‘Heartbreak Hotel’ —Grahame Sydney

Received Thursday, 18 April 2013 11:23 a.m.

Wharf Street Hotel: time for some answers
By Grahame Sydney

With the DCC’s Resource Consent panel now sitting on its evidence, the full Council prevented from commenting on the proposal, and Dunedin ironically about to indulge in a celebration of its invaluable built heritage, isn’t it time a few things were clarified for the Dunedin public ? Time for a few truths to be told, instead of the shamefully dishonest propaganda from the promoters of the Wharf Street Hotel ?

Let’s start with the promotional video released on May 11, 2012 and voiced on behalf of his clients by Steve Rodgers of “Betterways Advisory”.

This sophisticated promo is a must-watch for all Dunedin residents, because within its 3 minute 49 second running time they will discover a Dunedin totally unlike the one they know: this is a fantasy Dunedin, whose tranquil waterfront bears no resemblance whatever to the facts. It is neat and orderly, blessed with open park spaces, and tied to its wharfs are luxury yachts and container ships. Rows of new, unrecognisable buildings have miraculously appeared behind every view of the towering glass monolith, and as the CGI camera sweeps across this fictional CBD towards the Stadium (curiously glimpsed only from overhead) and down its oddly-scaled roadways citizens will puzzle to identify any of the many buildings occupying the land in the vicinity of the Railway Station.

Perhaps the developers have bolder plans than a single hotel ? Certainly the Dunedin presented in this video sales pitch is not today’s city. It’s a scrubbed up, redesigned, blatantly re-scaled quasi-Auckland Viaduct vision in which the hideous proportions of the hotel appear more comfortable and the truth is deliberately ignored.

Dunedin eNZed May 13, 2012

As you watch, hit the Pause button at 33 seconds, at 53, at 1.14, at 1.21, at 1.39, at 2.22….. what ARE those buildings ? Where did they come from ? Have I been asleep these last decades ? Am I in the right city here ? Would someone please be honest here ?

Having extolled the virtues of the city’s marvellous heritage buildings, and noting that they are one of the major reasons why “tourists love this city”, Mr Rodgers proceeds to extol the virtues of “my clients’ grand design”, which so brutally desecrates that heritage.

Who are these visionary clients, so hellbent on bestowing gifts ? We are slowly learning: the “Otago Businesswoman” behind the proposal is an ex-accountant locally, now consultant and wine promoter living in Queenstown. Ms Song has the good fortune to be married to Ping Cao, reportedly “one of China’s top construction company owners”. That marriage, incidentally, took place in another New Zealand city with which she reported fell instantly in love: Nelson. No “gifts” for Nelson, however. How fickle is love.

Being pushed forward now as the public face of the project, Ms Song’s repeated professions of love for Dunedin are no substitute for expertise, or indeed sensitivity. It is evident she and her entrepreneur husband belong to the camp which believes Dunedin’s Victorian and Edwardian built heritage has less appeal than the monstrously ugly Dunedin Stadium, and that they anticipate a brighter future for the city when more of the same charmless, cheap, dated design has overwhelmed the city’s essential historic character.

Far too many unanswered questions remain, and honest answers would be enlightening.

No sound argument has been forwarded by either Ms Song, her unseen husband, or “Betterways Advisory” (whose task it is to persuade the consenting authorities to buy into this project – considered by many to be a late April Fool’s joke when first floated on the front page of the ODT):

1) Why they believe Dunedin is “missing out on tourism growth?” As I understand it, frequent questionnaires reveal that the chief attractions of the city for tourists are its historic heritage qualities, its proximity to Nature and Wilderness experiences, and its pivot-point location for access to Central Otago and the Southern Lakes.

