Yes to Auckland CBD stadium, just not the waterfront

Auckland has been offered a bright and shiny stadium on the waterfront for free. Doesn’t that sound like an offer that’s too good to be true? Meanwhile, on a collision course, the Port of Auckland is proposing a multi-storey car parking building for the same site. Is there any sense in either of these ideas?

The private consortium offering to build the stadium on Bledisloe Wharf say it will be submerged into the water and seabed to be less of a visual barrier. In exchange, they want Eden Park. Their plan is to redevelop that, and the balance of Bledisloe Wharf, as housing, mixed use and commercial, with some public space. Eden Park Trust Board would inherit and run the new waterfront stadium. It’s not too dissimilar to a proposal by Labour Government Minister Trevor Mallard prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, except a lot more thought has gone into the design in order to reduce visual impact.

A stadium in downtown Auckland is a good idea. Major cities around the world do this because it’s well served by public transport and close to bars, restaurants and accommodation. It’s unlikely a stadium here would attract the noise complaints that have afflicted Eden Park, where the residential neighbourhood also limits the number of events and concerts that can be held. And moving the stadium downtown would release Eden Park for housing – it is a good site between two major roads with good public transport, both bus and rail, and amenities such as schools, shops and a supermarket in the wider neighbourhood – and enough space to add more of these on site if needed. The housing there could include affordable and social housing – unlike that proposed by the consortium for Bledisloe Wharf (reportedly 2500 dwellings plus commercial space) which would be high-end and expensive. I support a downtown stadium – but not on the waterfront.

Stadiums are large, inward-looking structures that are empty most of the time – they don’t belong on waterfronts. There is a much better site just inland, across Quay Street, near Vector Arena, currently occupied by railway lines and a motley collection of unappealing commercial buildings. A stadium akin to Wellington’s Cake Tin could perch above the rail lines and improve this area. And it would be much cheaper – building on land is obviously much easier then sinking a building into the sea. It would also be much easier to maintain and to service a building here, rather than one stuck out on a wharf.

The fact is, despite any add-on attractions, like all stadiums this proposal would be sitting on that prime waterfront location looking, for most of the time, inactive, inward looking, lifeless and dead.

There can be no doubt that the proposed stadium would be spectacular and of course the Sydney Opera House is a parallel. But just because we have a wharf, we don’t need to fill it with buildings. We have done that already and the Viaduct Events Centre, and especially the Princes Wharf development, demonstrate how difficult it is to provide good access for both large crowds and the businesses that supply provisions to big events. It is also very easy to paint pleasant pictures of the public enjoying waterside public spaces, shops and cafes but the reality is different. The success of urban spaces on wharfs is obviously weather-dependent and Princes Wharf demonstrates how restaurants can struggle to survive in winter. Wellington’s waterfront is a success partially because it is concave and busy with passers-by taking shortcuts. Auckland’s wharfs are destinations that require visitors to plan a trek through wind and rain in winter.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing this stadium proposal is the aim to sink it and that’s a lot harder than you would think. Anything displacing water becomes buoyant like a boat wanting to float. Unlike our high-rise buildings on reclaimed land, with their car parking basements in the water table, this structure won’t have the weight of multiple storeys to hold it down – it will want to pop up, so needs to be tied down by massive foundations and rock anchors. All of which will be subject to a high level of corrosion. The walls will also be subject to water pressure wanting to force its way through joints or cracks. And of course, sea-level rise and tsunami are much more unpredictable than anyone admits.

Sinking the building aims to reduce the visual impact of its bulk, but what’s above ground will be glazed and supposedly see-through. But glass isn’t transparent – it’s reflective. You won’t see much of the sea from Quay Street and will have to walk around this building. Although the pedestrian and public space that is suggested around the stadium is a good feature, Queens Wharf has that already and the ‘ghat’ steps that allow you to get your feet wet can happen anywhere, they don’t need a stadium to prompt that. One bonus however is that mega cruise liners could dock alongside the new stadium so there would be no need for the unwelcome industrial-scale mooring dolphins currently proposed to extend Queens Wharf.

The Port is out of touch with public feeling and modern thinking about the best use of waterfronts in major cities.

Just recently, in a presentation to Council and in something of a ‘but wait, there’s more!’ sales pitch, it was suggested the project could incorporate a Māoricultural centre and aquarium, but there has been no evidence of mana whenua consultation and Kelly Tarlton’s have said ‘thanks, but no thanks’. The fact is, despite any add-on attractions, like all stadiums this proposal would be sitting on that prime waterfront location looking, for most of the time, inactive, inward looking, lifeless and dead.

And would it be free of cost to the public? Not really – the Ports of Auckland would have to give away the publicly-owned Bledisloe Wharf and Eden Park Trust would give up Eden Park, in return for assuming responsibility for the new facility. The mechanisms of valuation and land transfer for such a transaction can also be very problematic so it’s unlikely this would be ‘free’. And what happens if the project stalls or goes broke halfway through? Auckland Council and its ratepayers will pick up the tab. That is the problem with public/private partnerships internationally – the private sector gets the profit, and if there isn’t profit – the public pay. And by the way, this consortium has reportedly sought $4m from the council already to further explore their idea and test its feasibility. Its all starting to sound a bit amateurish.

This latest proposal is a good opportunity for a public discussion on the future of the waterfront but what we don’t need is development based on ad hoc ideas or supposedly free gifts. And for a good discussion we need a properly informed public. Aucklanders have already paid for an investigation into downtown stadium sites, commissioned by Mayor Phil Goff from PwC. That’s the secretive one last year where councillors either read it in the presence of council staff or got a heavily redacted version. My understanding is that report favoured the same site I do and since Ngāti Whātua o Orākei owns a chunk of the land it’s a good way of involving them properly as partners rather than tick box consultation or token Māori cultural centres.

And it’s time for a bit of long term vision from the mayor and council as to the ports’ future. A recent news item revealed Ports of Auckland are about to build a five-storey parking building and a hotel to disguise it on this same wharf. That’s an even worse use of this public land that will affect views of the harbour, public access and future alternative uses. The Port is out of touch with public feeling and modern thinking about the best use of waterfronts in major cities. They operate an inland port for distribution but still store cars and empty containers on their waterfront site because they can. They are focused purely on their own business needs without wider environmental considerations – and the proposed hotel isn’t even core business.

There’s a high chance the stadium won’t happen but an excellent chance Ports of Auckland will further despoil our publicly-owned waterfront with short-term thinking aimed at one bottom line: making a profit. The key problem here is the Port Companies Act 1988. Like the so-called Council Controlled Organisations, set up with supercity amalgamation, it means publicly-owned entities operate as laws unto themselves over which Council has no control. It is the CCO Panuku for instance, in cahoots with the Port, who have applied for the cruise ship mooring extension that will industrialise the end of Queens Wharf, the one wharf it was agreed, when purchased, would be the ‘peoples’ wharf’ for public use.

Again, we need to agree on a wider vision for the ports future in which publicly-owned entities can do business efficiently but not at social, civic and environmental cost.

We need to look at other potential stadium locations and costs, and think about our priorities. We need to start planning port relocation. To do that we need to agree on a decent plan for the waterfront and to see how proposals like these that pop up from time to time fit into a wider vision for the waterfront, fit for 21st century needs in a city that aims to be the world’s most liveable.

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