The roller-coaster ride that has been the fate of the six Pohutukawa at the St Lukes intersection came to a head yesterday at the Auckland Transport board meeting where a decision needed to be made one way or the other on their fate. Given the history, both of the trees themselves and of the process we’ve seen it’s understandable that this had become quite an emotional issue for many people. We’ve written a lot about the saga over the past months including:

St Lukes Rd interchange to get bigger

Have your say the St Lukes Pohutukawa Trees

Of Experts, Damned Lies, and Pohutukawa

Why the “Pohutukawa 6″ has got people so passionate

On engineers, politicians, and pohutukawas

AT digging in over Pohutukawa Six

Too High a Cost.

Many who supported the trees turned up at the meeting packing out the room. I wasn’t there myself but I’m certain it’s a sight that not many of the board directors had seen before as these meetings are usually devoid of public in attendance. In fact I even believe there were people who had been denied entry as the room was too full. There was also a sense of irony in that the meeting was held in the NZTAs offices where the meeting rooms are named after trees – the board meeting was in the Kauri room.

Only two people had been allowed speaking rights at the meeting, Shale Chambers – the chair of the Waitemata Local Board and Jolisa Gracewood who has led the campaign to save the trees. Jolisa delivered a wonderful speech which you can read after the break if you want to. Auckland Transport staff maintained the line that they had looked at a number of other options and that this was the only feasible one. Of course this isn’t surprising as if AT had planned on changing their mind they would have done it before it reached this point. St Lukes Interchange Plan After going into a closed session to discuss the matter and they emerged just over an hour later with the fantastic news that they had voted by unanimous decision to keep the trees and send staff back to the drawing board. Poignantly AT Chairman Dr Lester Levy stressed that Public and Active transport users were not served well by the proposed design.

This is a fantastic outcome and well done to all who have helped retain the trees but especially to Jolisa who has put a lot of effort in to this cause. 

I’d also like to say well done to the Auckland Transport Board who have shown they are prepared to listen to the public and show leadership on critical issues. With this sort of attitude it’s perhaps no surprise that we’ve been seeing some great direction coming out of the organisation recently. AT can add the St Lukes decision to their growing list of impressive accomplishments that includes:

  • the installation of more bus lanes
  • bringing forward the AMETI busway by deferring the Reeves Rd flyover
  • investigating light rail in the central isthmus to combat bus congestion in the city

Perhaps more critically while this fight was about saving these trees it was always about much more than them. It was really a question about how we want our city to develop. For decades and particularly through this area we’ve handed over large swathes of land solely for the movement of cars and larger and larger intersections. Fights such as this or the Respect our Community one against an East-West Link ploughing through Mangere represent Aucklanders no longer accepting the sacrificing of our city to the unquestioned movement of cars. That can only be positive for how our city develops in the future.

There are still a few questions that remain about this project including:

  • Where has Len Brown been in all of this, his silence has been notable despite many people encouraging him to get involved
  • Why did Auckland Transport staff dig in so much and let it get this far – were there too many egos at play
  • Just what alternatives have been looked at and when will AT talk more about them
  • How much of the desire for this outcome stem from the NZTA who likely have much more say of this area than in other local road projects due to the spread out nature of the interchange.

Once again well done to all those who fought against this plan and click on to see Jolisa’s speech.

Thank you for inviting me to speak.

I appreciate the challenge Board Members have when they enter the Board Room.

As the Institute of Directors’ Four Pillars of Governance Best Practice reminds us, your challenge is to “elicit wisdom on the right issues, at the right time, and in the right form – and that’s not easy.”

My challenge is to represent (in 5 minutes!) the range and diversity of people who want the mature pōhutukawa at 820 Great North Road to stay. Here to support me (and the trees) today are people from The Tree Council, Cycle Action Auckland, Transportblog, The Pōhutukawa Savers, and the Māori Community, among others.

