Project Auckland: Meet the King Canute of the city – AT’s downtown programme chief
King Canute – you could call Eric van Essen that because he’s headed the $73 million project to hold back the sea from Auckland’s CBD.
Yet for Auckland Transport’s downtown programme director, he gives kudos to the team who worked on the 600m long stretch.
“The seawall is an incredible achievement given the fact it’s been a long time in the planning and to have significant investment completed. It strengthens Quay St for the next 100 years,” he said.
“It is quite a unique juncture between ferries, rail and buses, all within 100m of one another so you’ve got a busy confluence of movement and that’s where we need to provide additional space for people,” he said.
“Having that additional footpath space is vitally important,” van Essen said.
That ever forceful sea: construction companies digging near the waterfront fight its power with steel and concrete for basements and underground carparks. The basement of one commercial office block on Queen St was said to flood continually to the point where parts are now abandoned.
Auckland CBD’s seawall protects New Zealand’s most intensely populated office worker area yet the structure was weak and degraded.
Around 10,000 people work in buildings on the two blocks between Quay St, Lower Albert St, Customs St and more than 2000 are the new $1 billion PwC Tower at Commercial Bay.
Without the seawall, large parts of that CBD would have been underwater.
To protect Quay St and the services that run beneath it, seismic strengthening of that 100-year-old seawall was needed in the stretch from Princes Wharf and Marsden Wharf.
Now that those foundations have been sorted, van Essen said the area was protected for the next 100 years.
The seawall forms the harbour edge of a historic land reclamation, which supports Quay St and services beneath the road corridor.
The first sections of this reclamation were built between 1879 and 1886 along what is now Quay St west of Britomart and also east of Britomart parallel to Beach Rd. Subsequent sections were added after the turn of the 20th Century.
The strengthening process was designed to add resilience to a one-in-2500-year event or a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. It also allowed for a sea-level rise up to 1m during 100 years and was in line with climate change guidelines and predictions, he said.
An initial assessment of the seawall was carried out in 2012.Divers then did annual monitoring to ensure nothing more urgent needed attention till the work started, van Essen said.
The work was finished in mid-January, slightly ahead of schedule.
In early February, van Essen told the Herald the job had been done for less money and in a slightly shorter time than initially envisaged.
“My understanding is that we’re coming in under budget as well,” he said. Final costs are yet to be confirmed but a $1m to $2m saving on the original $75m budget is anticipated.
But disruption continues in the area where it was once hoped work would be finished in time to showcase the city during the America’s Cup.
Work is being carried out on six projects in the downtown area, not just the seawall.
Those six projects are the seawall, Galway St enhancement, Lower Albert St bus interchange, Te Wānanga [tidal shelf over water for people to gather near Ferry Terminal], ferry basin redevelopment with six new berths on the west side of Queen’s Wharf and the Quay St enhancement which squeezes it from four lanes down to two at one point.
And van Essen acknowledges the length of time all six are taking.
“We were due to finish all six projects for the American’s Cup under the original plan which was to have all major works complete by 2020 with minor works complete by early 2021. But the revised programme is to have all works finished in the area by the end of April and minor works finished by May or June,” van Essen said.
The seawall completion was a milestone and a major step forward in finishing work in the area, he said.
We chatted to this tide-fighter about his work.
Q: Do you feel like King Canute?
A: “No. King Canute was trying to demonstrate to his disbelieving court that he could not control the tides. I’m working with a large team where we are all very much on the same page and share the same vision. We all know we can’t control the tides, but we do know that we can take sensible steps to ensure that the Downtown area is protected in case of an earthquake or a rise in sea level.
“It has however felt like a very long journey, as I was first involved in the project in 2012 when the condition of the historic Quay St seawall was first assessed and plans were put in place for its seismic strengthening. Combining six downtown projects into a single programme and then delivering them in a collaborative way has led to several benefits. The team has been able to co-ordinate, stage and sequence the various interfacing projects to deliver an integrated final outcome.
“This also included concurrent development being carried out by Precinct Properties’ Commercial Bay, Cooper & Company’s Britomart Precinct and the City Rail Link project. Stitching all the public and private development together into one cohesive and seamless outcome has provided a once in a generation opportunity to re-think and re-design how people will experience and use downtown in the future.
Q: How much did your leadership contribute to the job?
A: “At the outset of the programme I was very aware of the challenges that lay ahead, so ensured that the best skilled people were put in roles where their skills would be of greatest benefit to the programme. Creating a team with a unity of purpose and a positive culture has been key. Throughout the programme it has been important to get people excited about the unique challenges we’ve had to overcome, inspiring and energising them to be creative and to look for solutions.
“I’ve always maintained the confidence that we had a sufficiently skilled team and the necessary support from our leadership and politicians that we could and would deliver. The team, therefore, understood that they were trusted, supported and empowered to take the initiative and make decisions. This clarity of thought and action kept the team on the front foot and enabled them to overcome every challenge they faced. I have been so impressed and proud of the team’s attitude, determination and resilience, and they know that.
Q: What was the hardest part of the seawall job?
A: “Getting the several resource consents required for the seawall’s seismic strengthening and the other projects within the programme. Getting the consents on time was the making or breaking of meeting the programme timeframes that we had committed to. This meant working through the concerns raised by affected stakeholders to find solutions and reach agreement. The team showed remarkable skill in these discussions. Construction was also very challenging with specialised and very large machinery required, variable ground conditions given that the area is reclaimed land, and working in a constrained space.
Q: What was the best part of the job?
A: “Working with such a diverse group of talented people, all focussed on a single goal with absolute clarity and conviction. Working together across different disciplines, sharing knowledge, being innovative and solving problems. Being involved from start to finish has also been very satisfying for me personally.
“There’s a deep satisfaction for the team and I that we’ve achieved something special together, made a real difference and delivered an outcome for downtown that will be enjoyed by Aucklanders and visitors for many years to come.”
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