2) Why they think the construction of such a hotel will change tourist behaviour or attitudes ? Do they honestly believe that a gargantuan glass box with little or no architectural merit or bravery, looming over the foreshore and dominating sight-lines from every corner of the city and peninsula, will in itself attract visitors ? Such an argument might be acceptable if the building possessed some of the courage and breath-taking beauty of the Sydney Opera House or Bilbao’s Guggenheim Gallery, but a bald, up-ended shoebox, unrelieved by any imaginative stroke and crammed onto a pocket–handkerchief reclaimed plot in between the railway yards and the chronically un-used harbour, surrounded by decaying warehouses and unwanted, rusting boats ?

3) Why almost half of this 28-storey plan is not hotel at all, but permanent apartments ? We are informed that the plan involves 215 hotel bedrooms and 164 apartments, each one with a harbour view. Clearly the proponents know that a dedicated hotel on that scale would never achieve an economic occupancy rate.

Are the apartments included to guarantee a dependable income stream, which the hotel alone can never achieve ? And what is the target market for these apartments ? Who is going to buy them ? Does anyone believe Dunedin residents will sell their suburban homes and eagerly shift into this bland 1950s Singaporean anachronism, overlooking the railways on one side and a classy view of the Fertiliser Works and bulk fuel tanks on the other ? The reality is nothing like the video, remember.

As I read the elevations as given there are no balconies on which to sit outside and enjoy the stillness of the harbour on those few days when it looks attractive, and fewer still when it displays any signs of life beyond the few rowing crews, occasional windsurfer or desultory yachtsman: these apartments are glass cages, and on the vast majority of days the prevailing harbour winds will hammer their windows and mist them with salt spray.

No, it’s not sales to Dunedin residents at all, of course: these many floors of high-rise cells will be aimed at the wealthy parents of Chinese students, little more than another hostel for the privileged and temporary occupants of University seats.

4) Why 28 storeys ? I still await an explanation, when it is primarily the scale of this scheme which is most upsetting to Dunedin’s citizens. Mr Rodgers claims it is something to do with a personal interpretation of the aesthetics related to the footprint – a point I find wholly laughable given the plain rectangularity of the design. This building is just another of the tediously stereotypical steel-and-glass boxes which plague skylines and neuter the senses of city dwellers the world over, built bland for cheapness, and careless of anything other than financial bottom-lines. Why so high ?

5) Why, if Dunedin does indeed need a 5-star hotel (let’s leave the apartments out of this), and if Ms Song truly wanted to bestow a “gift” upon one of the many cities she apparently loves, a “gift” which avoids desecrating the very character which separates Dunedin from other cities in this country, why do she and her husband not instead invest in the transformation of the old Chief Post Office in Princes Street – a grand and stylish building nicely established in a perfect location, and one which many citizens can picture working beautifully in glass, brass and light, close to the Casino ? Mr Rodgers’ efforts to deflect this question were again bewildering, but to many it seems to be the logical development, where Wharf Street defies logic in too many ways. There are so many other options.

Let’s get real here: Dunedin is a small city in anyone’s language, no more than a suburb of any major city in the world, or even Auckland. It’s time we accepted its days of significance on the national scene are well past. The major industries which served for so long have gone or are all steadily departing, and more will follow. Dunedin’s future depends on the success of the University and its influence on small-scale, high-tech industries, research and development, information industries, small-scale engineering and tourism. Like so many other University cities around the world – Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Providence, New Haven – there is every reason to hope that, with the right leadership and good decisions, Dunedin’s future is very promising, if modest compared with its past dominance.

Keys to that success lie in enhancing that essential character, and in promoting its points of difference from other cities – clearly here, its university, its built heritage and natural setting. Dunedin will go nowhere if it meekly tries to be like everywhere else.

A 5-star hotel might well be needed, but to pretend such a hotel, any one building, will be a catalyst for expansion and new development is utter nonsense; remember similar arguments for the Dunedin Stadium ? The Chinese Gardens ? The Aramoana smelter ?

This unworthy plan is no Bilbao, no Sydney Opera House, and the Otago Harbour is no throbbing, bustling Circular Quay. Stop kidding yourself, people !

