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Dunedin City Council chief executive Sue Bidrose said yesterday what had been a 30-year vision was now more likely to be a "five to 15-year" one.
And parts of the wider project could begin in as little as 18 months’ time, as work on a new $20million waterfront bridge increased, she said.
Those early developments could include public spaces north of Steamer Basin, once old Fryatt St sheds were demolished, and possibly a playground.
It could also include the start of work on the first building, previously the marine studies centre, now known more generally as the "Sustainable Futures building", north of the basin, she said.
The council had last week signalled changes to reduce costs, after consultants identified commercial "viability challenges" facing the project.
Dr Bidrose said those challenges centred on estimated development costs per square metre, compared with what people were at present prepared to pay for things - such as a building tenancy - in the city.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment required a business case showing the project was viable, based on current numbers, to unlock the millions being sought from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund.
Dr Bidrose said that was driving the changes, but she remained confident the more ambitious version of the waterfront plan would command higher returns and stack up commercially.
"We think it will change the market. It’s impossible to cost that in."
Even with cost-cutting, the plans still included all key buildings - from the shell-shaped cultural centre to the whale tail-inspired Sustainable Futures building and the five-star hotel - public spaces and waterfront access previously envisaged.
"We certainly are not losing sight of the vision. We think we can achieve a whole lot more.
"If this doesn’t change the face of Dunedin, and reorient the city to face our harbour in a way that’s celebratory, then it’s not worth doing."
But changes, including moving buildings further inland, rather than relying on harbour reclamation or building out over the water, would make "a big difference" to costs and consent risks.
Moving the hotel inland would reduce space for the planned "waka" apartment building next door, meaning it would be scaled back, she said.
The hotel would also be staged, beginning with just one of two planned wings, until the city’s economy demanded it.
Other changes included realigning the waterfront bridge so it crossed from the Chinese Garden over Fryatt St to the basin.
There could also be additional development next to the Sustainable Futures building, an elevated public park - replacing an earlier lagoon plan next to the hotel - more car parking and increased green space.
The bridge was budgeted for 2019 to 2022-23, but work to upgrade seawalls and raise ground levels - needed to protect against sea level rise - would also be needed by then, she said.
The cost-cutting had prompted concerns, including from businessman Russell Lund, who warned against diluting the architectural vision, while building owner Stephen MacKnight wanted faster progress.Dr Bidrose said the latest plans would address both.
"We are talking about, early on, wanting to attract people down to that part of town ... we really want to start to make that a place where people want to be."
Businessman Ian Taylor, working with Damien van Brandenburg, of Architecture Van Brandenburg, on the concept, said he remained confident the project would deliver.
"I know this city . . . what this is going to be is transformational."