Auckland

A base for the America’s Cup: where are the good options?

Hosting the America’s Cup should be the perfect event for a sailing city like Auckland, shouldn’t it? So why, asks Simon Wilson, is there a risk it’s going to wreck the surrounding area?

Something has gone seriously wrong with waterfront planning in Auckland and the America’s Cup is threatening to make a bad situation even worse.

Councillors met behind closed doors yesterday to consider where the syndicates contesting the 2021 Cup should be based. Officials from the council agencies in charge of the process gave them five options to choose from.

Incredibly, as became clear in a media conference after the councillors had met, the officials believe only one of those five options is worth pursuing. That one is an extension of Halsey Wharf, a further 220 metres into the harbour. Halsey is the wharf on which the ANZ Viaduct Events Centre sits.

Mayor Phil Goff, on the other hand, speaking on the phone later, said he supports one of the other options. There’s a showdown looming.

Goff also said, “I don’t want to see it in Italy. If it ended up in Tauranga, I’d be totally relaxed. That won’t serve as well for New Zealand, in my view. I think Auckland is the first and best option, but I’d rather New Zealand than Italy.”

Totally relaxed about giving it to Tauranga?

Following the money 

The process of deciding on a base for the America’s Cup in 2021 has been led by the council’s regeneration agency, Panuku Development Auckland, with the active involvement of other agencies from central and local government. Team New Zealand has advised the working group that the base has to be consented and built by late 2019, to allow the syndicates time to prepare for the main racing in January-March 2021. TNZ has also specified that it must be large enough to host eight sydicates, most of which are expected to have two boats.

The working group established three key criteria: ability to meet the timeframe; suitability for syndicate requirements; and the “legacy” implications for Auckland. In the words of Panuku’s “design and place director”, Rod Marler, all the options for the base were put through a “core sieve”, based on those three criteria, and the five shortlisted options emerged.

The process is full of unknowns. They don’t know there will be eight syndicates – in 2000 there were 12 and in 2003 there were 10. Eight is the number TNZ has specified in its brief, but they don’t know either. They don’t know how many syndicates will have two boats. They don’t know how much it will all cost – the estimates range from $140 million to $190 million – or what the returns to the city will be.

They don’t know what the government will be willing to contribute and they don’t know what the private sector will be prepared to fund, either. (They’re expecting a 50:50 split between council and government, to pay for whatever the corporates won’t pick up.)

But they do know they want the America’s Cup. Based on previous contests since 2000, it’s thought the Cup will add between $555 million and $977 million to the New Zealand economy, of which between $400 million and $858  million would be generated directly in Auckland. (The range is because they don’t know how many syndicates are coming.)

The economic input to the city is derived, in descending order, from: what the syndicates spend, the sponsors, superyachts, other visitors. Some 50-60 superyachts a year currently visit Auckland, and most do some refitting while they’re here. For the Cup itself, it’s expected we’ll see 140 of them.

The principal legacy potential, in the words of Steve Armitage, destinations manager for ATEED, the council’s economic development agency, is for Auckland to grow the size and status of its maritime industry and to become “a global leader in maritime events”. After the America’s Cup, there might be another, and another – no one can know. But negotiations are underway for other international regattas also to come to Auckland.

Introducing the five options 

1. Extend Halsey Wharf

This is the favoured option of the working group and of Team New Zealand. It provides for a compact syndicate village with its own enclosed harbour in the area on Halsey Wharf and across to Hobson Wharf, where the Maritime Museum is. It would create a new Cup Village right in the heart of the Viaduct and North Wharf precincts.

But the proposal requires pushing the wharf a further 220 metres into the harbour, so it lines up with Princes Wharf and Queens Wharf. Extending Halsey like this is “consistent with the intent” of the 2012 waterfront masterplan, says the working group. That’s true, but also disingenuous: the 2012 plan has been superseded by a new plan which proposes no extension to Halsey Wharf.

The new plan, developed by council officials and agencies, has been received by council but not adopted: it’s one of many proposals to be considered as the council tries to agree on a new 10-year-budget next year.

The working group suggests extending Halsey will provide “a legacy for the marine and events sectors with new and sheltered water space”. That might be true. Alternatively, it could just have hotels and apartments built on it, as has happened to all the previous America’s Cup infrastructure on the waterfront. No one, at least in public, has yet seen fit to set out how this particular “legacy” would be used.

Extending Halsey is the most expensive option.