Chamber of Commerce president Peter McIntyre claims the application “fitted with the new Dunedin’s economic strategy (sic)” (ODT 16 March 2013) along with the Stadium. As they did with the stadium, the large number of submissions opposing this particular project (457 opposed, 43 in favour, 7 neutral) effectively reflects what Dunedin residents feel about the proposal – few of them, incidentally, objecting to the idea of a 5-star hotel if it is needed.

But this one, half in apartments, so grossly out of scale and character, so numbingly banal, so appallingly inappropriate, with so many unanswered questions ? Far from a gift, this is simply crass commerce. Let’s not make the mistake of believing the bare-faced dishonesty of the orchestrated propaganda, and falling for confessions of “love.”

Ms Song is reported as claiming “We’ve got the opportunity to have the best hotel in the country.” (ODT 16 March 2013). Perhaps we do. But it surely isn’t this one, in this location.

Posted by Elizabeth Kerr


Filed under Architecture, Business, Construction, DCC, Design, Economics, Geography, Heritage, Name, People, Politics, Project management, Property, Site, Stadiums, Tourism, Town planning, Urban design

8 responses to “‘Heartbreak Hotel’ —Grahame Sydney

  1. chirpbird

    The video looks like Sim City meets 2001, A Space Odyssey, except in this case the monolith is white, not black!

  2. These people have obviously pulled off a masterly stroke. Unbeknown to us all, they have prevailed upon ‘KiwiRail’ to go underground from at least Kensington to somewhere North (probably Ravensbourne. It bypasses all the marshalling yards and goods sheds, and the Railway Station itself. A token row of carriages are parked, stranded at the platform. So, what does that say about the meaning of that promotional film? More importantly, how come the people running this city don’t feel even slightly ‘conned’ by the whole thing? We have the Chamber of Commerce president extolling it, the Mayor promising to roll out the ‘red carpet instead of the red tape’ and generally fawning all about these ‘scallywags and tricksters’, even a local lawyer putting a face to the fraud makes one wonder just what goes. If it happens (extremely doubtful) Dunedin will eventually become a case study of how gullible people with the best of intentions can progressively destroy a city, simply by doing stupid things.

  3. Wasn’t some crowd mumbling about turning the post office into a five star? Makes way more sense still.

  4. Russell Garbutt

    Grahame’s questions need serious answers, but in my view, they are unlikely to be provided by this anonymous cabal of developers. It is ironic that the likely person to take this issue to the Environment Court is Earl Hagaman of Scenic Circle fame and his erstwhile henchman, Stuart Maclauchlan. Sort of a case of the Tartan Mafia squabbling amongst themselves.

    The fact remains that while people should be encouraged to put up their own money in their own business, it needs to happen within an environment of the common public good. This vertical apartment block doesn’t meet any common public good,

    It is also unlikely that we will see any change anywhere in the ability or willingness of Local or Central Government to bring any form of accountability of those wanting to use public resources or the environment in their quest of personal greed. Jacks Point, Luggate, the whole Delta mess, Carisbrook, the stadium, the Tarras water scheme, the list just goes on and on.

    • Capri Enterprises Ltd (Hagaman) may be treated as a trade competitor by the Hearings Committee – the question was raised at hearing by Phil Page, counsel for Betterways Advisory Ltd. The committee may decide to accept this is trade competition and therefore reject Capri’s submission and briefs of evidence; or they may reject Page’s claim; or they may accept Capri’s experts’ (independent consultants) briefs of evidence – we’re not sure how this will play out – by 4 June we’ll know, if not earlier.

      Similarly, with Otago Regional Council’s submission and given the various hats the council wears in relation to the application. Will the council’s submission and briefs of evidence be accepted or rejected, in whole or in part.

  5. Apologies to readers of Grahame’s article – I was alerted just now to the article not appearing in full today, looks like a problem occurred with an edit / autosave at 0:32:36 this morning!

    The full article has been reloaded.

  6. Pingback: 41 Wharf Street Developments | Spark Dunedin

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