Our own little Hilton
It looks like it might finally be happening: on Saturday the Dominion Post carried a story saying that a deal had been struck to build a Hilton Hotel on the site of Shed 1. This proposal has been debated for years, and commercial negotiations seem to have been continuing for almost as long. Of all the proposals for waterfront development, this has been one of the most controversial, and I expect the opponents to continue to fight it through the consent process, so it's likely to be several more years before guests check in.
One of the objections has been the usual one: loss of views. It will be a couple of storeys higher than the existing Shed 1, but on pretty much the same footprint. I've tried to superimpose a very rough envelope (the actual design is more complex) over Shed 1, and as you can see, it will block out a little of the sky, but won't actually block any harbour views beyond those which are already blocked by the Shed.
Another objection is against "privatisation" of public space. This puzzles me, since the boardwalk around it will still be publicly accessible, and will in fact be extended with pontoons. These boardwalks will actually be more attractive than they are now, as I'd rather walk past a group of café tables than a blank steel and concrete wall. The shed itself can hardly be counted as "public space": you'd be no more welcome walking into the middle of an indoor soccer game than you would in a hotel lobby.
Some claim that it will be only for tourists, and does nothing for locals. But hotels are also local amenities: I know Wellingtonians who have stayed at the Intercontinental or Bolton for a special occasion, or who work out at the Intercontinental's gym. Arizona bar is part of the Intercontinental, yet that doesn't seem to deter the locals. If the bar and restuarant are as good as Bellini and White at the Auckland Hilton, then they will be great additions to the local scene. Besides, look at the view...
... where else in the Lambton quarter will you be able to enjoy a drink in the setting sun while looking across the water to the city? It seems such a waste to leave this as a dingy, introspective shed.
The design itself has also attracted criticism. If you look at the detailed plans and renderings (the most recent are in the consultation document from 2003) you'll agree that it's not the most exciting building. However, it's quite finely articulated, it makes interesting use of materials, and it avoids the shiny white "ocean liner" look of the Auckland Hilton. I think that the interplay between the solidity of oxidising Cor-ten steel and the transparency of glass will be quite appealing, maybe more so than the renderings suggest. It certainly addresses the public space in a positive way, which is more than you can say for Shed 1. It was unimpressed when I first saw it, but I'm starting to like it.
So, is this a wasted opportunity to make the most of an "iconic site"? While I'd love to see something like a national art gallery here, housed in a stunning and memorable building, no-one's come up with a concrete, practical plan complete with funding. There have been alternative proposals, such as a wintergarden, but without detailed plans, business case and sponsors nothing was going to happen.
A hotel might seem like a prosaic and unimaginative use of such a location, but it's actually a good way to introduce a mixture of uses: accommodation, workspace and entertainment. Wellington needs a hotel of this calibre, and while I'd have preferred something a bit funkier than the Hilton chain (like a W or Ian Schrager hotel), it certainly fills a gap in the market. It will bring 24-hour habitation to a space that's often deserted, provide fantastic new drinking and dining venues and give completeness to the north Queens Wharf basin. With a few provisos (that a home is found for indoor sports; that public access is maintained around it; that vehicle access is indeed via tunnel), I think this will be a welcome addtion to the waterfront.