'Borderline racist': Crs bicker over future of George St

This story has been amended to include Cr Steve Walker's response to Cr Weatherall's comments. Cr Walker's comments were not included in the version of this story that appeared in print on Saturday, 11 May. We apologise for that omission.

A Dunedin city councillor has launched a scathing attack on one of his colleagues over the suggestion the full pedestrianisation of George St is "inevitable".

But the councillor on the receiving end of the attack has accused the other of "borderline racist" comments.

The suggestion about the full pedestrianisation of George St was made as upgrades to the retail quarter came to an end last week, after nearly three years of construction along the central city street.

George St jeweller and city councillor Brent Weatherall hit back at fellow councillor Steve Walker, who predicted within five years there would be a public push to fully pedestrianise the area.

Dunedin city councillor Brent Weatherall stands in the Farmers block of George St, following the...
Dunedin city councillor Brent Weatherall stands in the Farmers block of George St, following the completion of upgrades to the street. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON

At the opening of the completed one-way street, Cr Walker said full pedestrianisation would fulfil his "lifetime dream" for the area.

He said he had heard from various businesses a fully pedestrianised George St had become more desired as the work had progressed.

Cr Weatherall said those comments were a "kick in the guts" for retailers who, he said, had told him a different story.

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
Cr Weatherall — who said he chose not to attend the opening of a project he was "opposed to from day one" — suggested the idea pedestrianisation of the street was Cr Walker’s lifetime dream was incorrect "considering [his] accent".

"I was born here, live here and worked in Dunedin continuously with all my working life on George St," he said.

"You are entitled to express your biased views as I am entitled to express my biased lifetime views and visions for Dunedin."

Through the construction phase, George St had "basically" been pedestrianised for more than two years, which had caused some retailers to close their doors and cost others millions of dollars in lost revenue.

"The feedback I’ve got from business owners is that what the work did was basically pedestrianise the main street so they had a feeling on how it was going to be, if it ever was pedestrianised.

"Accessibility was compromised hugely over the redevelopment phase and as far as the dollars that went through their cash registers dropped."

While he conceded he had lost the battle over the future of George St, Cr Weatherall said he was not going to say he was happy with the George St redesign.

He was pleased with elements of the redesign — the planting, quality of the finished street and parking around the Farmers block — but was not pleased with the inclusion of a playground and the expected $104.97 million bill, which he labelled "horrific".

Cr Weatherall said customers would ultimately judge the success of the project.

"If they come back retailers will stay.

"If the public choose to shop elsewhere because of accessibility, parking and congestion issues, retailers will follow them."

Cr Walker said Cr Weatherall’s "resistance to change and lack of imagination" were nothing new.

The reopening of George St had seen an "overwhelmingly positive" public response, which he said was evidence of the progressive thinking of a vast majority of Dunedin residents. 

"[Cr Weatherall’s] personal and borderline racist comments suggesting that someone must be born here to have a stake in our city are extremely disappointing for an elected member of Council.

"I’m confident that all fair-minded members of our community would not support xenophobia around the Council table.

"What next, critiquing the groundbreaking collaboration with mana whenua to produce a stunning streetscape design?"

Cr Walker said he was born in Singapore, schooled in Hong Kong and mostly raised in Scotland, before marrying an American whom he met in Pakistan.

He had lived in or travelled to more than 100 countries in his lifetime, he said.

His "lifetime dream" for a pedestrianised George St stemmed from his experiences in progressive cities and towns from around the world.

The best examples he had seen of pedestrianisation , which could come in many forms, only allowed vehicle access for deliveries and for disabled and elderly communities. 

Cr Walker said he would not apologise for thinking big and wanting Dunedin to fulfil its goal of becoming "one of the world’s greatest small cities," but would be guided by the views of the community as to where Dunedin eventually landed.

As with other parts of the world that had installed people-focused infrastructure, it was the residents and businesses who had taken the lead pressing those in power to go further. 

"I see no reason why that won’t happen here."