2. Extend Captain Cook (west)

This option would see the syndicates lined up on the wharf with their boats moored on the west side. The wharf would need to be extended 230 metres into the harbour: further than nearby Queens Wharf and out as far as Bledisloe Wharf to the east. The council’s new waterfront masterplan also proposes extending Captain Cook, although not as far.

The imported cars would have to move. Panuku’s Rod Marler said yesterday that Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) has advised this is not possible because it won’t be able to find a new place to store them in time. Marler also said this had been accepted by the technical advisers to his working group.

But that’s complete nonsense. POAL’s own plans for the waterfront, released earlier this month, show that it proposes to clear Captain Cook of cars and put up a new building for them on Bledisloe Wharf.

The much bigger problem is what to do with the cruise ships. Both the council’s new masterplan and the POAL plan propose that Captain Cook (along with Queens Wharf) be used for cruise ships. But this America’s Cup option means they couldn’t use either of those wharves for the duration. That’s a real problem, because the sailing season is also the cruise ship season.

3. Extend Captain Cook (east)

This option partly resolves that problem, by having the syndicates moor their boats on the east side of Captain Cook. That would allow cruise ships to keep berthing at Queens Wharf (and at Princes Wharf).

In other respects, the proposal is the same as 2 above, with a 230-metre extension into the harbour.

According to both ATEED’s Steve Armitage and mayor Phil Goff, Team NZ has advised of another problem: the water is not suitable. There are problems with the ferries coming and going and the site is not calm enough.

That’s the sort of thing one would like to hear some cross-examination on.

4. Halsey Wharf dispersed #1: with Hobson Wharf and Westhaven Marina

This is the first of two “dispersed” options. Some of the syndicates would be at Halsey Wharf, which would be extended, but not by much. The remainder would be located in the Westhaven Marina.

This option delivers the new sheltered water space for future events that was prized in the first option, but it does not create a unified Cup Village. That’s not unheard of – San Diego didn’t have one either – but Team NZ believes having everyone together is valuable and will fight hard to stop the syndicates being split up.

5. Halsey Wharf dispersed #2: the “clustered” option, with Hobson Wharf and Wynyard Point (east)

This is a variation of 4 above, the difference being that the syndicates, while not all in one place, are clustered. This option would retain the focus on the Viaduct and North Wharf, but do it without extending Halsey Wharf very far into the harbour.

The dispersed Halsey Wharf options are cheaper than the others, have fewer complications for the city, and still create legacy infrastructure that will be valuable for future maritime events.

This is Phil Goff’s favoured option. “My first preference is Halsey Wharf dispersed,” he said, referring to this clustered option.

Why is this so hard?

There are so many complications. One is that we don’t have a current operative masterplan. The 2012 plan is technically still in use but it is out of date; the new one has not yet been adopted. And that new masterplan is contradicted by the new POAL plan, so that will have to be resolved.

In a further complication, neither of the proposed new plans addresses the needs of the America’s Cup campaign, even though both were produced after Team NZ won the cup in Bermuda.

Ideally, the council would agree on a masterplan that included America’s Cup planning. Ideally, the council’s masterplan and POAL’s masterplan and the America’s Cup plan would be a coordinated effort, the result of joined-up planning by the various branches of council working together (and in consultation with central government).

But guess what? That doesn’t happen. Although the America’s Cup should be enabled by Auckland waterfront planning, unfortunately it’s going to drive the planning instead.

This is a political and planning failure of some magnitude.

Disjointed planning is the first problem. The second is that the cruise ship companies have far too much power.

Cruise ships are vital for Auckland, as they are for every port they visit. But they don’t need the very best downtown berths and there is no reason they should be given them at the expense of other waterfront users. It’s not just that they prevent other activities; they also ruin the wharves they’re on: the head of Queens Wharf would be a bustling, delightful waterfront oasis full of people if it wasn’t one vast turning bay for the trucks that provision the cruise ships and the hundreds of taxis and buses that come and go.

If the America’s Cup pushed the cruise ships to a new location, a kilometre east or west of where they are now, it might be a great outcome for the city.

There is a third underlying problem and it helps explain the other two. Waterfront planning in Auckland has been captured by vested interests and compromised by siloed patch protection. That’s why it’s so hard to find evidence that anyone is doing the joined-up thinking.

The cruise ship industry says things have to be done their way or they can’t be done at all. The shipping companies handling freight say the same thing. Within the council, Ports of Auckland also insists there’s only one way to do anything and it’s their way.

