A backroom deal could see the historic former Wellington Prison site fall into the hands of private developers, concerned neighbours fear.
The prison, which sits atop Mt Crawford on Miramar Peninsula and has spectacular views over Wellington Harbour, closed last November after a colourful 85-year history.
Under its Treaty settlement with the Crown, the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust has the right to buy the prison land and buildings if they are surplus to Crown requirements.
Land Information New Zealand Crown property manager Bill Naik said it took over the former Wellington Prison from Corrections on February 28, and the land disposal process had started.
"The disposal process includes offering the land to Maori under a Treaty settlement before we offer it to the open market. However, we are not at that stage yet, and it is too early in the process to know if and when that will occur."
Now a new group is promising protest action if the site is not retained for the public.
"What has really got our back up is that it's not being done upfront. It's all being done behind the scenes," Save Mt Crawford spokesman John Overton says.
He has planted protest signs around the prison, wants a public meeting, and says a march is on the cards.
"If measures such as these do not succeed . . . we may have to consider the possibility of using civil disobedience, to disrupt the sale process itself."
Overton said the public had always had access past the prison, but this might stop if developers took over. It was a link between Shelly Bay and a 76-hectare swath of land on Watts Peninsula, where there are plans for a public reserve.
The former prison should be part of those plans, and could also house a cafe and art galleries, he said. "It should be a bridge, not a barrier."
The prison has been described by the Historic Places Trust as having "aesthetic, architectural, historical, social and technological significance".
Past ideas for the site have included turning it into a hotel, due to its proximity to Wellington Airport.
Local resident Ben Wilde said he wanted a public process. "It seems like they're just going to hand it over and turn it into a gated community."
Wellington City Council Eastern ward councillor Simon "Swampy" Marsh said the community should be kept up to date. "After all, it's owned by all New Zealanders."
Sir Peter Jackson's plans to build a film museum in Shelly Bay were shelved, but the director has remained an advocate of the preservation of the heritage of Miramar Peninsula.
It is understood plans by the Todd Property Group to construct a housing subdivision at Shelly Bay are now on hold. The company declined to comment.
Built in 1927 with much work from prisoners, using concrete made from sand from Wellington's south coast.
In 1965, mayor Frank Kitts described the prison as an "anachronism in land-starved Wellington".
Because of its small size, it usually housed only between 120 and 200 prisoners.
Four convicted murderers were hanged there. The last, in 1935, was Charles William Price, who killed his mistress, Evelyn Mary Madden.
Inmates have included convicted double murderer John Barlow, and the killer of Taita teenager Karla Cardno, Paul Joseph Dally.
Axe-murderer John Ericson escaped from Mt Crawford in 2007, and was caught 26 hours later.
The 6.2-hectare site had a capital value of $6.9 million in 2009.
In 2011, then Corrections Minister Judith Collins labelled its conditions "Dickensian".
Closed: 2012, after 85 years' operation.
- Sunday Star Times