What happened to ‘not one more metre’? Council approves cruise ship wharf extensions

Last week Auckland Council voted to build an extension on Queens Wharf: a fixed walkway to two moored “dolphin” buoys, stretching 80-85 metres further into the harbour. Simon Wilson was at the meeting and asks, how the hell did that happen?

The Golden Princess was in Auckland on Friday. A modern cruise ship, new to the New Zealand run, it’s towards the larger end of the scale for ships that typically tour the South Pacific: 108,865 tonnes, 290 metres long, 33 metres wide, 17 decks high and capable of carrying up to 3700 people. That ship is big enough to list among its many attractions four swimming pools and a 1000-seat theatre.

But the Golden Princess isn’t really big. The newest supercruiser, Harmony of the Seas, is twice the size: it weighs 226,963 tonnes, is 362 metres long and 66 metres wide, has 18 decks and carries up to 9000 people. It is the largest cruise ship in the world.

Because of Harmony of the Seas and its sister ships, including Oasis of the SeasAllure of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, the cruise ship industry is rethinking the economics of cruise travel. Bigger is better, and so, we’re told, there will be more of these supercruisers.

Golden Princess at Queens Wharf: big, but not as big as some. (All photos except as noted Simon Wilson)

Don’t hold your breath for Harmony to visit here: it cruises the Mediterranean, from its base in Barcelona, and sometimes crosses the Atlantic for cruises out of Florida as well. But we did see Ovation last year and, from its base in Sydney during the southern hemisphere summer, is scheduled to make several more visits this season and next. At 168,666 tonnes and 348 metres in length, Ovation is quite a bit lighter than Harmony but only 14 metres shorter.

And, we are told by Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL), who have it on good authority from the cruise ship companies, that within five to 10 years other supercruisers will also want to visit New Zealand quite frequently.

The problem is, Ovation and other ships like it can’t berth here. Our wharves aren’t big enough. When Ovation visits it has to moor out on the Gulf, with tenders used to ferry passengers and provisions to and from shore. [Note: This feature has been updated to correct the information about Ovation of the Seas.]

What to do? Auckland wants to remain attractive to cruise ships, and not just for the tourism dollars. Cruise ship passengers are not big spenders, because they’re here for only a day or two and tend to eat the meals they’ve already paid for on board. The main economic value of cruise ships is in provisioning.

If Auckland becomes one of the few ports in the region where the supercruisers can berth, that provisioning role will probably strengthen. So, it is argued, will the likelihood of Auckland being a start/end point for cruises, which is also valuable, because that entices passengers to stay an extra night or two in a hotel.

And, according to Ports of Auckland who have it on good authority from the cruise ship companies, if the supercruisers don’t come here, the other, smaller ships in the cruise fleet may stop coming as well.

Golden Princess.

Introducing the dolphins

So, last Thursday morning, there they were, the city councillors, meeting to decide whether to build an 80-85 metre extension onto the end of Queens Wharf, to allow other supercruisers to join Ovation on the Auckland route, in five to 10 years’ time.

The extension is not a solid reclamation or a full-width piled extension of the wharf. The plan is to build two “dolphins”, which are like buoys fixed to the ocean floor, with a fixed walkway, on piles, connecting them to the wharf. They would be closed to the public and used exclusively to provide mooring points for the ships.

Dolphins like this are used in harbours around the world. Sydney has one in Circular Quay. But Sydney’s dolphin is a discreet little thing sitting low in the water, with wharf crew gaining access to it on a small boat. Ports of Auckland says our weather makes it unsafe to rely on access by boat. The walkway effectively makes this an 85-metre wharf extension.

Mooring dolphin at Circular Quay in Sydney, with no walkway. The ship is the Queen Elizabeth, about the same size as the Golden Princess. Supercruisers are about 70 metres longer, which is the distance from stern to forward of the chimney stack. (Photo supplied.)

It was the same council meeting in which, later that afternoon, they would decide to push back on Team NZ’s desire for a big extension to Halsey Wharf, to house the syndicates that will contest the next America’s Cup. Council’s decision that afternoon was guided by environmental concerns and, it’s fair to say, a resistance to being bullied. They opted for a less disruptive option, and good on them for that.

But that morning, on the strikingly similar issue of Queens Wharf and the dolphins, the council set aside its environmental concerns. Almost all the councillors said they did not want to extend the wharf. But most believed they had no choice. They wrung their hands, they smote their foreheads (all right, I exaggerate, but they did get angry and call each other names). And then they voted for the extension.

How did that happen? How did a council that says in its own “vision” plan that economic and environmental objectives should be aligned, find itself lost in a debate that pitched one against the other?

