Down by the Waterfront

Dunedin City has largely  been shaped by its natural environment, with its steep hills and gullies running outwards to the harbour and the wide flat estuarine wetlands of south Dunedin known as Kaituna. The physical geography dominated early colonial development around the harbour due to the accessibility to the port for shipping transport and the narrowness of the available commercial land for the early city to be constructed upon. As Dunedin moved from a pioneering city after the gold rush into a commercial and manufacturing capital, and with the expansion of the rail corridor, so the city needed width to expand and grow. Reclamation of the harbour continued to allow commercial and industrial expansion. So, the city that we know today is a historical, landscape and architectural narrative of settlement, expansion, growth and change in much the same way that Winston Churchill wrote ” we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

The consideration of the future shape of the city in relation to development has been brought firmly to the local consciousness with the lodgement of a notified resource consent proposal to build a multi storey hotel on Wharf Street. The proposal is for a hotel of 27 floors (including a basement) which will contain 215 bedrooms, two restaurants, two bars, a swimming pool and will include 164 self-contained apartments. The proposed Wharf Street hotel has a dominance of physical presence in the city that has not been seen in Dunedin before. High rise development of this type has not occurred in the harbour precinct in Dunedin, though there are examples of smaller high-rise buildings  in the central business district of the city.

The development has certainly polarised opinion about the scale, appropriateness, design and connectivity to the existing built and natural landscape of the city. Accompanying those arguments is the perceived future financial benefits of the hotel to the city’s economic future and whether such a development will generate robust economic vitality and sustainability in Dunedin. There’s certainly no doubt that private sector investment in the City’s economy is desperately needed, as Dunedin grapples with the shuddering of the global economy. However, there is no in-depth analysis of the economic factors given in the consent lodged for the development. Indeed it’s one of the weaknesses of the Resource Management Act 1991, that economic “effects” are not included in the assessment of effects for any application. Which is why the Dunedin City Council must ensure that this proposal’s financial sustainability is investigated thoroughly and vigilantly to ensure the economic viability of this proposal. Moreover, that information needs to be made publicly available to reassure Dunedin citizens that such an analysis has been undertaken. Nothing could be a worse advertisement for private sector investment in Dunedin or our landscape for that matter, if we are left with either a half completed or empty hotel languishing on our waterfront for years to come.

The physical access to and from the site is less than ideal at Wharf Street and this raises the question as to whether the hotel proposal will require the upgrading and redevelopment of access so as to provide better proximity for the hotel and its users. That type of infrastructural change is normally the preserve of the City Council and deeper clarification is required as to whether the city will be asked to contribute to this aspect of the project, and at what cost? One example of the potential for the Council’s contribution can be found in the application documents and states;

There are (sic) existing pedestrian connectivity between the site and the CBD, the harbour edge and other key facilities/attractions for hotel guests. In international terms those connections are reasonable, but in the Dunedin context, they are less than ideal. There are other opportunities but they require input from a much wider group of stakeholders if they are to become serious propositions. These can be explored if others are interested.” The question has to be asked here “who are the stakeholders that would have input and what are these serious propositions that can be explored?” Does it mean that the Council will be asked to commit financially to dealing with the pedestrian connections that are “less than ideal?”

An additional proposition is described in the developer’s transport report that suggests;

“… Thomas Burns Street car park could provide an appropriate storage location. Survey shows that this is an efficient use of an existing underutilised resource. Moreover, it lies within 350m of the development site.” 

It’s worth noting that this land is owned by the City Council and if the mitigation of transport effects for this development are to come  from the use of Council property, where is the information from the Council describing that agreement? Other aspects of the application that directly affects Council owned assets include the shading of the harbour basin reserve immediately opposite and the spatial effects on the Chinese and Queens Gardens. Under normal circumstances Council departments managing Council property can be considered “affected parties” and can comment on applications in that role. The City Council needs to provide citizens with an indication of how they view those effects on Council owned assets and how they intend to protect or preserve the public’s interest in the management of those effects with this application.

The issues of context, design, impact on the skyline and other visual effects on the landscape are very subjective in planning terms, but are significant to this application if the city is to give legitimacy to its recently published “Dunedin Towards 2050 – a Spatial Plan for Dunedin.” Just how objectives and policies of the Spatial Plan will be adhered to with such bold statements as, “Manage the location and design of prominent buildings …and any associated car parking does not detract from the overall amenity of the city” or “protect significant view corridors from key vantage points to key heritage buildings, the Harbour and hills.” seems increasingly difficult when faced with this proposal.

