Harbour ferry Kestrel and our waterfront in danger from bureaucratic group-think

The announcement by Ports of Auckland chairwoman Liz Coutts that it was ‘no longer acceptable’ for the port to reclaim the harbour was the most sensible utterance from any city leader on this subject for some time. But while Mayor Phil Goff continues to wrestle with his puzzling problem of how to sell the port and at the same time move the port, the prospect of another America’s Cup defence has returned the council’s focus to the rest of the waterfront.

In 2012, building on the momentum began by the Auckland Regional Council (ARC) in the Wynyard Quarter and the opening of Queens Wharf, Waterfront Auckland produced the Waterfront Plan. Created with a great deal of public participation, it was visionary and at the same time practical. However due mainly to rivalry between Waterfront Auckland and Auckland Transport in particular – critical momentum was lost. Subsequently in 2015, on the recommendation of the council chief executive, Waterfront Auckland was ‘reviewed’ out of existence. Its assets and waterfront-focussed mission was absorbed into another CCO, Auckland Council Properties Ltd, the entity given a new name ‘Panuku Development Auckland’, and with it a portfolio of non-waterfront-focussed responsibilities such as redeveloping the former Manukau City centre.

In recent weeks Panuku and Auckland Transport officials have been busy ‘refreshing’ the Waterfront Plan in public-excluded ‘workshops’. The proposals being rushed through entail significant departures from the Plan – without any intention of public consultation or input. As they presently stand many of the proposals (eg moving cruise ships from Queens Wharf to a significantly extended Captain Cook Wharf) are impractical and will destroy economic value and are therefore even more expensive than claimed.

Meanwhile of more urgency is the plight of one of Auckland’s oldest waterfront heritage icons, the harbour ferry Kestrel. This lovely old lady, the last of the big double-ended Waitemata ferries still afloat, could be lost forever if Panuku managers continue to stymie plans for her restoration and permanent place on our waterfront.

In recent years Kestrel had been owned by a charitable trust, the Kestrel Preservation Society. With backing from the ARC chairman’s discretionary fund in the last days before the ‘Super City’ and subsequently Waterfront Auckland, the Society did good work in rescuing her from Tauranga, bringing her back to Auckland and maintaining her.  In March 2016 however, Kestrel sank at her moorings, dashing the restoration hopes of the under-resourced Society.

Kestrel saved. On the slip at the Titan Marine yard after her amazing salvage by Brent Shipman. Her kauri hull, apart from one small area, is in remarkably good condition.

But thanks to the intervention of Waterfront Auckland’s former CEO John Dalzell, Kestrel was refloated, her hull repaired and a purchase negotiated with a private developer, Darby Partners. They have come up with an exciting plan that has Kestrel the centre-piece of a visionary harbour-edge development, including boutique hotel accommodation and a restaurant. Interestingly Darby Partner’s preferred site, presently an unprepossessing office building and cafe, on Z Pier at inner Westhaven, is a stone’s-throw from the old Bailey’s shipyard where Kestrel was built over 112 years ago.

Unfortunately Panuku managers are claiming such use of the site is at odds with the Waterfront Plan (rather ironic given their secret plans to change it). Instead they want to push the project off to what the developers consider a commercially unsuitable site – one moreover already leased to Sandford.

Prior to the 2016 sinking, the Kestrel Preservation Society struggled to obtain funding for restoration. Given the lack of interest from Auckland Council and the Maritime Museum, if Kestrel cannot be restored as part of a viable commercial venture, then she is likely headed for the breakers’ yard.

Unhappily Panuku is doing what bureaucracies all too often do – taking forever to make any progress, prevaricating over options while charging $5000 a month for Kestrel’s berth. One can only ask why such an excellent development, one providing a rare opportunity for privately-financed maritime heritage restoration is being squandered? It is quite tragic that such a magnificent harbour city should be inflicted with such mediocre decision-making. Auckland deserves better than this.

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