The damage done by dolphins

The council got itself into this situation through a chain of decisions, none of which, on its own, meant it  wanted an extension on Queens Wharf. But the cumulative effect was to make that inevitable.

Ports of Auckland has long argued it would be impracticable and/or unsuitable to berth cruise ships anywhere at the north or east side of Bledisloe Wharf, or further east near its container operation, or further west, near Wynyard Point (the Tank Farm) or in Westhaven. POAL always says this: whatever option it prefers is the only option possible.

The council has accepted POAL’s view on this, and the consequence has been that cruise ships berth on two of the finger wharves. Technically, the relevant planning document is the 2012 City Centre and Waterfront Masterplan, which enshrines Queens Wharf (east side) as the home of the cruise ships. When there’s more than one in port, the second berths at Princes Wharf (next to the Hilton Hotel), and if there’s a third it uses Bledisloe Wharf.

This has sorely compromised Queens Wharf as a “people’s wharf”, because it is dominated by the roadway and big turning bay required for all the cruise-ship traffic coming and going.

In August this year council received a new City Centre and Waterfront Masterplan, which proposes taking the cruise ships off Queens Wharf altogether. They would be shifted to the finger wharf immediately east of Queens: Captain Cook Wharf. Cook would be extended and would able to berth a ship one each side, with Princes Wharf retained as the third berth. The small Marsden Wharf, currently half demolished, will be gone altogether.

From the council’s draft 2017 masterplan: the pink ships are moored either side of a longer Captain Cook wharf, with a third at Princes Wharf. (The dotted line extension to Halsey Wharf is not happening.) (Picture supplied)

This plan has many advantages, including: it frees up Queens Wharf; it moves the cruise ship traffic away from the bottom of Queen St, where a new pedestrian plaza will open next year; it removes the cars from Captain Cook. But the 2017 plan is a draft proposal. It’s one of the many plans, covering the entirety of council activities, to be considered next year for the new 10-year-budget.

Nothing in that draft masterplan has been approved, there is no budget allocation for its proposals and there is no timetable on any of the work. It has no formal status as a planning document.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of this month, Ports of Auckland released its own plan. This contradicts the council masterplan by retaining Queens Wharf as the main cruise ship berth, adding a second on Captain Cook (east) and retaining the third on Princes Wharf. Marsden would be demolished.

Curiously, although it’s less than a month old, this plan does not include any dolphins on Queens Wharf.

From Ports of Auckland’s proposed plan for the waterfront: Queens Wharf at left has one cruise ship (and no dolphins!), while Captain Cook next to it takes a second. (Picture supplied)

The plan is a proposal, with no formal status as a planning document: it’s POAL policy but it has not been presented to council and, if it ever is, there will be a battle. It’ll be a big one: deciding where the cruise ships should go is only one of many ways in which the POAL plan contradicts the council’s plan.

The most relevant aspect of the POAL plan right now is that it enshrines Captain Cook Wharf as a car park for many years. Yes, it’s a plan to get the cars off that wharf, and hooray for that. But not any time soon. It actually locks them in there for perhaps the next 10 years. And that locks the cruise ships onto Queens Wharf.

How did the council find itself last week in an agony of moral confusion, with economic advantage ranged against environmental imperatives over the cruise ships? Because they have allowed Ports of Auckland to tell them those cruise ships must be berthed in a place that will become almost wholly inadequate to the needs of the city within the next few years.

What they all said

Cr Christine Fletcher said she was unhappy about the dolphins. But she said they were “the dead rat that we have to swallow”.

Cr Ross Clow said he was unhappy about the dolphins and criticised the “little island state called Ports of Auckland”.

He wanted to know what happens at all the other ports the big ships can’t berth at? This was answered by John Smith, a planning expert who works for both Panuku and ATEED, the council’s economic development agency. Smith is the “cruise project manager”, among other things, and it was he who presented the dolphins proposal to council. He said, without naming names or providing details, that a port in Alaska had lost its cruise ships to a larger port “down the coast” and “15 years of economic neglect” had followed.

It sounded a bit scaremongery, but no one challenged it.

“I’m really struggling with this,” said Clow. “I totally understand the economic and employment benefits but it’s the ad hoc nature of what we’re doing, again. What’s going to be left of Queens Wharf? This was supposed to be the people’s park but we’re just not getting close.”

Members of two local boards also addressed the meeting. Mike Cohen and George Wood spoke on behalf of the Devonport-Takapuna board. Everything that happens at the port, they always like to say, affects the people of Devonport more that most, because they have to look at it. Wood said they were worried about the dolphins, especially with walkway. Cohen reminded the meeting that in 1840 the harbour was 2000 metres wide and now it’s less than 1000 metres.

He said, “If we gave the harbour an identity, like the Whanganui River, would we treat it with more respect?”

