Wellington's waterfront needs watching

PAULINE SWANN
Last updated 05:00 13/06/2012
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ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ

FIGHTING THE LONG FIGHT: Waterfront Watch president Pauline Swann.

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OPINION: Waterfront Watch agrees with Robert Gray (Wrangles threaten city's chance to get best use of its waterfront, June 5) that it is worth revisiting the history of the waterfront development.

The photo that illustrated his article showing the ambulance building in its original space with lawns, shrubs and trees would have been history if the plan to move it to the site now occupied by the Wharewaka and replaced by a tower block, had not been challenged in the Environment Court in December 2001 by Waterfront Watch, under the leadership of the founders Lindsay Shelton and Helen Glasgow, Civic Trust and the Te Aro Heritage Trust. After 11 days and evidence from 26 witnesses, Lambton Harbour Management withdrew, acknowledging that evidence considered by the court to date would find against the proposed relocation.

However, before this case, with the withdrawal of variation 17 Wellington City Council appointed the Waterfront Leadership group in September 2000 to recommend to the council a framework to guide the future development of Wellington's central waterfront area - the Wellington Waterfront Development Framework 2001. Mark Blumsky, mayor at the time, in his message of acceptance of the framework said: "Wellingtonians do care passionately about their waterfront. They do want to be part of the ongoing debate. The transparency and public engagement modelled by the Leadership group must continue as we move forward."

Despite that, in July 2007 Waterfront Watch and Civic Trust were back in the Environment Court along with the Intercontinental, two property companies and two "274s" - Mr W McLellan and councillor Helene Ritchie - over the proposal for a hotel on the outer T of Queen's Wharf.

The court's judgment, given in 2008, said the hotel would destroy "many of the qualities which make the site special and unique. It would dominate the public space due to its bulk and reduce public access around the Outer T. We do not consider that the adverse effects of the proposed development which we have identified can be adequately avoided, remedied or mitigated".

Next was another trip to the Environment Court in 2009 which we lost, but the judge, in his decision not to award costs, said "it could hardly come as a surprise that there was determined opposition to the proposal given the range and depth of public feeling about the waterfront".

In 2009, district plan change 48 - variation 11 was introduced and rejected by the majority of submitters and once again we were off to the Environment Court this year.

Mr Gray argues that Kumutoto would have been a win-win solution for the people of Wellington. However, he appears to have ignored our main concern about the changes to the district plan - variation 11, which would end all public participation in the planning process for any future waterfront buildings. In the ruling against variation 11, the Environment Court said: "Given the history of this particular organisation in the planning of the Wellington waterfront, we find it rather extraordinary that the council chose not to consult it. The attitude that the council knew what they were going to say anyway is presumptuously dismissive. Engagement with Waterfront Watch would have informed the council of matters clearly missing from its own analysis, as we have come to learn through this hearing and which we discuss elsewhere".

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Mr Gray implies that Waterfront Watch deliberately takes obstructive action to stop the development on the waterfront.

However, over the years we have enthusiastically supported clever uses for Queens Wharf, Waitangi Park, the Overseas Passenger Terminal, while the waterfront company proposed a hotel, apartment and office blocks.

Our vision of the waterfront continues to be informed by concepts of people-friendly cities promoted by international experts such as Jan Gehl who said "a significant recording is that the highest number of cultural activities and children playing are found on the waterfront and as such the waterfront is the playground of Wellington - a potential to be explored." In May 2008, American architect Cathy Simon presented two lectures and in an interview on National Radio pointed out what an asset our waterfront was and that it should be the major green space in Wellington. We also support the recommendation by the Community Consultative Committee in 1996 that "public space areas should be designed in detail and developed first, with commercial developments to follow".

It is not only Waterfront Watch that is interested in the future of the waterfront. Citizens from across Wellington have been sufficiently concerned to give time, expertise, financial help, and energy to help preserve the waterfront as a place for leisure, recreation and cultural events. Had the dedicated members of "Chaffers Park - Make it Happen" founded by Mary Varnham, not fought to keep that park (now Waitangi) an open space, free from the 180 townhouses consented to by the council, we would not have had this wonderful place in which to kick a ball around, skateboard, watch a concert, or just simply relax.

In the three successful court challenges, it was the independence of the judiciary that decided the waterfront company failed in its obligations under the framework - not Waterfront Watch.

It is our opinion that the unresolved tension between finding economic solutions in the form of more buildings/privatisation and the need for public space is largely responsible for much of the litigation.

We believe this can be avoided if we are included in genuine dialogue at the planning stage. The court ruling in the recent variation 11 appeal not only identified failings in the design of the new bylaw but questioned why Waterfront Watch was not included earlier in the planning stages.

The lack of respect for the views of the members of Waterfront Watch and other concerned Wellingtonians was very evident during the premediation sessions when it was revealed in court that the waterfront company was negotiating with developers on a proposal for a six-storey office building to go on Kumutoto.

The Blue Skies competition has shown there is no shortage of ideas from a wide range of residents and some clever contributions from young people and children. We could make greater use of existing buildings for a range of activities, events, sports and permanent enhancements like the Portrait Gallery.

One would hope that development will come to mean more than offices and apartments.

Why should this generation make all the decisions about this area for future generations? What's the hurry to fill these spaces?

Often described as the "Jewel in the Crown", Wellington's wonderful waterfront deserves the best.

One thing Waterfront Watch is very clear about: the waterfront is a wonderful place because of Waterfront Watch, not despite it.

Pauline Swann is the president of Waterfront Watch.

Related story:

Wellington Waterfront May Get 'Meridian-Style' Buildings

- The Dominion Post

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