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A Chamberlain Park for golf and more than golf? (Photo: Margi Watson)
A Chamberlain Park for golf and more than golf? (Photo: Margi Watson)

AucklandJuly 30, 2017

The plan to take back Chamberlain Park

A Chamberlain Park for golf and more than golf? (Photo: Margi Watson)
A Chamberlain Park for golf and more than golf? (Photo: Margi Watson)

The Albert-Eden Local Board wants to turn half of the golf course at Chamberlain Park, next to the northwest motorway, into a general park for everyone to use. Golfers are outraged. Who’s right?

Some nimby issues are hard. When people have a real fear a proposed new development is going to ruin their quality of life, they complain. Deciding whether their fears are well founded involves a whole lot of speculation and value judgments, and the same set of facts are often used as proof on both sides of the argument. Writing off the concerns of nimbys should never be done lightly: where they stand today might be where you stand tomorrow. We are all nimbys, or could be.

But some nimby issues are not hard. They’re little more than narrow-minded, patch-protection selfishness. Some nimbys are merely privileged people using their privileged access to media, money, politicians and the powerful to defend their privilege.

Which is this?

Chamberlain Park in Mt Albert.

The inner-city golf course 

The Albert-Eden Local Board wants to transform Chamberlain Park from an 18-hole golf course into a 9-hole golf course so it can add a range of other amenities to the park. Where’s Chamberlain Park? It’s that parkland on the south side of the northwest motorway, opposite Western Springs.

The lobby group Save Chamberlain Park Inc (SCP), largely representing local golfers, objects. The local board has rejected its objections, so SCP has filed for a judicial review of the board’s decision-making. SCP collected “nearly 6000” signatures on a petition, which it presented to the governing body of Auckland Council on Thursday.

Chamberlain Park is one of only two public golf courses in Auckland. It’s owned by the council and golf has been played there for 78 years. Anyone can use it and SCP says “well over 50,000 rounds [are] played there each year”. The golf course is a self-funding facility, earning about $1 million a year (and costing almost that much to run). The park is “not spare land”, says SCP, but is a “precious regional and community asset”.

Geoff Senescall, chair of SCP, says, “Our group would like to see proper consideration and genuine consultation in the interests of preserving and enhancing this precious regional and community asset. Cutting it in half, and effectively killing it, is not the right way to achieve this. Surely our green spaces will become even more valuable and important as the city intensifies and the population swells.”

In their presentation to council on Thursday, one of Senescall’s SCG colleagues said the local board has never sat down with golfers to talk about its plans. Senescall said you can’t reduce the course to nine holes because “golf is an 18-hole game”. He said New Zealand Golf had reported only 9000 rounds a year are played at Chamberlain Park, but this figure was wrong because “most players don’t hand in a card so they’re not counted”.

SCG told the council that in other parts of the world it was becoming common for golf courses to be open for general public use on some days. A councillor asked for examples. “St Andrews in Scotland, the home of golf,” was the answer. “They’re closed to golfers and open to the public every Sunday.”

Senescall  said “local board wants to spend $30 million of rate payer money on its plans”. He condemned that as “profligate”.

He also raised the spectre of the land being sold off for housing, saying that with a nine-hole course, “let’s imagine usage drops right off as nobody is really interested in playing the shortened game. A new local board might then justifiably say, we need to replace it with housing.” He ended his speech with a ringing appeal to history: “Our forefathers are remembered for the green spaces they did not cut up, rather than the land they did!”

Bad board! Good citizens! The Herald has run several stories suggesting exactly that. In one of them, the celebrated artist Stanley Palmer, who lives locally and used to play golf at the park, made the heartfelt claim that “parks are the lungs of the city”.

What’s really going to happen?

But what does the local board actually want to do? True, it wants to reduce the golf course from 18 holes to nine holes. On the land this frees up, as board chair Peter Haynes has explained, it wants to create parkland for everyone to enjoy, including shared walking and cycling trails, picnic and play areas, new artificial sports fields, an improved golf learner’s area and a golf driving range.

The public aquatic centre at Mt Albert Grammar will be closing soon because the school wants the land back. So the local area needs a new swimming pool, and siting it at Chamberlain Park is also part of the local board proposal.