The City Council must show some leadership here and endeavour to provide real answers to some difficult questions that both the developer and the Council have been eerily silent on to date. That means ensuring that the City Council as the consent authority and as a landowner asks the right questions before going to hearing, and shares that information with the public. Unfortunately, those questions do not appear to have been asked and we’re left to ponder what is the economic and physical prospects of this development. That uncertainty is not good for the city’s business and social morale.

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11 thoughts on “Down by the Waterfront

  1. Paul It reads well drawing attention to the salient issues. It seems more and more apparent that this is simply an exercise in opportunism – a hook to bait the gullible or in this case the desperate. Be good to see if this article ‘grows legs’ Cheers

    • I think the lack of information on the economic benefits and the silence from Council on how they will preserve the public interests in Council owned assets is a very important question. Everyone realises that Dunedin needs positive development for the benefit of the local economy. Yet we have no information on what the likely outcomes this proposal will have in that area and cannot debate that fact in the RMA process.

  2. This was extremely interesting. Coming from Houston, Texas which is almost famous for its wild west attitude when it comes to planning, I feel qualified to comment that this sort of geographically isolated investment can lead to the project not fully being realized, or just not being as beneficial as developers would have liked. It also leads to transit issues and other negative situations, where even the people staying at the hotel don’t have proper access to Dunedin’s amenities. The final and most obvious, but always forgotten question, is not just will this work, but is this the BEST way it can work. Personally, I can’t understand why the area of Dunedin around the Queens Gardens has so many large empty buildings in it, and why that area is not being better re-developed! I can only think of 3 American cities where big buildings like the one that now hosts Stilettos would be so underutilized: my hometown of New Orleans, Detroit, and Baltimore!

    • Thank you Amanda, it has been a divisive issue an one that the Council need to give more information to the public on. The City Council have worked very well to look at re-energising the older building precinct in this area, which is why this proposal seems so out of kilter.

      • It is good to have policy but policy processes need to have effective implentation strategies, otherwise they have no real opportunity to be effective.

    • I think calling this proposal “geographically isolated” is a bit harsh. It’s only 600m from the Octagon, within a built-up area, and there are heaps of Dunedin’s attractions within an easy 10 minutes walk – railway station, First Church, George St shops, Chinese gardens, the exchange…

      I would’ve thought that a proposal like this could only be a good thing for increasing the attractiveness of some of the underused buildings in this area – increasing foot traffic and creating demand for cafes, restaurants, shops…

      My only concern is the quality of the design. Personally I think the location and general idea for nice hotel are brilliant.

      • The article doesn’t describe the proposal as “geographically isolated” but questions the position of the development in the current configuration of physical vehicle and pedestrian access. Its proximity to the areas you point out is relative to the ease of access which is confined by the highway and rail corridor. The Society questions the involvement of the Council in providing better access and what that will cost the ratepayer to ensure that access is developed. The problem here is whether any new access is developed as a better linkage to the harbour area and its existing attractions, or is it simply for the benefit of the hotel? Should the Council be involved in private enterprise developments like this? These questions and others have not been answered either by the developer or the Council, and should be to give a fairer picture of the proposal’s effects. Design is certainly subjective and so are the effects of the current design. The Society does not question the need for economic development in Dunedin, but the nature of the context of the development in the current city and the silence from the Council over its likely involvement in this project. We have seen significant capital projects pitched to the city as a panacea for our economic development that have been woefully inadequate in detail or overly optimistic in their benefits. That has hurt the city’s reputation, the credibility of the developers and the moral of the community, which is why a greater degree of understanding of the economic benefits needs to be given to the community to fully understand the implications of this proposal.

  3. I was replying to Amanda’s comment about it being “geographically isolated”. I fully agree with you that the railway and overbridges make access to the site a real challenge, and it’s important these details are fully developed and made clear who is paying for what. When I said quality of design is important I was meaning things like the access details more so than just the the appearance.

    • The Society feels that all of the information including the access developments and economic strategy should have been available prior to going to hearing. Design of both the building and access is critical and in the consent application there is a paucity of information.

  4. Pingback: Wharf St Hotel Development Poll « The Dunedin Amenities Society

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