" the potential of areas including Avondale, Henderson, Northcote, Manukau - and Takapuna - is designed to improve public transport links and make those places better to live in as apartment living replaces suburban back yards. What town centres don't need at their heart, says Chief Operating Officer David Rankin, is car parks. So Anzac St is going, those spaces to be replaced in a new $25 million development, 250 metres away. Nothing else, he says, has been settled. 

Panuku's Unlock Takapuna plans show possible high rises, laneways and public spaces.

Anzac St is one of the sites throughout Auckland identified for "urban renewal and housing". Panuku started working with the local board at the time three years ago to look at what could go on the site, including apartments. At that time the (then-) board welcomed a spotlight on Takapuna as a priority for change - at the same time expressing anxiety that the public be consulted on any master plan. 

Last month the designation of the site as a car park was changed to allow other uses, against the wishes of the current board. 

As for what happens now - Panuku says there will be extensive consultation until the middle of June. "We've been honest about the car parking issue," says Rankin. "Now tell us what you would like there. It is still very much not set in concrete and we've been pretty open about it. There is no secret blueprint. There is no set design." 

He sees a place where a lot more people live in apartments, and they will need public space and links to the beach. 

"People-oriented delivery ... the preservation of the gardens (Potter's Park rose garden, adjacent to the car park) and open space is not consistent with ongoing high volumes of traffic moving in and out," he says. 

Rankin also says there is not a solid wall of opposition to the plans, and "we have made a genuine attempt to involve local people". He believes the positives outweigh the negatives ... and says Panuku is committed to finding a solution for the market.

Rankin defends the amount of consultation being done: "I'm comfortable that we have had plenty of engagement and discussion". He points to research that shows town centres don't need a lot of car parking immediately adjacent to retail premises to be successful - and parking at the edge of a centre leads to shoppers staying longer, and buying more. 

Meanwhile a judicial review has been lodged with the High Court against the Auckland Council by legal strategist Miriam Clements, asking for scrutiny on the decision to authorise Panuku to sell 40 Anzac St. It's due to be heard in late May. 

Forests, a zoo, or a circus

Ruth Jackson is the spokesperson for the Heart of Takapuna group, which has been trying to save the car park and the Sunday market since the land was identified as surplus and saleable two years ago. She says Panuku is not making genuine efforts to consult locals, and the information it's giving out is enormously biased. As an example she takes issue with recent consultation done at the Takapuna playground which asked children what they wanted to see in the area - options including a forest, a circus or a zoo. 

"The event was advertised as a consultation on a town square on the car park site. There is absolutely no possibility of a zoo or a farm or a forest in central Takapuna. It may be fun but it's completely extraordinary. I understand that if you're engaging with young children you have to do things differently but there was nothing there to ask adults what they wanted for their kids. The consultation was an absolute sham ... a dog and pony show so they could tick the consultation box.

"If their true aim is good social outcomes then this plan misses the point by a mile. Local businesses say (relocating the parking) will be the death of them. And Takapuna's population is set to triple in the next 20 to 30 years so we have to have a plan that is forward-thinking. This plan doesn't do it. There is no provision for open space to serve all these extra people. It's a lot of concrete and steel." 

Her group wants to see the site turned into a big open space, accommodating the market, with the car parking underneath it, and room for a future bus station.

Heart of Takapuna says public land should not be sold off for private housing. 

Jackson backs the board's actions in raising a dispute, saying the Local Government Act says the structure of Auckland Council should be a reasonably even decision-making split between the governing body and local boards. 

"What we and many other communities are discovering is that the Governing Body is muscling in on local issues and hijacking the decision making process. They're power-mad ... they're overstepping the mark. They're ignoring not only the wishes of the community but the needs of the community ... because they can. 

"The Takapuna car park is a local issue and should be decided locally. How is this regionally significant to people in Manukau?" 

Jackson says Panuku paints the protestors as a "bunch of NIMBYs" (Not In My Back Yard) who are against the changes because they're just against things. "But we are fighting for a better plan."

Panuku's own video of a thriving and bustling Takapuna includes shots of happy shoppers .. at the market. 

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