Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Whares? No worries.

Rendering of the proposed Wharenui for Taranaki St WharfWhen they were first proposed, the Wharenui and Wharewaka at Taranaki St Wharf were among the least controversial developments on the waterfront. Even Waterfront Watch seemed to cautiously approve, given that these were low-rise cultural facilities rather than medium-rise buildings with commercial components, though some of their members managed to find views that would be blocked. However, that quickly changed once the rowing clubs realised that they might have to lose some parking space, and the dispute has only just been resolved.

I initially had a lot of sympathy for the rowing clubs, since their presence is certainly a vital and natural part of the waterfront. It's obvious that they'll always need some vehicle access and parking, since it's hardly practical to lug rowing shells from the road. But then things started getting nasty. To a casual observer, it might have looked like Wellington Waterfont Ltd (WWL) were deliberately trying to get rid of the rowers, and headlines such as "End of city rowing?" fostered the impression that the clubs were in imminent danger. So what exactly was it that was being threatened?

Firstly, there's the issue of trailer access. The council commissioned traffic experts who determined that it would be possible to get the trailers to the sheds, though it wouldn't be easy. The rowers claimed that it would be too difficult, but I'm not exactly an expert on parking trailers, so I can't really comment on who's right.

Secondly, there's the rowers' "need" for parking. WWL's plans allowed 22 parks for the two clubs, but the clubs demanded 30. This is where I started to lose sympathy for them. One of the rowers' spokespeople said that parents needed to drop their kids off right at the door, rather than at nearby Taranaki St. Excuse me? These are fit young athletes, and they can't walk 100m? Apparently it was a safety issue, and parents couldn't allow their teenage sons and daughters to be alone in the city in the early hours of the morning. But Taranaki St Wharf is hardly a dark, deserted alley: it's a well-lit open space with plenty of early-morning joggers and people walking to work. This sounds like the sort of suburban thinking that lets media panic act as an excuse for laziness and equates convenience with necessity.

Finally, they were worried that competition from the Wharenui's conference facility would hurt their own functions business and thus remove their main source of funding. That sounds like a reasonable concern, but it's an example of "zero sum" thinking that rarely applies to retail and hospitality. Rather than stealing customers, having a similar facility nearby can often form a cluster that provides enough critical mass to increase business overall. I also wonder whether the sort of society weddings and twenty-firsts that like the Victorian wooden atmosphere of the Rowing Club are going to be dragged away by a high-tech marae. Apart from specifically Māori events, the Wharenui is more likely to attract corporate and government meetings, so if anyone should be worried about competition, it would be some third-rate hotel on the Terrace with a windowless 1970s function room. As the recent Great Blend showed, the location is so good that there should be no shortage of custom for both venues.

So, the factors that would "drive away" the rowing clubs boiled down to ease of driving, eight carparks, and a probably illusory fear of competition. WWL has compromised by making minor modifications to the open space plans (changes to the ramp and steps near the Kupe statue), thus improving access. The car park issue has been resolved, partly by clarifying their lease arrangements and partly by providing dedicated parking in the Frank Kitts underground carpark outside of business hours. And as I said, I believe the competition issue is a non-starter.

So, it looks like we finally have a compromise that works for all parties. The building and landscaping, which almost everyone agreed would improve the public space, are now able to proceed. It's just a pity that we had to go through such histrionics to get to this stage.


At 6:21 pm, July 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My (anonymous) take on the "real" reason behind the stoush is that the "white" folks at the Boating and Rowing Clubs didn't want the "brown" folks with their Wharenui nearby.... big house, lots of brothers , little gatherings late at night with a few tinnies.... not that anyone from the Rowing club would EVER admit that of course..... but the plain truth is that they're just a little bit racist...

At 7:21 pm, July 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because of course, everyone knows that white people are racist.

At 8:01 am, July 18, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

The Rowing Club will lose punters for one reason only: no eftpos at the bar!

What kind of troglodite doesn't have eftpos at the bar?! Just because it has a Victorian wooden interior doesn't mean it has to be like the 1800's! People (who don't carry wads of cash) need to drink!

At 9:25 am, July 18, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anonymous and Andy: I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the rowing clubs are racist just because they're white. but I certainly wouldn't rule that out. In this case, there isn't the usual "property values" excuse for racism ("oh, of course we're not racist, but unfortunately some people are, so if brown people move into our street it will reduce our house value"), but if anonymous has specific insder knowledge then I wouldn't want to rule that out. I think, though, that the most likely explanation is the fear of any change whatsoever.

Jo: I know, I've always kind of liked the grassy knoll. It was too large and steep, but it certainly worked for the big events, and I had hoped they could have just reduced the height slightly. As it is, I think the final design ended up with a slight slope to the lawn, as opposed to the flat one in the original plans, after people expressed their liking for that accidental hill.

Hadyn: I think it's highly likely that the Wharenui's Wharekai/cafe/gallery will have eftpos. Plus, it'll make the location much more accessible to the general public, rather than having to rely on special events at the rowing club.


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