A $50 million beautification project for CBD’s Victoria St – which will disrupt businesses from now into next year – has won urgent approval in secret from the stop-the-road-cones mayor and his cost-cutting Auckland Council.
Giving the lie to any reputation for being austere philistines, councillors have okayed a contract for one lane of traffic each way, new footpaths, trees, street furniture, a cycle lane and associated underground works on Victoria St from Federal St down and over Queen St up to Kitchener St by Albert Park.
The works have long been part of the Central City Masterplan but with the council’s budget crisis and Brown’s campaign promises to halt new works that disrupt the central city it was possible a late request from council officials for sign-off to let the building contract could be at risk.
Approval to appoint the contractor and begin work was sought by officials on Thursday March 23 and late on Monday the council announced digging begins on April 11 until “the first part” is finished by year’s end.
Brown and the council have come up with what former Prime Minister John Key used to call an ‘elegant solution’ to avoid hitting all Aucklanders with the project’s cost.
Despite no formal consultation with central city ratepayers (as no city advisory panel has been appointed under this council) most of the Victoria St project’s cost, $34 million, is being shifted to the Central City Targeted Rate’s accumulated fund, with the remaining $16m to be funded from general rates and borrowing.
There was an open discussion on the project at a council meeting last week before a full report and details of the funding and contract were discussed by councillors with the public and media excluded. Brown moved, and deputy mayor Desley Simpson seconded, that details of the report and decisions “remain confidential until reasons for confidentiality no longer exist”.
Some councillors at the open part of the meeting criticised the lack of consultation with those who pay the targeted rate, or Heart of the City, or the Waitematā Local Board, and some argued expensive and nice-to-have projects could not be countenanced as the budget is cut elsewhere.
Wayne Walker declared: “We have got huge concerns around the disruption. The disruption from the CRL has been an unmitigated disaster.
“If there’s ever a time for the council to refer something to committee for us to have some oversight then that time is now.”
But Brown shed his usual antipathy to roadwork disruption, additional central city projects and road cones to give the Victoria St plan – known as Te Hā Noa – his strong support.
“I’m a CBD ratepayer and I think this is a damn good thing,” he said. “As the only one [around the council table] who is resident in it and contributed to it, I think it is bloody good.”
He told one councillor opposed to approving the project, Ken Turner from Waitakere: “Most of this comes out of a targeted rate we’ve already hit these people for – not from your people out west.”
To Waitematā councillor Mike Lee’s suggestion the project be delayed for consultation with central city ratepayers and reported to the council’s transport committee, Brown said: “Anyone who seconds that is going to be threatened within an inch of their life.”
Brown promised the new works would be different to those that had made the lives of businesses and commuters through the CBD difficult over the years of the City Rail Link and downtown and Karangahape Rd projects.
“The poor blokes in that area have put up with hideous obstructions to their businesses.
“I’m absolutely confident the contractor will have to reduce his temporary traffic management and not park his utes.
“I want to make it quite clear that any one of the contractors’ utes that are parked in front of businesses will be crushed.”
North Shore councillor Richard Hills said the Victoria St project had been widely consulted on in the past. “I’m glad to see it moving forward …. We can’t redesign it here.”
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said the council had not taken the opportunity to hear the views of those who pay the targeted rate – which splits 95 percent from property owners and businesses and just 5 percent from residents.
For such a significant amount of money, her organisation would have thought the council would take into account views of those who paid it, people who wanted “to ensure value for money for ratepayers”.
The original Te Hā Noa project was to include a further segment from Federal St to Hobson St, outside the Sky City casino, but that has been put off to reduce cost from $60m to $50m.
Officials said it was vital the remaining work be approved and start now to be ready for another big transport project, through Wellesley St, when that is set to launch from December. It also ties in with City Rail Link work finishing around Victoria St’s Te Waihorotiu Station.
The council’s announcement of the project’s green light labelled it “the next big project in Auckland Council’s midtown regeneration programme.
“Since it first made the pages of the City Centre Masterplan in 2012, Te Hā Noa has been described in different ways: linear park, tree-lined avenue and the ‘new backyard’.”
Simon Oddie, the City Centre Priority Location director for redevelopment agency Eke Panuku, said Victoria St’s regeneration would create a place that “is welcoming and inclusive, helps restore our biodiversity and ecology and connects our communities so that they can truly thrive”.
Officials lauded the aesthetics of the road’s new look. “The magic will be in the trees,” said head of city centre programmes Jenny Larking.
The council promises it has learned from the CRL disruptions on Albert St and projects in downtown Auckland and Larking says “our plan is to deliver the street in chunks, minimising impact while optimising efficiency”.
The council says: “A key focus is to maintain traffic flow in the east-west direction and ensure that access to properties, goods and services delivery can continue to be undertaken effectively.”