An artist's impression of the Les Mills car park on Wellesley St, Auckland, currently under construction.

Phillip Mills is NZ’s greenest CEO. Why is he building a huge car park in downtown Auckland?

As Auckland attempts to encourage greener alternatives to car use, a huge new car park is rising beside Les Mills’ flagship inner-city gym. Josie Adams asks Les Mills CEO Phillip Mills how it tallies with the company’s clean, green brand.

Les Mills Victoria Street has 12,000 members, and up to 700 visitors during peak hours. Its clientele varies in age, fitness level, and income, but one thing is consistent: most of them drive there.

To address demand, last year Les Mills announced it would build a seven-storey, 299-space parking building to cater for demand at its flagship Auckland site. The building will be one of the most expensive parts of the gym’s $30 million dollar makeover. It’s also the part that’s come under the most criticism. 

For decades, Auckland has been designed to heavily prioritise car transport, and it’s putting immense strain on the city’s infrastructure and residents’ life satisfaction. And that’s before we even get to the role cars play in our global climate emergency. Public concern over transport and car density has grown so much that it’s now a major point of contention in the current Auckland mayoral race. Building a new car park, at first glance, looks like it’s perpetuating the problem.

“By building the carpark they’re making it easier for their customers to drive but that makes it harder for those wanting to walk and bike around the city,” says Matt Lowrie of transport blog Greater Auckland. “It also goes against the trend which is seeing fewer and fewer people drive to the city centre. Now in the morning peak fewer than half of people arrive by car, and that doesn’t count the 50k+ already living in the city.”

Phillip Mills, son of Les, is the company’s CEO and the founder of Pure Advantage, a think tank for green-focused technology and economic opportunities. He says he’s more critical of the new Wellesley Street car park than anyone. “The last thing I want to be doing, as a greenie, is building a car park. I just hate the fact that we have to do it.” He says providing car parks is a necessity in a city with a public transport system as lacklustre as Auckland’s, and especially necessary at a gym with thousands of weekly users. “We have 12,000-odd members,” he says. “To have a viable business you’ve got to give them a place to park.”

While the gym has had a small on-site car park in the past, in recent years Les Mills has been forced to rent overflow car parks across the road at City Works Depot. Other customers park on Sale Street or closer to Queen Street. Those parks are getting rarer and more expensive. “It was clear that we were going to be paying a million dollars or more for worse and worse parking,” says Mills. At the moment, the cost of the rented parks to the company is just over $800,000 a year.

Mills says the company had no option but to provide on-site parking. “You can’t just take away people’s mobility,” he says. The new parking building will be open to both members and non-members of the gym, with members receiving 90 minutes of free parking. Though potentially lucrative, Mills insists this will not be a permanent fixture. “The minute there’s no need for parking, obviously we’ll turn it into something that has a better use,” says Mills. “What we desperately need in this city is a world-class public transport system.” 

Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills and founder of Pure Advantage

On Sunday, mayor Phil Goff announced that one of his major campaign policies for re-election would be green transport and public transport. Among his campaign promises are the electrification of part of the south Auckland rail line and the conversion of Auckland’s bus fleet to electric and hydrogen. Already, Auckland Council has made strides toward better public transport with projects like the City Rail Link and the eastern busway.

“If we want to build our cities to give people more exercise options – walking, biking – we need more active transport which means you don’t have to go to a gym to get exercise,” Lowrie told the NZ Herald when the Les Mills car park was first announced. “Driving to the gym to get on an exercise bike is the height of absurdity.”

The Les Mills brand has no plans to build any more car parks, Mills says. “It’s really not a thing we want to be doing. We’d much rather see public transport, biking, and other options. The next best thing would be electric cars, but they’ve still got a footprint to build them.” The new car park will feature electric vehicle charging stations, though Mills acknowledges that it takes several years for an electric car’s use to compensate for the environmental cost of building it in the first place.

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Of course, there’s an ecological footprint to building a car park, green tech or no. “We’ve been offsetting our footprint for some years now,” says Mills. “We monitor our footprint, and then we invest in tree planting schemes, some in New Zealand and some around the world.” Les Mills International is partnered with New Zealand-based social enterprise Ekos, which measures data from all Les Mills locations and sells them carbon credits. Ekos then spends the money on supporting and regenerating forests, which sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This is sort of arcane,” explains Mills, “but if you planted one acacia tree in the tropics for every human on Earth, you would actually delay warming by one and a half degrees in ten years.”

The zero carbon bill currently in select committee has received numerous submissions regarding the risk of “carbon farming,” the industry name for tree-planting purely for carbon offsetting and sequestration. Agricultural farms in the Wairarapa are already being converted to pine forest for this purpose. While Mills says he prefers to offset using native trees rather than pine where possible, that doesn’t address criticisms that offsets are used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ by carbon emitters. In announcing the zero carbon bill, Green Party leader James Shaw said that although tree planting is important, it’s more important to actually cut emissions than offset them.

The problem, says Erica Finnie of climate campaign 350 Aotearoa, is that carbon offsetting allows a business to avoid taking full responsibility for its impact on the climate. “Given the urgency needed to address the climate crisis, businesses should be focused on transitioning towards low-energy solutions instead of relying on carbon offsets.” Since carbon released into the atmosphere today has a 100-year lifespan, offsetting mechanisms need to also guarantee they will not release further emissions over the subsequent century, she says.

Instead of relying on offsets, “we need systemic change away from highly polluting industries to clean alternatives,” says Finnie. When the new Les Mills car park opens later this year it will, at least temporarily, become part of the current system of car traffic. Only time will tell if the future it’s proofed for will ever eventuate, and if the car park itself will stand in the way of that.


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