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WATERFRONT WAR: Editorial - Waterfront Farce

THE debate over the future of Wellington's waterfront is now more and 14 years old. And - with respect to those involved - it has now reached the level of farce in both the political and design spheres.

Meanwhile in the realm of the public, ordinary Wellingtonians are hugely frustrated by the increasingly closed minded attitudes of entrenched groups involved in the project, and the continued wastage of public funds on grandiose development schemes which are not wanted.

The latest development in the saga, so-called "Variation 17", brings back a profound sense of deja-vu. For the first time since 1995 - when the expensive and highly unpopular Queens Wharf development aroused profound public ire - a similar level of willingness to engage in public activism to combat the latest proposals from council officials is on the rise.

In the intervening five years we have seen fatigue take its toll on many of those who have campaigned against the powers that be and their plans to erect buildings all over our waterfront.

But now even Wellington's two daily newspapers - who usually appear keen to swallow whatever spin the mayor and his allies spin on the need for large numbers of waterfront buildings - are showing signs of unease at the proposals for a "wall of buildings" from the Overseas Passenger Terminal to the Railway Station.

They are right to be critical of the proposals. Countless reams of paper stand testament to the fact that the plans clearly do not encompass the public vision for the waterfront.

The waterfront is Wellington's jewel. It is a key part of what makes Wellington so special.

Our newest and most famous resident Jonah Lomu says the harbour makes him "feel peaceful". Many long-time Wellingtonians would agree.

The water's edge is special. It is a place to go to cast your cares and worries out to sea. To sit in the sun, wind, rain, whatever, and just contemplate, or spin a few yarns to your companions.

Wellington's most successful public events - Carols by Candelight, the Santa Parade, the increasingly frequent and impressive fireworks displays - all see the waterfront packed. Thousands of Wellingtonians turn out for these events. And none of these events would be possible if the "Variation 17" proposals are completed.

In short there is no excuse for the council's position of the waterfront, which at its most simplest, can only be explained by stubbornness, political pride, and an elitist view of design.

The key supporter of the plan to wall off the waterfront is ironically Wellington's populist Mayor Mark Blumsky. The mayor backed his horse back in 1997 - the now departed city designer Stuart Niven - whose hastily convened eight-week design workshop produced the plans which make up "Variation 17".

At the end of 1998 Mr Blumsky secured a U-turn from the new block of Labour councillors on their election pledges on the issue. Now it seems the mayor would rather walk over hot coals than make any concession to his political opponents.

As a rising tide of opposition to "Variation 17" comes in, Blumsky is likely to soon learn what he has been told over and over again - that his views on the waterfront are bad politics.

Back in 1996 a write-in survey run by the council found a majority of Wellingtonians wanted, above all else, more green space on the waterfront.

Recent polls conducted by waterfront campaigners have found close to 80% support for a large park - down to the waterfront at Chaffers.

Similarly any survey of opinion on Frank Kitts Park would doubtless find similar levels of opposition to the plan to erect a large building on the park's city boundary.

Then we have Te Papa. While recent New Zealander of the year Cheryll Sotheran has till now been anxious to maintain cordial relations with the council - and has publicly remained silent - she and the museum staff are far from enthused about the plans to surround the waterfront's biggest attraction with apartment buildings. As "Variation 17" progresses, Sotheran will most probably be forced to go public at last.

So now the fight is rejoined, and all that can be said for sure is that over the next few weeks lots more ratepayers' money will be wasted, and the development of a waterfront which Wellingtonians can be happy with, will be further delayed.

* Note: Also published today in City Voice Newspaper, January 20, 2000

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