Many years ago in the small hours of a Sunday morning I came across a group of workmen peering down an opening on Lambton Quay. I joined in the observation to witness moving water. “Burst water main?” I inquired. “No. Sea Water,” was the reply and then, “Yeah, half these basements are full of sea water”. The 1855 earthquake uplift, and countless reclamations since, has not kept back the sea from finding its way through nooks and crannies to where it really wanted to be. The Wellington C.B.D is a floating city. If you took away the roads it would be a modern Venice.
The last reclamation to take place was the 1967 Aotea Quay Port reclamation that came with the refrigerated shipping container revolution forever changing the shape of the harbour and the tidal currents that flow within. Thirty years later, with port activities declining due to Picton, Nelson, New Plymouth, Tauranga and Auckland taking business, much of the port land is not required anymore.
There will of course be no declamation but instead a vision is building for ‘Harbour Quays’. Billed as a modern business park with environmentally efficient buildings with parks and cafes. CentrePort the landowner, hopes to create 70,000 square metres of commercial office space on a 6.5 hectare site.
However according to calculations in an economic assessment commissioned by the Wellington City Council, this could result in 5,500 office workers being sucked out of the CBD, and a potential spend of $12.3 million being lost annually.
Despite her own council’s concerns, Mayor Prendergast has lent her support: “Harbour Quays is a fantastic development for Wellington and I commend CentrePort on its foresight and vision in turning this area into a business park that caters not just for the needs of business in Wellington, but also their employees and our residents. I am sure Harbour Quays will be a great success and I look forward to the first stage of it – the completion of the Statistics NZ building and surrounding infrastructure – in November.”
On the flipside is Vibrant Wellington – an umbrella organisation made up of developers, architects, businessmen and retailers who believe the development will suck the life out of the compact and bustling existing C.B.D. and isolate workers on a windy strip of land. Wary of protecting their own interests, others have called for developers to meet this new competition by upgrading and modernising existing office space. The NZIER (New Zealand Institute of Economic Research) released a report suggesting that with a projected 10,000 xtra office employees in the Wellington C.B.D by 2021 they will require an extra 200,000sq m of space, and list specific sites that could offer over 350,000 sq m.
So is the ‘Harbour Quays’ another Utopian fantasy? In the 1960’s plans were drawn up for a mono-aesthetic white concrete modernist monolith that covered the entire Te Aro region. Another plan looked at building a multilayer plaza complex that stretched from Boulcott Street down through the Civic Centre to the quays. These plans were thankfully rejected.
Cities are invariably organic in growth and decay, in progress and in history. City planning requires holistic perspectives that encompass all elements of the economy, cultural life and environment.
Last year the Civic Trust recognized that many planning and urban design issues were brewing in the “Northern Gateway” area of the flat land between Ngauranga and the Central Business District (CBD): but they were being dealt with in a fragmented way, which made it hard for citizens to gain a clear overall picture. Projects currently being planned for the area include: better rail access to the port, improvements to Interisland ferry access, State Highway realignments, design of a more attractive welcome to the city for cruise liner passengers, the revitalization of the railway station, the creation of an exciting landmark sculpture sponsored by the Wellington Sculpture Trust and the Harbour Quays development. On top of all these projects, there are policy aspirations to grow the amount of both freight and passengers moved by rail through this area.
To help build better public understanding of the issues and possible solutions, the Civic Trust is organizing a one-day seminar on Saturday 26th August on the Northern Gateway.
Victoria University, itself a stakeholder in the area through its Pipitea Campus, is sponsoring the Trust’s venue in the University’s Rutherford House Conference Centre.
Perhaps here we shall learn if the ‘Harbour Quays’ development will sink or float on the reclamations of the past.