(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 14.)
I keep having nightmarish visions of Wellington in 2030.
In my nightmare, Civic Square has been cordoned off for more than a decade and is covered with gorse and thistles. At night it’s taken over by homeless people who gather there to smoke P – which prime minister Shane Jones has promised to legalise as a condition of his coalition deal with the Greens – and to dance naked around bonfires in scenes vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max.
The ghostly buildings around the square remain empty. Reports on various restoration options fill a rusty shipping container on the weed-infested site where the five-star Amora Hotel used to be.
The once-celebrated Ferns orb sculpture that hung over the square, having been taken down in 2015, re-installed in 2018 and then removed again, has been broken up for scrap after engineers couldn’t agree on whether the cables holding it were safe. Bits of it were recently dredged out of the lagoon near the Star Boating Club.
The City to Sea bridge, long closed because of structural defects, collapsed onto Jervois Quay years ago. Efforts to clear the wreckage were halted because of health and safety concerns.
The central library is located in a tattered marquee on Newtown Park. How long it will stay there is uncertain, since the park is the subject of a Treaty claim which has itself been before the courts for several years because of a dispute between rival claimants. The library’s collections are housed in a disused shirt factory in Levin.
In Johnsonville, residents are still waiting for work to start on the redevelopment of the local shopping mall, first proposed 23 years ago. In the meantime, the vacant site is occupied by a Mr Whippy van, a pop-up 24-hour discount liquor outlet and a bouncy castle that can't be used most of the time because of the howling wind.
In my dream there has been some progress. Tracks for a light rail line from the station to the airport made it as far as Taranaki St before being stopped short by appeals lodged by feuding groups of public transport obsessives. The project is now at a standstill.
The Greater Wellington Regional Council is no more – ousted by a citizens’ action front which stormed the GWRC offices after the council CEO, a former Swansea parking meter warden who got the job with a falsified CV that no one thought to check, was paid a half-million-dollar performance bonus even though the buses still weren’t running on time.
Work has yet to commence on the second Mt Victoria tunnel. Officials are still working on a business case, now in its 73rd iteration, while the government and city council argue over how it’s going to be paid for.
At Shelly Bay, several buildings have collapsed from rot while mediators continue to seek a compromise between developer Ian Cassels – now living in a retirement village – and Sir Peter Jackson, who is working on his seventh Hobbit movie. In the meantime a tent city, erected by protesters inspired by Ihumatao (which recently celebrated its 11th anniversary), occupies the site.
All over town, high-rise apartments have been abandoned by owners who could no longer afford the insurance premiums. They have been taken over by squatters.
In my nightmare, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University has finally got the change of name he wanted. It's now Te Wananga o Te Whanganui-a-Tara, colloquially known as Twot.
The university has taken over most of the buildings on The Terrace that it didn’t already own. These have been converted into halls of residence, but only overseas students can afford the fees.
The Supreme Court now sits in a converted motel in Tawa, its showpiece building in Lambton Quay having been flattened because of weather tightness issues and replaced by a Wilsons parking building.
The former St Gerard’s monastery is gone from its commanding position above Oriental Bay – demolished because the owners couldn’t afford the one-in-2500-year earthquake standard that bureaucrats demanded. The site is now occupied by a Ryman rest home.
Down at the port, cruise ships stopped coming long ago because Extinction Rebellion activists harassed any passengers trying to disembark. The entire waterfront is now occupied by logs from the Wairarapa, where forestry has displaced all but one sheep and beef farm – kept functioning as an historical curiosity – in order to meet New Zealand’s carbon credit commitments.
But there’s a note of nostalgia in my nightmare, too. On warm summer evenings, old-timers gather in Pigeon Park to reminisce about a fabled time when mayors named Wilde, Blumsky and Prendergast made exciting things happen and Wellington was celebrated as the world’s coolest little capital.
I should add that in my dream, the city's mayoralty remained unresolved after the disputed election result of 2019. I was relieved to wake up one morning recently to the news that this part of my vision, at least, hadn't played out in reality. As for the rest, I'm not so sure.