Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Sailing close to the wind
E. M. Farrelly
Auckland’s city fathers are pursuing a grandiose development plan for the CBD which involves a deal that could result in one whopping white elephant.
PICTURE this. A huge mother of a mixed-use development is proposed for the northern end of the CBD. Its dozen or so towers, many of them squatting upon or within heritage buildings, will be aligned along the water’s edge, effectively isolating the city centre from its harbour and blocking views of both water and bridge.
Then again, maybe that won’t matter, so terminally drained will the city centre be by this gargantuan competitor at its northern end.
But wait. Before you race off to petition/harangue/eviscerate the city fathers, the CBD in question is not Sydney, but Auckland, New Zealand, so-called City of Sails.
A little-known law states that the splendour of a country’s natural assets is directly proportional to the indifference of its built forms. Many countries are beautiful, but when God made New Zealand she was really showing her tail feathers. The nation’s cities suffer accordingly. Auckland is a city of a million people, give or take, spread over the area of greater Los Angeles, bounded by no fewer than two harbours and two coasts and strewn with extinct volcanoes. Pretty hard to beat, as a setting. But nothing’s indestructible.
In fact, old Auckland was OK. The ancient photos are remarkably similar to sepia-tinted Sydney; civilised-looking streets crammed with teams and horses and decent hat-wearing fellows. Like Sydney, old Auckland comprised entirely low-rise, blocky buildings, interspersed by a network of arthritic laneways which gave the place its charm and explorability.
Much of this survived successive waves of modernism, until the mirror-glass meretrices of the 1980s shattered over Auckland CBD, leaving a rash of black holes to rival Sydney’s and an unequalled collection of surface car parks where the laneways had been. So much for charm. Now, though, with Auckland at least as fevered by the 1999 America’s Cup as is Olympicinfected Sydney, waterfront property has skyrocketed. And although the black holes remain untilled, the city council itself is proposing a huge new redevelopment on the Britomart site, so-called, just over the road from the city’s still-functioning port, at the far, harbour end of its traditional Queen Street (read George Street) shopping spine.
The proposal includes a vast transport interchange, including rail, bus and possibly ferry, as well as a two-level shopping centre and 2,900 car spaces underground; and some four million square feet of new floorspace – office, residential, hotel – above. The above-ground development presents as 10 tower buildings up to 36 storeys high, and a handful of low-rise, all set on a two-metre thick landscaped slab.
So far so plausible. Despite controversy, manifest in more than 1,100 formal objections, the development has been approved (by the council as its own consent authority), appealed, supported by the court, and a many-volumed development contract let.
Now, though, a further, environmental consent is required, regarding disturbance of the water table and dewatering of the site. Tricky business, excavating below sea level on wholly reclaimed land. The hearing has become minutely technical, but essentially provides an excuse for the brouhaha to run and run.
The deal, as contractually enshrined, is that the council-as-landowner sells the entire site to the developer, Britomart investments, for $56 million. The council then lends that amount back to the developer, interest-free for three years, after which it is obliged to buy back from the developer the completed underground transport and shopping centre, with a 1.2-hectare landscaped ground slab, miscellaneous sewerage and infrastructure works and some underpinning of the remaining heritage buildings on the site. The tag? A cool $124 million.
Not counting opportunity costs and the like, this gives the ratepayers of Auckland a transport centre said to be worth $120 million for the bargain basement figure of $68 million. For the first time in 60-odd years, Aucklanders will be able to catch a train to the city, instead of the outskirts.
Some, at least, of the heritage buildings on the site will be stabilised – not conserved, but no longer crumbling through neglect. And a short stretch of Quay Street, which at present divides city from sea, will be undergrounded and pedestrianed-over. Active uses, relationship to harbour, heritage retention: all the keywords get a bit of a tickle.
What’s more, when the towers eventuate, the rates revenue to the council is expected to rise from $0.9 to $11 million annually. Sounds like a good deal, on the surface. But there is the odd catch.
First, a half-price transport centre is a bargain only if you actually need one, and Auckland has no such study. The existing railway links a few, distinctly unburgeoning southern suburbs and expansion plans for the network are distinctly iffy.
Auckland roads may be gridlocked but any city so thinly spread has a snowflake’s chance of supporting any serious public transport network, except possibly buses. And who ever heard of land purchase for rail corridors in this chastened age?
FROM here on the negatives stack heavily. Auckland’s Yellow Bus Company, a crucial player, has declined to support the development, clearly feeling such a move to be the last straw in customer disincentive. While the 2,900 parking spaces proposed can only worsen the city’s standstill traffic and further undermine any public transport pluses. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), congenitally pro-development, is so convinced that the four million square feet of development foreshadows the death of the CBD that it opposed it through the courts – and lost.
And although half a dozen or so of the site’s 16 heritage buildings will be kept, in one form or another, even they it seems will possibly be exposed to damage by excavation-induced ground settlement.
The really eye-catching part of the deal, however, is the council’s obligation to underwrite the development – its “standby takeout facility” as set out in the contract.
As you’d expect, the whole point of getting a developer in is to protect the public purse from risk. Otherwise the council might as well go it alone. In this case, though, if any above-ground sites remain undeveloped after 10 years, the council must buy them back for half their 1996 value.
This could amount to $230 million – more than half the council’s entire annual budget. And with no rates revenue to speak of, either.
It’s a neat bit of needlework. If the transport centre is late delivering, the contractor – Australia’s own Concrete Constructions – takes a bath. If the economy falls apart, despite the Cup, the council foots it. You’d have to say, when push comes to headbutt, you’d want to be on the developer’s team. Safe with piggy.
Curious thing is, and contrary to popular local opinion, the deal has been about as secret as a royal cell phone – discussed and adopted by the full council on several occasions in open session and on the public record. Assuming that said councillors were in complete command of their respective mental faculties at the time, what could have possessed them?
Such apparent determination not only to swallow but pursue a deal which could decimate what remains of the known city, possibly damage neighbouring property (think litigation), lumber the council with an exceedingly pale elephant of a rail station and expose the same august body to liability in the hundreds of millions suggests interesting times coming. The deeply ordinary architecture proposed (by Hassell of Sydney) becomes positively attractive by comparison.
If I were an Auckland city councillor right now, I’d be praying with everything crossed to lose the current consent hearing.
Illus: Going up in the world …
Auckland City Council’s plan for redevelopment – only problem is, can the council afford it?