The Eye of the Fish

March 15, 2008

The Hilton vanishes?

The potential Hilton hotel has had the appeals against its consent upheld, signalling what is likely to be the end of the controversial waterfront proposal. Having started the applications process back in later 2005, the news seems like it will be a decisive blow to the project; although an appeal is possible, it must go through the High Court.

The presiding judge cited all the usual issues with the project, such as public space, lines of sight and heritage concerns among others. Plenty has been written about the project previously, and its associated drawbacks and benefits. Despite the changes that were made to throughout the application process, it seems that this decision was ultimately a judgement of not-quite-good-enough . Although the design is of a decent quality, and the hotel would bring many economic benefits, my hope is that the decision was made with the intent of preserving the site for an even higher quality project, rather than following a general distaste for commercial waterfront developments.


Looking to the future, the rejection of this plan does again open up the potential of the site. Occupying a prime position amongst the new developments, the T area brief originally called for an “iconic” building (naturally using the precedent of the Sydney Opera house). Not to say that the Hilton was necessarily unattractive, but the design was hardly inspiring.

However the rejection of the Hilton is likely to make future developers more cautious, particularly of Hotel proposals. Again, the question of programme is raised – what type of building is suitable for such a prime location? Surely, simple apartments or office spaces are a waste. It would be nice to see some form of major public function there, such as the Marine Education Centre or a salt water swimming pool, but I doubt these would be commercially viable for the site on their own. We may see something more eco-oriented though, in light of the judge giving heavy weight to the “sustainable use of natural and physical resources” considerations.

So, it seems that we are back to square one. This decision raised the bar for the site, which will hopefully lead to a better proposal, rather than acting to scare away future developers.

16 - 03 - 08

Its a difficult thing, to find a use for an “iconic” site without also incurring public interest and therefore some inevitable traffic requirements. I agree, apartments or office spaces would be a waste, and should not be considered. The site needs to have a use that is totally public, on both the ground floor and anything higher up, arguably missing from any Hotel proposal. And yet it needs to not attract screeds of people needing to arrive by car or bus to the doorstep – one of the reasons for the Hilton getting binned.

Previous suggestions by others have included: a Wintergarden (yes, it is a public use, but it is a truly bizarre and pointless suggestion to plant trees on a concrete wharf and enclose it all in a glass box), an Overseas Passenger Terminal (well, yes, its a great location, but its too short, and anyway haven’t we already got one of those?), an Aquarium (currently without a definite site), an indoor sports centre (its current use, in a nicer box) and, umm, not much more. To that you could probably add a Music School (already planned for elsewhere, and no, they don’t want to be on a wharf), and an OctoberFest type beer hall (but all year round? And won’t the pissed people fall off the edge? ).

So, yes, its time for that Competition to design the building. Problem is, first we need a function.

Question is, Wellington, what would you want to see there?

16 - 03 - 08

There just don’t seem to be any major public functions that are be crying out for a site – except for maybe the Aquarium. Furthermore, I doubt we have the budget to be blowing on extravagant public buildings.

The indoor sports center is definitely going to be done in Kilbirnie now, is it not? However last I heard, the school of music was actually being considered for the overseas passenger terminal.

It seems to me that a small to medium sized ‘iconic’ building combined with a surrounding public area would be the best option – providing a dramatic focal point for the waterfront, while preserving public space and views.

What came to mind for the location would be to place UN studio’s museum extension in the center of the T, with a landscaped public area + salt water swimming pool covering the rest of the site. A small greenhouse/winter garden area also sounds like a great addition also. An unlikely combination, but I can dream, can’t I?

16 - 03 - 08

The MEC backers are going for a quarry site between the point and Lyall Bay, and while it’s not as good as the point site, at least it’s actually in the south coast environment. If it were on the outer T it would be, well, just another aquarium.

I don’t know if anyone (other than Helene Ritchie) is actually considering the OPT for the School of Music, and besides, Civic Square needs that school as much as the school needs the Square. The Kilbirnie sports centre will be mostly a community/school facility for the eastern suburbs, so there’s still a need for indoor lunchtime/ after-work sports in the CBD. It seems that if people are going to insist on a “non-commercial” use for the site, then the current use might indeed be the best idea (though hang on: don’t you have to pay to play? Isn’t that commercial?).

The problem is funding. Leaving it as it is is hardly “iconic”, and replacing it with a cheaply-built new purpose-designed sports centre will still be ruinously expensive for the likes of WIS (and probably ugly, if corners are cut). Perhaps, though, the existing structure could be retained, but reclad with a mix of transparent and translucent panels to make the uses visible and to let it light up at night. That would still cost a lot though, so it might need some other uses (office, gym, day spa) could be incorporated into a high mezzanine to pay for the upgrade, and it would be a crying shame not to have some sort of drinking & dining options on such a site.

But wait! Isn’t the wharf itself falling to bits? Will the council now have to pay for the upgrades the hotel developers were going to fund? And aren’t the people who’d object to the very idea of anything commercial on the waterfront the same people who object to high rates?

