Imaginative bridge to secure Dunedin’s future

The Van Brandenburg bridge  figures prominently in this image of the proposal to redevelop...
The Van Brandenburg bridge figures prominently in this image of the proposal to redevelop Dunedin’s Steamer Basin. Photo: Animation Research
The proposed redevelopment of the Steamer Basin could be the making of Dunedin, writes Lee Vandervis.

Is it a bird? Is it a bridge? Or is it a sculpture, a gateway, a taniwha, an imaginative leap to the Harbour Basin, an "Open For Development" sign, or a sign of things to come? My hope is that the Van Brandenburg bridge will be all of these things that will herald building the architectural marvels proposed for our vacant Steamer Basin.

Rumour has it that in the 1860s some members of the congregation thought the architect was too young to design the new First Church of Otago. The synod argued that the design was far too expensive, too fancy, and that a score of small rural churches could be built around Otago for the same money. It was Thomas Burns and others who recognised the brilliance of the R. A. Lawson church design and who finally corralled enough of the parishioners and synod to get First Church built.

R. A. Lawson, who went on to design our Fortune Theatre, Larnach’s Castle, Knox Church, Council Chambers, Otago Boys’ High School and scores of other beautiful buildings, was just 29 when he designed First Church in 1862. Damian Van Brandenburg was about the same age when he and his colleagues envisioned a wondrous architectural waterfront concept for our undeveloped Steamer Basin. In 1924, another inspired architect, Edmond Ashcombe, designed and promoted the superb range of buildings for the enormously successful South Seas Exhibition which more than threemillion people paid to visit. Many Dunedin businesses, groups and individuals came together to realise Ashcombe’s vision for the exhibition, reclaiming what was Pelichet Bay to provide the Logan Park building site, and then building Anzac Ave for access. Almost a century later, we have a similar coming together of many parties, recognising the potential of the Van Brandenburg vision for developing our waterfront. They  include Port Otago, Chalmers Property, Ngai Tahu, the University of Otago, Otago Regional Council, Dunedin City Council, landowners, developers, and other forward-looking locals.

We have an extraordinary collection of circumstances: a uniquely undeveloped harbourside and decaying wharf, a delayed harbourside hotel development, a change of government with regional development awareness and funding, local national and international financing interest, and a truly visionary organic architectural Van Brandenburg model, bringing all parties together. The scale and scope of the vision is inspired. Hotels, business premises, marine research facility, art gallery and even a South Zealand Te Papa Museum are all seriously possible. The stars are aligning for this waterfront vision and the latest asbestos scare is already seeing the demolition of the awful sheds that have too long stood where development wants to be.

Great vision also means great problems to be overcome, with land acquisition, the stabilisation of suitable foundations around the entire Steamer Basin and multi-mode access needing to be assured for this vision to become a reality.  The DCC has just budgeted for the controversial Van Brandenburg access bridge, but has yet to bring the necessary landholdings together with land-swaps and purchases. The land is owned mostly by ORC’s Chalmers Property and Port Otago, who fortunately, are forward-looking and amenable.

I believe  the DCC’s proposed $60million spruce-up of the central city and more millions of ill-considered cycleway spending should be delayed so that funds are available to secure all the necessary land, and to undertake the investor negotiation and planning consents necessary for the waterfront vision to proceed rapidly.

Other anticipated problems include: price-gouging for land and contracts, ensuring that all developments can be profitable while conforming to a unified vision along Van Brandenburg lines, jealousy from other centres leading to political barriers, and of course, cost. Stadium lessons learned regarding gouging, profitability, maintenance and private-sector funding will hopefully allow us to enable the waterfront development of the entire vision without more than seed funding needed from ratepayers.

We also need waterfront critics to help refine the vision and to make it inclusive and ensure value for all citizens.

For those who feel that this waterfront is too fantastic and that such buildings can’t be built, check out the new Marisfrolg Fashion Headquarters in Shenzhen (, to see another monumental Van Brandenburg creation almost completed. Those that doubt that beautiful buildings can help transform a city’s fortunes should check out Frank Gehry’s Museum in Bilbao, or the Opera House in Sydney. Our waterfront wonder has been designed to be done in stages, with independent buildings to be built by non-DCC parties coming together to create a whole that will be even greater than the sum of its impressive individual parts. Without indulging in the traditional bull-dust of adding up the squillions this development will return in economic impact, I have no doubt that this Van Brandenburg development will have ongoing positives for Dunedin’s near and far future, and that it can succeed and exceed anything Dunedin has ever done, South Seas Exhibition included. The waterfront vision bustling with our citizens, businesses, tourists, university researchers and students will be the making of Dunedin and become new heritage buildings, complementing our rich past heritage.

Education, culture and industry are the new gold for Dunedin, which we can mine sustainably for the future with buildings designed to create a beautifully welcoming waterfront. The potential for Dunedin culture of all kinds to create and expand new industries and new pride in Dunedin has been highlighted this Easter by the expanded Ed Sheeran cultural event.

Architecture van Brandenburg  has given Dunedin an inspired, unified and unifying vision for our waterfront. We should fly with it.

- Lee Vandervis is a Dunedin City Councillor.


I totally agree that DCC's current myopic approach to cycleways is costing Dunedin in lost opportunities for other developments. Cycleways may be nice, but the potential user base is seriously limited to people living on or near the flat parts of Dunedin and a minuscule number of tourists. All up less than a quarter of Dunedin citizens, even fewer ratepayers.
Diverting cycleway funds from pampering the few to projects such as the waterfront development would bring benefits to far more people.

I think the bridge is very pretty... but I do wonder why we would want to invest all that money in a harbour-side redevelopment when sea levels are, by all accounts, going to rise--perhaps by a lot. How long before the reclaimed parts of Dunedin become unusable? Perhaps we could be a bit more strategic in our spending?