Shale Chambers from the Waitemata board (which includes the port) asked why the dolphins had to be built now. “Building for vessels coming in five to 10 years is not future proofing, it’s just building early,” he said. Besides, he asked, which is it, five years or 10?

“If it’s closer to 10, that’s the timetable for Ports of Auckland’s own plans to release Captain Cook Wharf.” Good point: both the POAL strategic plan and the 2017 masterplan propose Captain Cook for cruise ships, although the POAL plan does keep Queens Wharf as the main berth (see diagrams above).

John Smith agreed. In time, he said, the ships would “probably” berth at Captain Cook and Princes Wharf, not Queens Wharf.

Councillors in a recent meeting, from left around the table: mayor Phil Goff, deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, Mike Lee, Alf Filipaina, Efeso Collins, Wayne Walker, Chris Darby, John Walker, Linda Cooper (and yes, if you’re wondering, council is dominated by men: 14 of the 20 are men, at present).

That prompted deputy mayor Bill Cashmore to say he was pretty unhappy about the dolphins and ask when we would have a unified plan. Smith said the council will be talking about the masterplan with POAL soon, but the dolphins needed approval now to allow time for them to be consented and built for the 2019-20 cruise ship season. (Update: a spokesperson for ATEED has confirmed the Ovation of the Seas will visit in 2018-19 regardless; the bookings assume the ship will be moored in the stream.)

Cashmore asked if the dolphins were temporary. Well, yes, said Smith, but they’re not going to be called that in the consent application. They’ll be built to last, even if the plan is to dismantle them at some stage.

In another presentation to the meeting, Viv Beck of Heart of the City said her organisation was “deeply concerned at the incremental approach being taken to develop our waterfront”. They were “very concerned” about the dolphins and believed the council needed “better joined-up thinking” with both economic and environmental factors fully considered.

The gargantuan cruisers

Cr Chris Darby said he was bitterly disappointed about the dolphins and, it became clear, was also fairly irritable that the proposal had come to the full council. “Ordinarily it’s the Planning Committee,” he said, adding that the committee has been trying to “pull together all the waterfront proposals”. Darby chairs the Planning Committee and what he meant was the council officials, presumably with the support of the mayor, had decided to take the matter out of his hands.

Darby made the lead speech in opposition to the dolphins. He reminded council it had been on the wrong side of public opinion in 2015, when it did not oppose the plan by Ports of Auckland to push Bledisloe Wharf 90 metres into the harbour. Public opposition to that was led by Stop Stealing Our Harbour and Urban Auckland, and the plan was stopped by court action.

“We all thought a line had been drawn,” he said. “No more extensions. But this time, it’s not POAL, it’s this council.”

He called the new supercruisers “gargantuan”, like “an apartment block on its side”. Ships like Golden Princess and the car transporters already tower over the wharves; the scale of the new cruiser ships will be vastly bigger.

He talked about the oil they burn: a heavy crude with 3500 times the sulphur of what we put in our cars. “And they continue to burn it in port. Supercruise ships are supersize polluters.”

He talked about the council’s strategy and sustainability plan for cruise ships in Auckland. “We have no strategy. We have no sustainability plan.” He said there had been “no engagement with Ngāti Whātua”. He said Fullers have 250 ferries a day going past the end of Queens Wharf and there has been no engagement with them either, which he knew “because the Fullers chief executive has told me so”.

“Look, I agree we have to think about jobs first,” Darby said, “but we are not looking at a long-term future here. The ocean sprawl just has to halt.”

Cashmore had a go at him. “Cruising is all about the environment!” he said. He talked about “scrubbers in the new exhaust systems”, although “I admit I don’t know what that means”.

More councillors at a recent meeting, from left: John Watson, Greg Sayers, Dick Quax, Desley Simpson, Richard Hills.

Cr Richard Hills was very unhappy about the dolphins and wanted to know if there were any other options. Smith told him, “In our view we have exhausted every other option. Every other option that is workable and will be agreed to by all parties.”

No one challenged him on that either, even though what he meant was that dolphins-plus-walkway is the only option acceptable to POAL (short of building an even more permanent extension).

Cr Desley Simpson explaind that she was unhappy about the dolphins and asked why the port wasn’t paying for them? That was answered by Dean Kimpton, the council’s chief operating officer, who sat with Smith. Kimpton clarified that the money to build them has already been allocated, but that the council will get it back: POAL will impose a levy on the ships and forward the money to council.

Cr Alf Filipaina said he was extremely unhappy about the dophins and asked about the views of mana whenua. What he meant was they all knew Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei are strongly opposed to any further port extensions into the harbour but their views were not represented at the meeting, in part because the iwi has not been turning up to consultation meetings.

