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AucklandNovember 2, 2017

A green park on top of a carpark (!) and other remarkable plans for the Auckland port

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Ports of Auckland has released its brand new long-term plans. Simon Wilson is impressed, but also not impressed.

The cars are moving off the finger wharves. Hallelujah. And instead of spreading over every inch of available wharf space, most of them will be contained in a remarkable, brand-new carpark building. With a green park on top. That’s the biggest news from a new 30-year masterplan for Auckland’s container and mixed goods port, proposed by Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL). The company also wants to reconfigure the cruise ship berths, remove Marsden Wharf, add a small extension to Bledisloe Wharf, remove some of the existing buildings, build a hotel and other new buildings, and prepare the port for an almost fully automated container operation. And, yes, it says it accepts that at some point it is likely to shift to a new location.

The plan is a draft. It was presented to councillors in a workshop yesterday and will go before the full council at some later stage.

There’s a lot going on in that draft. In the wider scheme of things the council has adopted the Future Port Study, of which POAL is a part, which states that the port will shift, probably in about 30 years. On top of that, the new government has committed to studying the options for shifting some or all of the POAL operations to Northport, near Whangarei, in the context of a new regional strategic review of ports, freight and related transport. Before the election Winston Peters suggested the vehicle import trade could be shifted to Northport within the next couple of years – although that would require massive and speedy commitment to road and/or rail, to get them back down country again once they’re landed.

Looking east from Queens Wharf to cars lined up on Captain Cook Wharf. The car carrier is berthed at Bledisloe Wharf beyond, with the redundant container cranes. Two carriers will be able to berth there, end to end; the cranes will be dismantled (the one at right has already gone) and the unpainted concrete building in the distance will be demolished too. Photo Simon Wilson.

The plan also partly dovetails, but also partly contradicts, the City Centre and Waterfront Masterplan, adopted by the whole council just two months ago.

What POAL has done is attempt to cut through all this. Go ahead and make your strategic plans, it’s saying. In the meantime, we’ll develop the port so we can do our job more efficiently, and so we can meet some of the objectives of the wider Auckland public (no more reclamation; do something about those cars). If or when the time comes to plan to move the port, nothing we’re proposing here will upset that process. And in regard to the council’s waterfront plan, they’re also saying, we’d like to plan the port, if you don’t mind.

So there’s a little territorial skirmishing going on there. But also, on the bigger picture of stay or go, it is possible to read the new POAL proposal as an attempt to make the port so loved by Aucklanders that no one will want it to shift after all. You’ve got to love a trier.

It’s clever of them to put up 30 years’ worth of planning as one integrated package. So you like the carpark building but don’t like the location of the cruise ships? It’s going to be hard to unpick one part of the plan without unravelling the whole. Still, hard is not impossible. It’s important each part of what POAL wants to do gets due consideration on its merits, as well as the plan as a whole. And here’s what they want to do.

The new plan for a green carpark building with hotel in front. Note that the council’s plans for changing Quay St, with a bus station, single lanes for cars and more for pedestrians and cyclists, are not incorporated. Image POAL.

Move the cars but not very far

It’s common to have over 5000 cars at a time stored on the wharves, for an average of three days. That’s more cars for longer: POAL used to say the average stay was 48 hours. Mostly they go on Captain Cook Wharf and Bledisloe Wharf, and if necessary on the remaining bit of Marsden Wharf and “everywhere else they can be squeezed in”, as POAL communications boss Matt Ball puts it.

The new plan proposes to stop using Captain Cook and complete the demolition of Marsden. The car carriers will still arrive at Bledisloe and unload directly onto the wharf there. When that’s full, the cars will go into a new carpark building near the city end of Bledisloe Wharf. Originally, that building was going to be big enough for 3500 cars, but it’s been reduced to 2600. (If you think you might have read about a carpark building on the waterfront before, you’re right: last December I proposed they dream up a magnificent one here.)

It’ll be a green building: covered in greenery, with parkland on top. Ball says he’d like to stage a big community engagement programme, to get public input to what it looks like and is used for.

Verdict: This is exciting. Creating a building that’s a big green box is imaginative, the use of the roof as a green park is terrific, and the emptying of Captain Cook is just fantastic. It’s not really a fantastic piece of architecture like I was hoping for, but it’s pretty striking.

Architect’s impression of the proposed new hotel on Quay St, with the “green” carpark building behind it to the right. Again, note that the street has not been reconfigured to reflect council plans. Image POAL.

A new hotel on port land

It was the architects, Australian firm Plus Architecture, who suggested that the best solution to the problem of the cars wasn’t a carpark building on its own, but to put a public building in front of the carpark. So they’ve come up with an impressive design for a hotel.

In one way, this proposition is entirely consistent with port operations: POAL already makes quite a lot of money leasing parts of the port to various private operators (including the car companies), so why not extend that principle to a hotel operator? In another way, though, what the hell? Why should the publicly owned port company be leasing land to private companies whose business has nothing to do with port operations?

