Gonna move on up to the waterfront

Auckland is again debating the future of its waterfront and port, but the truth is it doesn't all have to be decided now

The past few weeks have seen a renewed burst of angst about the Ports of Auckland's expansion plans. More wharf here, demolitions there; where to put the cruise ships, cars and people? All the arguments about Auckland's waterfront have been reignited.

In essence, the Port intends to extend Bledisloe Wharf by 135 metres. This would be done as a piled wharf, rather than a reclamation as has occurred at Fergusson Wharf. The Port also intends to demolish part of Marsden Wharf to make Captain Cook Wharf more usable. But I imagine scarcely one in ten Aucklanders actually have any knowledge of these two wharves.

The Ports of Auckland (see interactive map) had published a report in May 2013, which broadly set out the current plan. It was a major backdown from their plans of 2007, which called for major reclamation virtually filling up the entire water space between Fergusson and Bledisloe. That was always going to be controversial.

The current debate is something of a totem for whether Auckland should get rid of the container terminal altogether. The idea would be turn the space into apartments, shops, cafes and parks. Auckland is likely to take another twenty years to finish Wynard Point. And the relative absence of activity on Queens Wharf shows how difficult it can be to generate activity on wharves.

But in 25 years Auckland will have 2.5 million people, and shifting the container port will be a debate worth having. The likely contenders will be Northland Port at Marsden Point and a new port in the Firth of Thames. Though I am sure there would be a passionate environmental debate about reclamation in the Firth of Thames.

So back to the current debate. I should add a disclaimer. I live in Bayswater, use the Bayswater ferry weekly and often sail on the harbour. However, I suspect that my views will not necessarily be shared by everyone in Bayswater and Devonport.

So what is really the effect of the proposed extension of Bledisloe? The extension will be entirely within the precinct of the existing working wharfs. It will not be in an area used by any recreational user. No sailing races will be affected. Tides will be unchanged, since there is no reclamation. The basic shape of the existing wharves and port space will remain unaltered. The views from Devonport and Bayswater will be barely affected.

You would think then that the proposal should be relatively uncontroversial. In fact, the reaction from some has been as if the Ports of Auckland had simply re-presented the 2007 proposals. Some local politicians have responded as if the Waitemata will be forever besmirched.

Some of the reaction is based on how local politicians see their role. For some it is simply to echo the loudest discordant voices. This does tend to blind one to the actual merits of the proposal. Now I will admit that every politician has faced this dilemma. Some public pressures are simply too great to resist, and the best approach is to reflect the strongly expressed views of the public.

Is this issue in that domain?

It is my view that it's not. Ports of Auckland has presented a credible plan that will ensure the container terminals will be fit for purpose for the next 25 years. There's a new generation of larger container ships that require somewhat longer berthage space. Auckland is not going to get the very largest ships, but there will be an increase in typical ship size. Some local politicians need to consider the plans more carefully before taking dogmatic positions that every single proposal by the port will be ipso facto bad.

The broader debate about whether the container port should be shifted, say, 25 years from now is worth having. Based on the way New Zealand tends to make such decisions, it will need all of a generation to come to a conclusion. Judging by the tone of recent debate that will not be easy.

Perhaps to inform the debate, the city in partnership with the government should commission a proper inquiry into the future port needs of the wider region, stretching from Northland to Tauranga.