The Port of Auckland is back with another expansion plan after the last scheme to reclaim land proved to be very unpopular with locals.
The latest proposal is something of a Hobson’s choice. Option 1 involves a fairly modest extension Bledisloe Wharf and retaining Captain Cook Wharf for offloading imported cars. Option 2 is a slightly larger extension of Bledisloe which allows Captain Cook to be handed over to public uses.
I personally prefer Option 2, this consolidates all port functions at the east end and opens up all the downtown waterfront for civic uses. WhiIe both are actually pretty low impact I can’t see either of those being particularly satisfactory to the public, simply because they involve more port and less water. There is a real spatial tension here, the port can only expand at the expense of one thing Aucklanders universally love: the harbour.
So is there any alternative to expanding the port, assuming we have expanding demands for imports and exports?
Well I think there are two alternatives, the first is simply to not have a port at all. This seems like an aberration, Auckland is a port city, founded on a port and dependent on a port, right? Having a well functioning port is essential to our economic well being and productivity. Or is it?
I would argue that having a port in Auckland isn’t so critical, rather it is good access to a port that we really need. Maybe we don’t need a port actually located in Auckland for Auckland to benefit from a port, as long as we can efficiently get our goods and materials to or from a port somewhere else. This is the case already to an extent. The port of Tauranga operates an inland port in South Auckland, and tranships an appreciable amount of cargo between Bay of Plenty and Auckland by rail.
Could we not just extend this pattern entirely, say get rid of our port on the Waitemata, and leave the freight task to Tauranga and Marsden Point instead? That would probably require the Marsden rail link and an upgrade of the North Auckland Line, but those are both relatively cheap projects. Likewise Marsden and Tauranga would need to be expanded, but that is presumably much cheaper and easier than expanding a port in downtown Auckland. So would that be so bad? Assuming we can just as cheaply ship our goods in and out of Northland and the Bay of Plenty the only real loss to the local economy would be the 419 full time jobs at Ports of Auckland. One assumes most of those could relocate to the other ports in sunnier climes anyway.
But on the flipside Auckland is New Zealands largest import market, and it’s only going to get busier as the city grows. There is a simple logic of having you main port in your main city next to your main market. So the second alternative: move the port to somewhere else in Auckland.
It’s a hard task, a port needs a good supply of waterside land, good deepwater access under all weather conditions, and excellent transport links. There isn’t anywhere in Auckland that immediately jumps out as the ideal location. Personally I would like to see the port shifted to the Manukau harbour, at Puhinui Reserve immediately east of the airport. This site has land available on the waters edge and is very close to the main trunk railway and both SH20 and SH1 motorways. It’s also close to the centre of industry and manufacturing in south Auckland, next to an existing logistics hub at the airport, and perhaps most importantly it is located in the airport flight path so it’s unlikely to upset anyone as nobody currently lives or works there. There isn’t much else you can do with that piece of land except industrial uses like a port. The major downside I can see is the fact it’s on the shallow tidal Manukau harbour. That would require major dredging to maintain an all-weather deep water shipping channel, although to be fair the Waitemata harbour does require as similar channel so it might not be much different in the long run.
There are many other possible locations I’m sure, I leave that up to you to propose better alternatives in the comments section.
So what would a move cost? In the article cited above the port CEO suggests it would cost four billion dollars to move the port, a huge chunk of change, although many cities have done the same. Sydney is perhaps the best local example. They shifted their downtown port to Botany Bay and have had a series of waterfront redevelopments ever since, culminating in the ambitious Barangaroo scheme.
That partially answers the next question: what benefit is there of moving or closing the port? The short answer is land and access. Lots of very valuable premium downtown waterfront land would be freed up for other uses, other uses that don’t require ongoing expansion and don’t seal off half the waterfront from public access.
Let’s put some numbers on that. The container port and its two main wharves occupy some 70 hectares (700,000m2) of flat downtown waterfront land. That’s five times the size of the viaduct harbour and almost twice the size of the Wynyard Quarter.
So if we assume 20% of the land for streets and public open spaces, that leaves 560,000m2 of land for development. What is that worth? Well using council rates valuations we can make some comparisons. At the lower end the land the new ASB building is on in Wynyard is worth about $2,500 per square metre, as are the new developments around Quay Park. These prices probably reflect their locations in new and partially undeveloped parts of the city centre. On the upper end the new BNZ building on lower Queen is worth about $10,400 per m2.
Using this as a guide, the port land is probably worth somewhere between $1.4 and $5.8 billion dollars. A wide spread I know, but I’m tempted to think that it would be towards the upper limit because of the sheer amount of harbour frontage afforded by the projections of the various wharves, about 5km of water edge in all, and because the site runs east to west most of the land has a north facing aspect for lots of sun along with the water views. Also given the position of the port relative to the city and far from residential and view shafts, a large portion along Quay St could support skyscrapers without blocking any views or shading any properties (Wynyard is limited to low and mid rise development for urban design reasons). Quay St could end up an amazing boulevard, perhaps something like Melbourne’s St Kilda Rd which is a row of high rises nestled between a lakefront park and their Domain.
Transport is another consideration. The port places a large freight demand by truck and train squarely in the centre of Auckland, exactly the same place that sees the greatest demand for commuter and general transport in the region. Trucks have to battle it out with commuter gridlock for hours every day, while the demand for suburban train services is squeezing the ability to run freight on the same tracks. Moving the port moves that transport demand and the conflict with other transport users. I could also mean there is no need for the rail yards along Tamaki Drive, allowing them to be put to better uses also. In fact it might even make sense to divert the eastern line into the port land to provide a station there on the way to Britomart, and naturally bus links, ferry stops and waterfront trams could all be put into place.
So… even if it does cost four billion to move the port, it might still be a very profitable venture for the city in financial terms. Once you factor in the transport and land use change, agglomeration benefits and centralisation it could be very worthwhile. Part of the site, say the Fergusson Terminal to the far east, could be a primarily residential location. You might get fifty thousand people living there alone in a mix of luxury waterfront and affordable streetfront properties. What would that mean for housing affordability, the CBD economy, the average journey to work?
A massive undertaking for sure, I guess the question is when would or could we need such land. We have the Wynyard Quarter to develop and fill up, plus the likes of Aotea, K Rd and Newton around the CRL stations once those are build. There is plenty of scope for our city centre just yet, but maybe a second or third decade plan to relocate the port should be on the agenda?