The new plan will also involve restoring a wetland area currently covered by the 13th hole and redeveloping Waititiko Awa (Meola Creek) which is currently channelled through part of the park. This work will help the park become part of a bird corridor into the surrounding suburbs.

Let’s go back through the points raised by Geoff Senerscall and Save Chamberlain Park:

  • Golf is an 18-hole game. Actually, the American Golf Association says it thinks nine-hole courses are the future of the game. The reasons aren’t hard to identify. Shorter courses are cheaper to maintain and therefore can be cheaper to play on; time-poor players find it easier to fit in a round; smaller courses will find it easier to resist other demands on the land. For players who want an 18-hole game on an inner-city course, is it really asking too much that they go round twice?
  • The golf course facilities are good the way they are. Senescall told me there are learn-to-play clinics there now and they work fine. He’s not impressed with the idea of a driving range.
  • It’s wrong to cut the park in half. Note that: SCP didn’t accuse the board of wanting to cut the golf course in half but of wanting to cut the park in half “and effectively killing it”. That’s just nonsense. No change is proposed to the boundaries of the park.
  • Parks are the lungs of the city. It’s so true. But it’s true of Chamberlain Park because it’s a park, not because it’s a golf course. It’s also true that “green spaces are invaluable to a growing city”, and that’ is precisely why the board wants to increase the community benefit of the park. Albert-Eden has less parkland than any other local board area in the city (and second worst is the neighbouring Waitematā Local Board). It wants as many citizens as possible to be able to enjoy this “precious regional and community asset”.
  • We should honour the legacy of our forebears. That’s true too. The parklands and tree-lined streets of Auckland attest to the foresight of many city planners of the past. But we honour them by acting as they did, creating assets for future benefit. In the future nobody is going to thank the planners of today for turning down a proposal to make a multi-use park in favour of retaining an 18-hole golf course. As board chair Peter Haynes says, creating infrastructure for a fast-growing city is important, and general-purpose parkland, dedicated sports fields, walking and cycling tracks and the like are all vital to that process.
  • The board hasn’t consulted properly and hasn’t talked to the golfers. The court will decide in the judicial review whether due process has been followed. But it’s worth noting there were three rounds of public consultation and the golf lobby participated fully. They didn’t prevail, but that’s not the same as not being listened to.
  • The land might be sold off for housing. This is absurd. Nobody is proposing to build housing on the park. It’s true the pool, roadways and parking will reduce the amount of land now covered in grass. But that’s a tiny part of the overall area.
  • It’s going to cost $30 million. No it’s not. Converting half the golf course to other use will probably cost around $13 million, according to Peter Haynes. That doesn’t include the aquatic centre, which is a separate cost item and will be built anyway, whether or not the Chamberlain Park proposal goes ahead.
  • The golf course sustains itself financially. The debate about the park isn’t and shouldn’t become a debate about how to make money from the land. It’s a park. Either way, though, would there be any change? Having a new driving range might even increase the income.
  • The golf course could become a general park on certain days. Closed to golfers on a Sunday? Seriously? Geoff Senescall told me that no, he didn’t think that would work at Chamberlain Park. He’s right about that.
A park for all! Dog walking in Chamberlain Park. (Photo: Margi Watson)

The area around Chamberlain Park is a fast-growing part of the city. There will soon be 5500 more people living in apartments in the Unitec grounds and large-scale apartment complexes are proposed for other local sites.  There’s public transport and capacity for growth: it’s a good part of town in which to live. But the people who live there now and who will come to live there are entitled to expect that facilities like parks and playing fields will be provided.

Opening Chamberlain Park to all, adding different facilities while retaining a golf course and adding more golf-related facilities: this isn’t a bad thing for golfers, or the other locals, or the city as a whole. It isn’t even one of those necessary compromises we all have to make as the city grows. It’s a positive step. The city will be all the better for it and local residents will benefit the most.

It’s easy to knock the council; indeed, it’s a sport in some quarters. And when they get things wrong they need to be called on it. But they get a lot of things right, too. This, surely, is one of them.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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