Getting the best from waterfront

View from Unity Park of the Dunedin waterfront. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.
View from Unity Park of the Dunedin waterfront. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.
Talk of developing Dunedin’s waterfront brings a feeling of a deja vu.

As a city, Dunedin has had the waterfront discussion many times before and, ultimately, it has always been tossed in the too-hard basket. Maybe this time it will be different.

Earlier this week it was revealed award-winning Dunedin-based architectural firm Architecture Van Brandenburg has developed a model showing what a redevelopment of the city’s waterfront could look like. The model includes a bridge to the harbourside and other links to the central city, as well as developments and public space around Steamer Basin.

It has reignited the interest of city authorities. Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead has called a meeting between the ORC, the Dunedin City Council, Port Otago and the University of Otago to discuss development in the area.

Discussions about the future of the Dunedin harbourside, and there have been many, traditionally create heated debate.

The ORC in 1999 refurbished and modernised Custom House Quay at the head of the Steamer Basin, and a few restaurant/cafe businesses put their foot into the water. The city council issued its 50-year vision in 2005, but mixed zoning proposals  met fierce opposition. The council had little option but to back off.

In 2012, a scaled-back harbourside zone — allowing more mixed-use development south of Steamer Basin — was signed off after a much publicised battle with businesses that went to the Environment Court.

Despite  all the talk about the area’s potential, redevelopment plans,  which have included a 27-storey Chinese-backed waterfront hotel, a bridge, a public aquarium and ORC headquarters, have come to nothing.

But it appears the idea has not been totally written off. Parties including the ORC, Port Otago and university have been pushing for planning restrictions for the area to be relaxed in the city’s second generation district plan (2GP).

The harbourside undoubtedly has potential. Eyes only need to turn to cities like Wellington and Auckland to see what, with some vision and persistence, can be achieved, Cafes, restaurants and apartments could line the upper basin, cashing in on the natural intrigue people have with water. Inner city living has already proved popular in Dunedin with  former office buildings converted into apartments. Given the current demand for housing in and around Dunedin it is hard not to see such plans being successful.

Yes, the area is prone to  brisk cold breezes which can make outdoor living and recreation  uncomfortable. But surely, with some imagination, those concerns can be alleviated.

At the moment the waterfront is home to industry and dozens of businesses. But it does looks tired and underutilised. Visitors to the city often scratch their heads at why more has not been done to develop this obvious resource.

A redevelopment has the potential to bring a new vibrancy to the city. A footbridge link would be required across the railway lines to bring a natural link to  the city.

However,  authorities will need to ensure any redevelopment does not impact detrimentally on other business-focused parts of the city, particularly the central city.

It is also important industries already operating in the harbourside area are considered and a way is found to ensure both they and any new developments can work together.

There has been talk about a new University of Otago marine science institute, including a public aquarium, being built in the basin. That would only add to the attraction of the area.

If Wellington, with its notorious wind and inclement weather  can transform its waterfront into  a city asset then why can’t Dunedin? Maybe it is time to take a punt. 

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