Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Editorial: Let's create waterfront for people

Aucklanders have a rare opportunity over the next month to conceive something splendid that could stand for all time. A large area of dockland lying between the Viaduct Harbour and the Harbour Bridge is about to be marked out for redevelopment. It takes little imagination to realise how important this will be for the shape and character of the city.

The area includes the tank farms of Wynyard Wharf. That site alone deserves a building as striking and definitive as Sydney's Opera House, except that the last thing Auckland ought to do is imitate anything. It is enough for now to see that a suitably large area at the end of the wharf is preserved in public ownership. That is the easy bit.

By far the hardest task is to look at the likely commercial uses of the rest of the area and preserve enough public space in the right places to make the Western Reclamation a success in every sense. This task involved much more than a civic design team sitting down with pleasant visions to draw neat plans on paper. The Auckland City Council has done that for the Western Reclamation and the result looks appalling. The proposed public areas amount to a half-hectare park on Daldy St and a long strip down the centre of Wynyard Wharf, which looks about as inviting as the public space the council has designed on the top of its buried rail terminal at Britomart.

The waterfront redevelopment on the eastern side of the central business district provides a lesson on what not to do for the western side. The tacky apartment buildings that have sprouted and the "mixed use" commercial-residential developments on the old railway marshalling yards along Quay St are a warning of what could happen to the west if the planners are not very careful. Aucklanders should not tolerate a repeat of Quay St; nor should they tolerate another development of apartments for apartments' sake.

The eastern CBD will always be separated from the sea by the working port, not so the western side. In fact the central wharves too, largely used by passenger ferries now, should be part of an accessible public waterfront. The city centre can expand westward between Fanshawe St and the water in a manner that takes full advantage of Auckland's location on a harbour much more expansive than Sydney's yet as sheltered and stunning from any angle.

The western development of the waterfront has already recorded a success at Viaduct Harbour. The popularity of that precinct of bars, restaurants and apartments has survived the loss of the America's Cup and provides the spur to extend the transformation all the way to Westhaven. The temptation is to try to simply replicate the Viaduct, but that might not work. We only need so much space for dining and nightlife.

The Western Reclamation may be more likely to remain a hive of boatmaking and marine servicing industries. Nothing enhances the pleasure of walking or sitting by the water than to be able to watch boats moving about and people attending to them. Rather than cordon off space for public use, the council should perhaps preserve the whole wharf perimeter in public ownership and permit maritime industries to operate in harmony with public spaces.

The most successful plans are not unduly prescriptive, but allow plenty of scope for private uses to develop naturally. Human activity is the essence of appealing places. It is more important than iconic architecture or artfully designed spaces, although these will have their place. Ports of Auckland Ltd and its owner the Auckland Regional Council will want to develop this land for their own, narrow, financial and operational needs. Auckland must take a wider view and create a lasting people place. The chance to develop a splendid maritime doorstep for the city centre might never come again.

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