The hotel, says Ball, would be a public building, which is true in the sense that its bars and restaurants will draw the public. But if the core proposition is to put a public building there, on public land, then why not make it a museum, or work with mana whenua to make it a cultural centre? You know, a building whose principal function is to draw the public through its doors. And no, says Ball, there is “not enough room” for a stadium.

He says if it was a museum, POAL would have to fund its construction and the debt would go onto the consolidated fund, so there’s “no chance” of that. But really? That’s an argument for never using POAL land for non-ports public good, or never being able to find a way to fund a public asset on port land.

It’s surprising the concept artwork for the hotel doesn’t reflect any of the council’s plans for Quay St: the proposed new bus station, lanes for active transport (cycling and walking) and just single lanes for cars. These planners have not been talking to those planners.

Verdict: One of the most astonishing and shameful facts about Auckland’s waterfront is that mana whenua are still not visibly represented on it, and there are no plans for that to change. There’s a question of cultural propriety in this, and there are also major opportunities for tourism and for drawing locals to a showcase venue. A great piece of architecture? Sure, good idea. But a hotel? They can do better than that. And isolated planning? Within council organisations, of which POAL is one, we can surely expect there to be more integration of the masterplans.

Bledisloe Wharf, with cars parked all over the place. Photo Simon Wilson.

What about the rest of Bledisloe?

Bledisloe Wharf will be pushed out another 13 metres into the harbour, although that barely takes it beyond where parts of it protrude now. This extension will allow a large car carrier to berth there. The breastwork between Bledisloe and Marsden Wharf will be dug back, so two car carriers can berth end on end along the west side of Bledisloe. Marsden will be removed altogether.

The big blue and grey container cranes on the west side of Bledisloe, which are not used for anything now, will be dismantled. The big old concrete building with the Toyota sign will be demolished. No, it does not have heritage protection.

Verdict: Adding a 13-metre strip to the end of the wharf isn’t significant. I’ve always liked that Toyota building: it looks to me like heritage that could be wonderfully repurposed one day. The biggest issue, addressed above, is that the carpark and new building proposals are done as well as they can be.

Captain Cook and the cruise ships

The port needs to cater for up to three cruise ships at a time. Under the POAL plan, the first will dock on the east side of Queens Wharf, as now; the second on the east side of Captain Cook and the third on the east side of Princes Wharf, also as now.

That probably looks functional. But it doesn’t resolve any of the existing problems, or open the wharves to new possibilities. It doesn’t even fit with the council’s own plan – which is to extend Captain Cook Wharf so it can take a cruise ship either side, with the third at Princes Wharf.

The council plan has two signal advantages. One is that it completely frees up at least one of the finger wharves – Queens Wharf – for public use.  The other is that it resolves the existing problems of that intersection: the mouth of Queens Wharf should be a graceful public entrance to the wharf but instead is nothing but a busy roadway for cruise ship traffic, taxis and other vehicles coming and going all day long.

And, left as it is, it will soon get a lot worse. The bottom of Queen St is going to be an enormously busy pedestrian precinct: the new Commercial Bay complex, rising on the site of the old Downtown shopping centre and adjoining buildings, will be full of people; Britomart Railway Station will be back to normal business from its front entrance; and Quay St itself will stop being an arterial route and become much more pedestrianised. Part one of Commercial Bay will be open for business this time next year. The POAL plan more or less ignores all that.

It’s closer to the council plan for Captain Cook: both share the idea that this wharf will become the number one cruise ship terminal.

The problem with that – a problem ignored in both plans – is that the U-shape between Cook and Queens is perfect for public events: lunchtime festivals, concerts from a barge on the water, you name it. But the cruise ship season, summer, is also the public wharf season: you can’t have a busy schedule for both at the same time. If the finger wharves off the bottom of downtown Auckland were truly to be put to full public use, the cruise ships would be relocated away from the area.

In addition to Plus Architecture, who bill themselves as masterplan specialists, POAL also consulted with Jose Alfano, an architect and professor at the University of Melbourne with experience in port design, who Ball says also worked on the High Line in New York. He’s also a supposed masterplan boffin. They haven’t been shy about going to experts.

And yet, for all that, POAL’s proposals for the cars, the cruise ships, the finger wharves and the hotel, have the feel of something designed to meet an unimpressive brief: fit the cars and cruise ships in where they won’t get in the way of the container operation, and for god’s sake make the treatment of the cars look good. Is that good enough?

Verdict: The cruise ships need to berth on the waterfront but they do not need the prime sites. If we are, finally, going to lose the cars from that part of the wharf, let’s think much more creatively about what we can do with the space. From POAL but also from Auckland Council itself, this is poor planning.

A view of the plan from Parnell, looking across Quay St to the proposed new POAL head office building (with trees on top) and engineering workshops (with the lozenge shapes). The red blocks are containers. The Strand runs off to the left. The green carpark building with park on top is visible at the top of the picture. Image POAL.

