Ports of Auckland and the city at dusk (Photo: poal.co.nz)

The Auckland port is our country’s front door. And it’s a car park

Rather than get distracted by the stadium debate, we need to urgently acknowledge that unlocking this land now for future integration into the CBD is critical for Auckland’s future, argues Paul Winstanley.

Don’t be fooled. This is not just another story about the waterfront stadium. Well, not really. Like the mayor has said, there are far more important things for Auckland to sort out first. Things like housing, transport, the economy – the bedrock of any world-class, liveable city.

However, these are not individual strands that can be improved in isolation of one another. City planning is like trying to solve an infinite Rubik’s cube, meaning we are only ever custodians of a city’s well-being, never its owner. Our bare minimum responsibility is to not complicate the puzzle further for future generations to unpick. Our goal should always be to ensure we leave these strands better developed and more aligned.

Amid bleaker moments, Auckland has a proud history of visionary custodianship, from Dove-Myer Robinson’s environmentalism to the recent revitalisation of Britomart and Wynyard Quarter. And as Auckland’s population continues to grow, so too does the urgency with which we need to prepare for it. It’s now up to us to not dither; to have the courage of our convictions to lay the platform for Auckland to be the city we hope it can be.

And at the heart of this is a 14 hectare car park on Auckland’s waterfront. The key to our future masquerading as a shrine to our past. 

Cast your eye over our crane-strewn skyline and you could be forgiven for thinking we’re already well-placed to grow into the world-class city we aspire to be. However, only a fraction of this development is catering for residential growth.

Stats NZ, a department not given to hyperbole, predicts that by 2043 the CBD will need to accommodate a residential population of 86,000 – an additional 37,000 people representing a 75% population increase in less than 25 years. So assuming average household sizes in the CBD remain at 2.2 residents as per census data, to cater for this growth Auckland will need a minimum of 677 new residential units every year for the next quarter of a century just to keep up. So how are we tracking?

Image: Supplied

If you take a look at every new dwelling that’s even so much as in the proposal phase, there are currently less than 3,300 residential units on the horizon for the CBD. This includes large-scale developments like The Pacifica, Seascape, and The Antipodean that are all under construction. A best-case scenario timing-wise, should all the proposed schemes actually be approved and built, is that they will be completed in the next 10 years. So by 2028, unless we explore new opportunities, we can expect to have less than half the number required just to keep up with conservatively-estimated population growth.

In seeking these new opportunities we also need to consider that catering for growth is not just a numbers game. We need to create quality environments that contribute to vibrant quarters and sociable communities. Places which encourage city living. This is why our eyes are trained so firmly on the waterfront, and for this, we already have a successful blueprint.

Wynyard Quarter, by some distance the country’s biggest urban revitalisation project, has already made a hugely positive contribution to Auckland’s growth both socially and economically. Not only has it enhanced the CBD in size and quality, but it has also created a contemporary, thriving mix of residential, retail and commercial spaces, without sacrificing its marine and fishing industry heritage. 

Most importantly, people want to be there. According to JLL’s most recent office vacancy report, there is essentially zero vacancy at Wynyard Quarter. New office buildings around the area currently under construction are all already pre-leased too. When it’s fully developed by 2030, Wynyard Quarter will be home to 3,000 residents and 25,000 workers. Build it well and they will come, and now we know the blueprint works. So the question around reimagining Bledisloe Wharf should be when, not if, and the answer to that question has to be now.

You may have heard the Government-appointed working party referring to Auckland’s port operations as “no longer economically or environmentally viable”. Beyond this, I would consider the social value for a waterfront city. 

Port activities currently occupy 60% of the prime waterfront land along Quay Street between the intersections of Hobson Street to the west and The Strand to the east. That’s over a kilometre of shoreline to which Aucklanders are deprived of any sort of connection.

Irrelevant of the port’s long-term future, this is surely a largesse that can no longer be indulged. As it hangs on steadfastly to its sprawling landholding, while we seek collaborative solutions, this is Auckland’s very own ‘OK boomer’ moment. It’s time to get real, for this isn’t just about what might be built on wharf land, but how development here could connect with Britomart, with Quay Park, with the potential Ngati Whatua development by Spark Arena and, ultimately, even further expansion along the waterfront.

This is why this land is so valuable to Auckland. By unlocking it now, we can integrate much-needed residential development with retail, hospitality, commercial and recreational spaces through considered planning. And yes, maybe even a stadium (Full disclosure: my firm is a member of the Auckland Waterfront Consortium).

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We should also remember that for an ever-increasing number of cruise-ship tourists, this is also the front door to our country. One of the many benefits of the Waterview Connection motorway has been to create a seamless journey from the airport to the CBD to create an enjoyable first and last impression for visitors. Enhancing the arrival and departure experience for cruise passengers can only have a positive economic impact.

If we act now, we can be proactive in handing down a positive legacy to future generations – one that interfaces with the current public and active transport improvements. Wait and we’ll face having to respond to the imminent housing shortfall with hastily conceived development and more problems to be unpicked. We’ve been here before.

To debate the architectural, philosophical or moral merits of a new stadium here is to miss the point. I appreciate how distracting such a shiny, beautiful structure as imagined might be, but it’s a jewel that cannot exist without us first designing the Crown. And this must be our priority.

Paul Winstanley is head of research and consultancy at JLL NZ, which is a member of the Auckland Waterfront Consortium.


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