Other agencies also jockey for power and influence, with Panuku, ATEED, Auckland Transport, the Design Office and the council’s own executive all seemingly determined to prove they have the essential skills to lead and manage strategic planning.

Where’s the joined-up thinking?

As a result, the debate on where to house the Cup syndicates has been presented without reference to what might happen to the Tank Farm, the finger wharves, the cars on the wharves, the future of Quay St, the introduction of light rail to the Wynyard Quarter and Queen St, the explosive growth now happening in Wynyard, the possible creation of a Māori cultural centre on the waterfront, the automation of the container port, the future of Queens Wharf, the refurbishment of the ferry terminal and related ferry operations, the opening of Commercial Bay, the logistics of high-volume service access to the sites and more.

Yet, on most if not all of these matters, there’s going to be a lot happen between now and the time of the America’s Cup in 2021. Most of it will impact the Cup Village and vice versa, wherever it is sited.

There’s something else they don’t appear to have thought about. Auckland is a city built on the maritime exploits of its forebears. Māori settlers and then European settlers; the great economic, cultural and recreational traditions of sailing that defined the city hundreds of years ago and have continued to define it ever since. One day, on the waterfront, we will honour those traditions, Māori and Pākeha, Polynesian and European and Asian.

We may do it with an interactive museum of maritime science and technology, tracing the lineage from the science of the earliest navigators all the way to the wizardry of contemporary yacht racing and into the future. Who knows, we may do it in other ways instead. However we do it, the America’s Cup will have a profoundly important role to play, and so will the mana whenua, and so will many others.

The decision on where to site a new Cup base can’t be made fully in the context of all those factors. The council meeting is next week and there isn’t time. There hasn’t been nearly enough joined-up big-picture thinking. But they can try to keep the good options open.

The working group’s “core sieve” was supposedly a filter that prioritised the most important issues. In fact, it narrowed the strategic planning to elements of direct relevance to the America’s Cup. The result: almost inevitably, it favoured the option that is most expensive, possibly most disruptive of the long-term future of the port, and most out of line with other planning, such as it is.

Were environmental issues considered? What about cultural ones? How did they assess the options in relation to all the other projects, plans and goals for the waterfront?  In response to questions about this yesterday, Panuku’s Rod Marler said they were considered, but he did not elaborate.

Members of Emirates Team New Zealand lift the America’s Cup trophy in celebration during the Team New Zealand Americas Cup Welcome Home Parade on July 6, 2017 in Auckland. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

What will the council do?

Now it’s down to the council. They had a closed-session workshop yesterday; next Thursday, on November 23, they will meet to make a decision on what site to choose.

In making their choice, there face some fundamental questions, and apart from the first one, they are not the questions of the “core sieve”:

  1. Which site is likely to bring the best long-term benefits to Auckland?
  2. Which site fits best with the general strategic planning of the waterfront and the other decisions that have already been made?
  3. Which site best enhances the environmental values of the waterfront and the harbour?
  4. Which site advances the prospect of Auckland being able to celebrate its identity as a bicultural maritime city, founded by seafarers and raised to splendid achievement, again and again, by the water all around?
  5. Which site will best allow them to control costs?

It might be right to extend one or more of the wharves over 200 metres into the harbour – we need to know more. But it won’t be right just because Team NZ wants it.

It might be right not to put the syndicate bases on Captain Cook wharf – again, we need to know a lot more. But the desire of the cruise ship companies to preserve their already privileged position should hardly be relevant.

From the city’s point of view, extending and adapting Captain Cook wharf looks like a very attractive option. It would locate the Cup Village right in the heart of the downtown waterfront, providing multiple vantage points for the public to watch the action. It would immeasurably speed up the development of Quay St and the transformation of that part of the wharves. It would force the removal of the cars. If the infrastructure remained valuable for future maritime events, all well and good. If it didn’t, it’s easy to see how the extended wharf could be repurposed to all sorts of public good.

But how valid are the objections of Team NZ about the water, and the cruise ship companies about needing the site itself? We don’t yet know.

If they are valid, then Phil Goff’s preference for option 5 looks promising: a moderate proposal of a clustered set of bases on a moderately extended Halsey Wharf, it obviously meets most of the requirements of Team NZ as we know them, and yet it has a less disruptive impact than the others overall.

Planning a new waterfront activity, for Auckland, of all cities, should not be a matter of compromising what is special about our waterfront. The America’s Cup should enhance our waterfront, now and for the future. Whatever they choose, that’s what the councillors should be looking for.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwiilson

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