Perhaps the best use would be something that has some active edges at the ground level, provides high-quality bar and restaurant options, keeps activity going round the clock, and stacks up economically. Something like … a hotel perhaps?

16 - 03 - 08

Paris – I don’t know about whether it is iconic or not, although it would certainly be ironic: an all glass sports centre would be great. Certainly stop you having to rush to see if the previous users have finished their session. All glass squash courts are great. An all glass helicopter shed would also be quite a sight! All glass changing rooms might be a little tricky though.

Maybe we need to cast the net wider.

The Wellington Civic Trust is understandably delighted at the news ( – although I am not sure whether they will be recompensed for their legal battle. They’ve spent a heap to win this decision for Wellington.

And from archived documents on the Civic Trust website, wise words indeed on the troubled term of ‘iconic’ from retired architect Bill Toomath :

17 - 03 - 08

The role of the icon is definitely a flash point in recent discussion on architecture, perhaps even to the point of beating a dead horse even. I would recommend the discussion on the airport Rocks post, or Charles Jencks ‘the iconic building’

Thanks for the link iconoclast. A great commentary by Toomath

Paris – I think a hotel was definitely the way to go for the site, but it seems they didnt want *that* hotel. However, I doubt that any hotel can be viable without raising similar massing issues that the Hilton raised…

…unless it was a semi-sky-scraper? The economic and structural issues make it seem unlikely.

…or perhaps it could extend underwater. If we rush, we can beat Dubai to it!

17 - 03 - 08

If the Hilton proposal is kept afloat and still planned for a waterfront spot, perhaps one of CentrePort’s wharves could be put to use, ie, Waterloo or Glasgow Wharf. Most of the remaining areas of WWL-owned land has been developed (or about to be developed), as has the Overseas Passenger Terminal.

17 - 03 - 08

I don’t see any imperative to ‘rush’ to fill this site – on the contrary, some measured patience until a genuine public function and relevant built proposal appears would seem the appropriate course of non-action.

It is difficult to force iconicness on the type of budget and mindset that Wellington has – and to attempt to do so will only result in flawed mediocre (Hilton proposal), or twee 100-level formalism (The Rocks).

Patience is a virtue they say – I can’t wait for that to become apparent…

20 - 03 - 08

Iconoclast – thanks for the link to Bill Toomath’s evidence.

It is an exceptional well considered commentary on the reason why the Hilton should not be built. With such well articulated comment and wisdom its not surprising the Environment Court made the right decision.

10 - 04 - 08

Latest on the Hilton proposal on the DomPost web site.:

‘End of the line’ for Hilton on waterfront

COLIN PATTERSON – The Dominion Post | Thursday, 10 April 2008

A planned five-star hotel on Wellington’s waterfront is dead and buried, its backers having decided not to appeal against a court decision blocking the development.

Waterfront Investments had proposed a $45 million, 142-room Hilton hotel for the outer-T of Queens Wharf.

Though the project was welcomed by city tourism and business interests, it was opposed by groups such as Wellington Waterfront and Wellington Civic Trust.

The hotel suffered a serious setback last month when the Environment Court overturned a decision by independent commissioners appointed by Greater Wellington regional council to grant consents for the development.

In its judgment, the court said building a five-star hotel on a public wharf was inconsistent with the sustainable use of natural and physical resources.

Yesterday, Waterfront Investments’ lawyer, Richard Cathie, said the company had decided it would not pursue an appeal to the High Court. “It’s the end of the line.”

Mr Cathie said Waterfront Investments disagreed with the Environment Court decision.

But it could appeal only on points of law.

“It decided it was not worth pursuing the risk involved in more litigation. It’s very disappointing all round.”

He said the court’s decision showed the Wellington Waterfront Framework – the overriding document covering all waterfront development – appeared to have little legal status.

Waterfront Watch president Pauline Swann said her organisation was highly relieved at the news. “This process has gone on for too long.”

Mrs Swann urged Wellington City Council to arrange a competition to give the public a chance to come up with its ideas for the outer-T.

Mayor Kerry Prendergast said she would seek advice on how the district plan could be changed to ensure the objectives of the waterfront framework could be delivered on.

Positively Wellington Tourism chief executive Tim Cossar said the decision represented a lost opportunity. “It’s a disappointing end to a fairly long process.”

Hilton was one of the world’s most recognised hotel brands, he said. Having one in Wellington would help fill a gap in the market.

Mr Cossar hoped another site could be found by Hilton.

His group would do what it could to help. “Any party that wants to develop tourism facilities in Wellington, we’d be interested in talking to.”

Hilton Hotels Australian vice-president Ashley Spencer said the end of the waterfront proposal would not mean the end of Hilton’s plans to be in Wellington.

“We are confident there will be opportunities for a Hilton hotel elsewhere in Wellington and we continue to look for such opportunities.”

A Dunedin Hilton was scheduled to open in 2010 and other New Zealand developments would be announced soon, Mr Spencer said.