Strong push for hotel as hearing adjourned

A hearing to decide the fate of Dunedin's proposed $100 million hotel has been adjourned again, but only after a last-minute attack by the company that wants to build the controversial tower.

Betterways Advisory Ltd counsel Phil Page made the company's final push during closing arguments before the Dunedin City Council's hearings committee yesterday.

Mr Page attacked the credibility of key expert witnesses opposing the hotel, claiming some were engaged in spoiling tactics motivated by trade competition, while others had acted unprofessionally.

He urged the committee to disregard issues including the height of the hotel, arguing district plan rules allowed it to be built, but also warned KiwiRail could yet be handed the power to veto the project.

That was because council staff and consultants believed a pedestrian bridge was needed to link the hotel to the central city and harbourside.

The committee could not compel Betterways to offer one, but, without it, consent should be declined, staff argued.

However, Mr Page yesterday revealed Betterways had applied to KiwiRail last year for permission to use its airspace for a bridge crossing the rail corridor.

''To date ... we have not had the dignity of a reply,'' he said.

Without that, no bridge was possible, and if Betterways offered one with its consent application, the entire project could hinge on KiwiRail, he said.

That would mean KiwiRail ''have got a gun to our heads'', Mr Page said.

KiwiRail opposed the hotel and had ruled out the use of its land or airspace because of concerns noise from its nearby rail yard would lead to complaints from hotel guests and apartment tenants.

Asked by committee member Cr Andrew Noone if Betterways would consider a financial contribution towards a bridge instead, Mr Page said that was not ''the best way to go''.

Instead, if the hotel was granted consent and KiwiRail knew it was proceeding, that could help smooth talks between it and Betterways.

''It's something that has to be negotiated ... if you grant consent to this, a bridge is much more likely than if you decline it,'' he said.

Earlier, Mr Page criticised submissions against the hotel by Christchurch barrister John Hardie and two expert witnesses, all acting for Capri Enterprises Ltd, which owns significant tracts of industrial land in Dunedin.

Companies Office records listed hotel owner Earl Hagaman - the chairman of Scenic Circle Hotels - as Capri's sole director, as well as one of its shareholders, and ''his motivation is clear for all to see'', Mr Page said.

Capri's opposition to the hotel was about trade competition, not effects on its properties, and should be treated ''with the cynicism it deserves'', Mr Page said.

Capri's consultant traffic engineer, Tony Penny, had also criticised the hotel as ''totally inappropriate'' from a transportation perspective, but had refused to take part in discussions between other expert witnesses - requested by the committee - to reach agreement on traffic effects.

Mr Page said the refusal was ''the mark of an advocate'' and his evidence should be disregarded.

''You should treat his evidence as unprofessional ... that's not how professional witnesses behave.''

Mr Page argued Dunedin's district plan did not restrict height in the industrial zone, including at 41 Wharf St. Nor were harbour views from the nearby warehouse precinct protected.

The argument tall buildings should be at the base of hills was ''completely opposite'' to existing district plan rules, and changing that was a policy matter for another day, he said.

It was also not correct pedestrian-generating activities - such a hotel - should be on the other side of the rail corridor, closer to the central city, as some argued.

Nothing in the district plan supported that argument, and the council's own harbourside zone, on the ''wrong'' side of the tracks, allowed for hotels, albeit smaller ones, he said.

The site's owners already had consent for a 13.5m-high commercial building which could be built now, blocking views and shading neighbours anyway, he said.

The hotel's internal issues, including forecourt space for vehicle movements - which Betterways argued was sufficient - were nevertheless for the company to worry about, unless they spilled into the ''public realm'', Mr Page said.

That was not expected. Problems with traffic on Wharf St were also manageable, as were issues with construction, noise, dust and any requirement for further consents, he argued.

The tourism benefits that would flow from the hotel also needed consideration, given demand for a five-star hotel in Dunedin was ''uncontested''.

''Is there going to be a better opportunity than this?''Committee chairman Cr Colin Weatherall adjourned the hearing following the closing arguments, without requesting further information or public consultation.

Instead, Mr Page would first confirm whether an extension of the statutory timeline for a decision was acceptable, which would push the deadline for a decision back to June 6.

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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