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BusinessSeptember 1, 2023

‘I’m tired of Shelly Bay’: Ian Cassels says goodbye to Wellington’s most controversial project

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On Tuesday, developer Ian Cassels was confident his huge Shelly Bay development would finally begin next year. Today, he no longer owns the land.

The $500m Shelly Bay development to build 350 homes on Wellington’s Miramar peninsular has been canned after years of protests, legal fights and a 525-day occupation.

Developers Shelly Bay Taikuru Limited and The Wellington Company announced on Friday it had sold the land to Hollywood power couple Sir Peter Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh – long-time opponents of the development. Jackson and Walsh said in a statement that they were “looking forward to restoring the natural beauty of the bay”.

The sale comes after years of tension between The Wellington Company, Jackson, the council and local iwi. Most notably, Cassels had working relationships with local iwi Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust while Jackson was a supporter of a smaller iwi movement, Mau Whenua, that protested the development.

The Spinoff spoke to Cassels, who heads The Wellington Company, on Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview mainly focused on his vision to dramatically intensify and decarbonise Wellington’s centre city. The full article will be available next week.

During the interview, he spoke openly about Shelly Bay and revealed he had grown tired of the project – though he gave no indication he would cancel the development just three days later.

Below is a condensed transcript of his thoughts.

How are you feeling about Shelly Bay?

I call Wellington the only city in the world that wouldn’t grab Shelly Bay with both arms and say “I have to have it!” Wellington goes “ugh” and they listen to people with different agendas. It’s sort of depressing. 

I have to say I’m tired of it. I’m tired of Shelly Bay, because all I hear is ‘it should be a nature reserve’ – but the other side of Shelly Bay where all the old houses are, it’s a disaster from a decarbonisation point of view. The streets, sewers and pipes are all buggered. It’s going to cost the city a fortune to keep it going.

What is happening with Shelly Bay now?

We’re just fighting through the last bits of it. We have a council budget that we are trying to get balance on. The communal costs for us and council are quite big, which is a problem. Fire is a problem, asbestos on the site is a problem.

Do you have a finish date yet? 

Probably we will get it out by the beginning of next year. It’s all marketable, we’ve done all the work on it and all the consent to start building the first two buildings. We estimate that it will work. It’ll be 350 homes, and an electric ferry that will make Wellington set alight.

Why do you say you’re tired of it? 

It’s a struggle, you know. I never give up – that’s my problem. 

Do you anticipate any more protests? 

I think it’s probably died off a bit. I’d say they [Mau Whenua] never give up either, but they have given up. 

I don’t think I would ever buy into a feud like that again… Somebody didn’t say something to somebody in the past, and they never end. These feuds never end. 

Hobbiton
Peter Jackson was a staunch and financial backer of Mau Whenua (Image: Getty)

When you initially started working with the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, did you see any of that coming? 

It just grew gradually. They’re entrenched positions that most sides believe in utterly, and they never go away. They’re intractable. You shouldn’t have your progress determined by that. It’s totally disproportionate. We are a major investor in a large project that’s really good.

There’s about eight active members in Mau Whenua and there’s 19,000 members in Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust. It doesn’t make any sense. How and why would anyone listen to that? Why does anyone listen to them? 

Courts entertain things, but we’re absolutely certain there’s no way what they’re after can be achieved. And even if it were to be achieved, they’re trying to get Port Nicholson [Block Settlement Trust] to buy back the land that we bought off them. Port Nicholson has no money, no appetite, and wont do that. 

Do you have any regrets?

No….no. I’d do everything the same way again. Maybe I’d get more things signed, some more understandings. I think people could have done better with us, like we are very good partners but we don’t necessarily get reciprocation for that. 

I believe in my word. I said to Westpac, who I get on with quite well, “my word is a lot better than yours”. They don’t like hearing it but it’s true. When I say something I will definitely deliver it, because it means something. 

Ian Cassels was approached for further comment. In a statement released after the sale was made public, Cassels wished Jackson and Walsh the best of luck.

“Whilst the project’s cancellation brings about a shift in plans, it opens the door to opportunities for Shelly Bay that will hold different kinds of value for the community and future generations.

“It also enables us to refocus energy into our affordable housing initiatives, which to me is ultimately more important. We genuinely wish Peter and Fran all the best moving forward with their plans for the bay.”

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