Cr Mike Lee was furious about the dolphins. All that protest in 2015, he said, echoing Darby, and we were on the wrong side of it. “It’s almost as if we’ve got a tin ear.”

“I’m a strong supporter of cruise ships,” he said, “but you can have too much of a good thing. We want to avoid industrial-level cruise shipping. In the Mediterranean now there are ports where the locals line up and boo the big ships.”

He suggested they turn down the recommendations and send the mayor to Sydney to see how they manage with no walkway to their dolphin.

“I don’t buy it and I don’t think the people of Auckland will buy it, either. No deal!”.

Cr Daniel Newman said he was not unhappy with the dolphins. “Reclamation enabled the expansion of the city’s commercial heart,” he said, “and we have a better CBD for it. The harbour’s value is one of the reasons we have a cruise industry in the first place.”

Newman represents Manurewa, “a part of Auckland where we critically need employment pathways”. Bring it on was his view.

What the mayor said

The mayor spoke. Phil Goff said he was unhappy about the dolphins. “I struggle to find a justification for the walkway. Sydney doesn’t have one but this council can’t tell the harbourmaster about safety.”

He said, “During the [council] election last year I made it clear I wanted no further reclamation of the wharves to accommodate containers or cars. I stand by that. But this is not about that. These things [the dolphins] can be removed later.”

Actually, during the election he committed to no further expansion into the harbour, full stop. “Not one more metre”, he told the Herald on October 2, and threatened that heads could roll on the POAL board if they ignored him. There was no qualification about this relating only to containers or cars.

But, he continued in the meeting last week, “we must have a balance of environment and jobs. We have had clear economic reports, which we are told we can rely on. The figures differ but all say the same thing.” And that same thing was that more cruise visits create more jobs and bring more money into the city.

“If we vote down this decision,” he said, “not only will we not get the big ships, but we’re told fewer smaller ships will come too.” This proposition was not challenged by anyone.

“I would rather not have it,” he said, “but this has an economic cost and if we keep giving away the economic opportunities where does the prosperity and the opportunities for this city come from?”

Goff wound himself up. He was angry, but not really with the other councillors, because he must have known he had the numbers. He started shouting at them. He was so angry. Who was he angry at? Himself?

They had the vote. The extension was supported by 14 councillors: Phil Goff, Bill Cashmore, Ross Clow, Linda Cooper, Alf Filipaina, Christine Fletcher, Richard Hills, Penny Hulse, Daniel Newman, Dick Quax, Greg Sayers, Desley Simpson, Sharon Stewart and John Walker.

Only five voted against: Efeso Collins, Chris Darby, Mike Lee, Wayne Walker and John Watson. (Cr Cathy Casey was absent and there is a vacancy because Denise Lee, now an MP, has resigned.)

How much bigger should ships calling right in at the bottom of Queen St be? And how will this area realise its public space and commercial potential while it remains the cruise ship terminal site?

And now what happens?

What value the known public opposition to extending the wharves further into the harbour? Pffft. What commitment to integrating environmental and economic goals? Forget about it. The council decided to degrade the harbour using exactly the same reasons advanced by other groups for logging native timber on the West Coast, digging coal in Southland and mining the seabed: the economy matters more.

It’s a bizarre argument. Why are we even having it? Of course the economic matters. We need jobs, we need commerce, a sound economy is the lifeblood of the city and of the country. That’s not in dispute. But if, each time you want to consider the environment, someone hauls out the argument that jobs will be lost and you leave it at that, the economy will always win. Not just on its own terms, but at the expense of other considerations. And the environment will continue to be degraded.

It is the job of politicians not to allow the debate to degenerate into that. If the problem is defined as economy v environment, it means you haven’t set it up right in the first place. They need strategic plans that integrate the aims of both: that’s the way to build a really strong, thriving economy.

In this case, as long as the cruise ships are located on the finger wharves, there will always be a demand to extend those wharves. The traffic they generate will always cause problems for every other part of the waterfront planning. They will impede all efforts to create lively, pedestrian friendly public spaces and human-scale commercial activities in that precinct.

Cruise ships are important to the city, there’s no reason to doubt it. And the mayor and council are serious about growing the city’s economic opportunities. No doubt about that either. So let them lead the process of creating a highly functional, environmentally sensitive site for them to berth, good for the next 20 years. And let them, simultaneously, crack on with the task of transforming the waterfront at the bottom of the CBD into a popular, thriving precinct.

Auckland Council has to take the lead on this. They have to set the goals and the parameters, and they have to instruct Ports of Auckland and all its other agencies to work within them.

In the meantime, because the council has been derelict in its duty to do that, it looks like the only way to stop the latest port expansion plan will be another public campaign against it.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz  @simonbwilson

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