The bottom of The Strand

Drive down The Strand now and as you go over the bridge above the railway lines, facing the port, you’re looking at a wall of containers. They’re all empty. (Rule of thumb: if they’re stacked more than three high, there’s nothing in them.) It’s a puzzle that POAL chooses to store empty containers blocking what would otherwise be a terrific view across the wharves to the volcanic cones of Devonport. As least it’s a temporary thing, right?

Well, no. The new plan is to put up two impressive new buildings on the site. Just to the right, a new head office. To the left, new engineering workshops. Between them, a plaza: possibly, you’ll be able to see through to something on the other side.

Some reconfiguration is planned for Jellicoe Wharf, more or less behind the new head office site, where the ships that service Pacific trade berth.

Verdict: No problem with putting impressive new buildings on the wharf. If the port shifts in two or three decades’ time, they can be repurposed or demolished then. But couldn’t those new buildings be located and designed in such a way that the view is opened up for all of us?   

The containers on Fergusson Wharf

Fergusson, the largest wharf, is at the east end of the whole area and is where the entire container operation is focused. It will get new cranes (next year) and new straddle carriers, and there will be some dredging to make the berths deeper.

The new cranes and straddle carriers will be fully automated. It’s faster to keep people involved in getting the containers off the ships, but from that point on the plan is to have the entire chain fully automated by 2019. The straddle carriers will be taller, so containers can be stacked four high.

Automation will let in the tourists. You’ll be able to take a bus tour around the container operation, because computers can keep vehicles out of each other’s way easier than drivers and wharf workers.

The art deco building on Fergusson, which currently houses the POAL head office, will be demolished. It doesn’t have heritage protection either.

There will be a little bit of wharf extension east, to a dolphin that’s sited just off the northeast corner. The net effect of all alternations to the wharves is that 1.275 hectares will be removed and 1.250ha will be added. Pretty neutral.

Verdict: Not much to see here. Automation will happen, like it or not.  

Quay St runs across the bottom of the map. Yellow shows demolition: Marsden Wharf and the “Toyota” building. Pink, both shades, shows new developments. Map POAL.

What is the future anyway?

This big new plan has been conceived in line with some guiding principles, says Ball: no more reclamation (those additions are wharf, not land), keeping the supply chain efficient, making the port look better, building only what they need, providing public access wherever possible, ensuring environmental protections are robust, strengthening community relations and having due regard to legacy. That last one, he says, means that if the port moves in 30 years, or whenever, what’s left behind is in good shape and useable.

Will the port move? There’s a view that the Future Port Study and everyone on it agreed that it would, because it didn’t cost them anything: committing to a long-term plan like that is meaningless. As Ball himself says, just look at the East-West Link: in politics you can decide one thing now and the other side can cancel it whenever they gain power. All sorts of new circumstances can cause a rethink.

In 30 years Auckland is expected to have 2.7 million people. But we won’t be living the way we do now. Automation, not just of container carriers, but of private vehicles and many of the things we use to live and work, will have changed our lives profoundly.

How long before the first car-carrier ship berths, the doors swing open and a long line of self-drive cars drive themselves bumper to bumper off the ship? Will they park, or keep going straight onto a self-drive train destined for an inland port in Wiri or, who knows, will half of them keep going to another inland port somewhere in the middle of the Waikato?

How long before many of the products we currently import will be built here under licence on 3D printers? Will Auckland keep growing at the current pace or will the population disperse? Maybe one day hundreds of thousands of people will prefer to live – and therefore shop – along the route of frequent rapid rail to Hamilton and Tauranga? Jeez, who’d want to plan a port?

Still, somebody has to. This is the most valuable real estate in the country. Auckland needs high functional efficiency in transport and freight if it is to prosper, and the country needs that for Auckland too. And that land is a great, great public asset.

The principles underlying the POAL plan are good. The outcomes are a mix of great, good and, well, it probably depends on your view of the best place to berth the cruise ships. Officially, those cruise ships are meant to stay, as POAL has accepted, roughly where they are. But this is the problem that almost always arises with POAL plans: essentially, they’re designed to lock in the status quo rather than find innovative, different and better ways to do things.

Beyond that, it’s not absurd that different arms of council, POAL and its own planning and design offices, produce different plans for the future. Contestable advice sharpens the mind, and the POAL management has its own board to work to. But someone has to step in now and synchronise the process. This plan contradicts, in parts, an existing council plan. That can’t be allowed to stand. It’s the council’s job to sort it out, and that has to happen soon: we need to be getting things done.

And one more thing: the America’s Cup. It’s said Captain Cook Wharf is not big enough for the syndicates, but is that true? In most other respects, it’s a good site – provided the access can be organised so it doesn’t spill into the bottom of Queen St. It’s a better option than expanding Halsey Wharf into the harbour.

A date for council to consider the POAL plan has not been set. There’s fun and games to follow, but it’s pretty serious too. @simonbwilson

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