The Delusions of ‘Dolphins’ in the City of Sails

Four years ago my life was tipped upside down after making a rash phone call to my friend, Barry Copeland. We had just attended a small protest on Queens Wharf where we learned of Ports of Auckland’s 90 m expansion plans to Bledisloe Wharf. When I saw the extent of the port’s proposals, it touched a nerve. That evening I called my architect friend and said: “Barry we’ve got to do something about this”.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking – I’m a classically trained musician and music teacher, with absolutely zero experience in challenging a very powerful 175-year-old port, not to mention Auckland Council, as well.

To make a long story short, that phone call changed my life. We formed Stop Stealing Our Harbour and for the next three months, I worked non-stop, every day from dawn to the wee small hours without one day off, campaigning to stop the port concreting over yet more of our harbour. Our combined efforts with another group, Urban Auckland, won a High Court battle that stopped the port’s expansion plans in their tracks.

I have sailed on the Waitemata Harbour all my life. It had never occurred to me that port activities were an issue. I like the big ships, cranes and containers, so when I heard disparaging comments about the problematic “Red Fence”, it all went right over my head. But through those exciting months of the Bledisloe Wharf campaign, our group came to the realisation that the continued exploitation of our harbour for port activities couldn’t go on forever.

Now many Aucklanders are questioning the viability of endlessly eating into our most valuable asset, the Waitemata Harbour, for port activities.

In 2016, Aucklanders were excited at mayoral candidate Phil Goff’s statements on the harbour and port. Mr Goff was emphatic – “not one more metre of the harbour should be infilled for commercial activity. We want to reclaim our waterfront for the people of Auckland”

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This was a welcome break from previous city administrators. We hoped we could now return back to our normal lives and not be doomed to fight more David and Goliath battles. I was relieved to have someone of Mr Goff’s intelligence and commitment lead our city, being confident that a promise was a promise. I could now go back to whiling away my time teaching music.

Well, that was rather a naïve thought! Now Auckland Council plans to pour $10 million of concrete and steel into the Waitemata Harbour, a 90 m mooring extension to the historic Queens Wharf  (the one with The Cloud).

These planned so-called ‘dolphins’ (a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one) are actually two massive concrete mooring structures with connecting gangways in front of Michael Parekowhai’s lighthouse sculpture at the end of Queens Wharf – all to dock a few foreign-owned oversized cruise ships that arrive in the morning and are gone by the afternoon.

What’s curious is that extra-large cruise ships have docked using Ports of Auckland’s existing berth infrastructure before. When Queen Mary II visited, she tied up right in the centre of the ports industrial zone. So many of us are thinking, using existing port facilities, rather than throwing more concrete into the harbour at the ratepayers’ expense, would be a very sensible option to pursue. Taking the lead from the America’s Cup village that is using existing waterfront infrastructure, rather than filling in the harbour, would be sound thinking.

The projected “windfall” from the small number of these oversized ships, has been substantially overstated. The economic report presented to Auckland Council, by their development arm, Panuku, has been cast into doubt by two of New Zealand’s leading economists and it is worthwhile noting that because of the shipping corporations overwhelming market power, the profit margins for local providers are modest. This thin profit margin will be only a small fraction of the entire spend from these ships.

Opposition to these “dolphins” is substantial. CBD business association Heart of the City, heritage groups, resident associations, urban design groups and the entire boating community, including Fullers Ferries, collectively oppose the 90 m extension.

This week, 12 of New Zealand’s top business leaders sent an open letter to Mayor Goff and Auckland Councillors, voicing their opposition to the so-called ‘dolphins’. They state that the economics are in doubt and called for “leadership on this matter so that we can preserve what’s left of our beautiful harbour for future generations”. Kiri Barfoot, one of the signatories, eloquently stated, “We are the City of Sails, not the Harbour of Concrete”.

So it’s time to pull out the placards, banners and loudhailers again to tell Auckland Council once and for all to Stop Stealing Our Harbour.  Sign the petition at www.stopstealingourharbour.co.nz to stop our precious harbour being covered in concrete yet again.

(This story was first printed in The Spinoff .)

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