I also represent the voices of the many who have made submissions, the thousands who have signed an online petition, the perspective of leading journalists, and Members of Parliament from both sides of the house.

We are all of us gravely concerned that Auckland Transport is about to make a monumental mistake, destroying a streetscape and living taonga that have been in place for 80 years.

Given the coverage in local & national media – including the New Zealand Herald, Metro magazine, Radio NZ, bFM, RadioLive, ZB network, Māori TV and the Chinese-language TV channel CTV8 – and the cameras and microphones in the room today, it’s fair to say everyone is watching.

Our unanimous concerns are three-fold:

1. What will be lost.

We are gravely troubled by the way Auckland Transport’s officers have minimised the heritage value, design impact, and ecological worth of the trees.

•  These are not just any old trees. I’ve supplied a written statement describing how these trees were planted in 1934 by the Council to line Great North Road and complete a public park built by Depression-era workers. They were planted with an eye toward the centenary (of the city and the nation), in the expectation they would be cared for by the community. Pōhutukawa are not just the symbol of the city, but living evidence of Auckland’s vision for its own long-term future.

•  Design-wise, these trees anchor one of Auckland’s most impressive avenues of mature pōhutukawa — an “iconic inner-city landscape”, as the Parks Department puts it. This stand of trees softens and humanises a major intersection used by hundreds of thousands of visitors. Removing them would “shear off” the focal point of that avenue, remove half of the green gateway to Western Springs, expose Motat to the motorway, and leave a hole in the skyline as evidence for generations to come of the damage that was done.

•  You also have a written statement from the Tree Council that calculates the contribution of trees this size to shade, carbon sequestration, stormwater control, and pollution containment. These effects are of even greater value near a busy intersection and a major highway. Experts advise that any replacement trees won’t approach this level of value in our lifetimes – indeed, they likely never will.

In terms of heritage, place-value and the environment, cutting down these trees is selling off the family silver — for a pittance.

2. What will be gained?

We are deeply worried at how little Auckland stands to receive in return for this sacrifice.

To take Local Board Land, and cut down trees of this magnitude, in a neighbourhood of this distinction – home to parks, a golf course, a museum, the zoo, huge festivals – Auckland Transport had better be confident this is the best decision for the people of Auckland. Because it’s irreversible.

Auckland Transport’s officers continue to insist on the benefits for bikes, buses, and pedestrians.

In fact, the proposed design:

• does not improve things for cyclists

• makes things worse for people who walk

• does not meaningfully improve public transit

• and most painfully of all, as pointed out in Leo Hills’ independent review of the traffic impact of design options – it offers no better vehicular traffic outcome than other options that preserve the trees. In other words, purely on traffic measures alone, leaving aside the value of place and history, cutting down the trees doesn’t gain us anything.

In other words, we would be chopping down these trees for nothing. This design is all pain for no discernable gain. It exhibits little in the way of imagination. It’s not worthy of Auckland Transport, and it’s a terrible trade for these trees.

3. How did we get to this point?

We have serious questions about the process that led us here.

Look, we are all reasonable people here. It’s obvious that nobody outside Auckland Transport’s officers is embracing this plan. It has been fought by the Local Board, adamantly and eloquently opposed by the city’s own Parks department and Community Policy and Planning unit.  Politically, local MPs Nikki Kaye and David Shearer have spoken out in chorus against this proposal, in a rare bipartisan consensus.

The public consultation and how it’s been represented by Auckland Transport’s officers continues to cause controversy and concern:

Of the 64 public submissions made regarding the Notice of Requirement, 54 were thrown out on a technicality that could have been easily remedied.

Ngarimu Blair, the Deputy Chair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei says Auckland Transport did not engage with his iwi over the removal of these trees, lending doubt to the claim that “no concerns were raised by mana whenua”.

Cycle Action Auckland rejects the claims that removing the trees will improve cycling, and does not support the plan.

Motat states that it never backed the removal of these trees. Indeed, their development plans for the next few years throw everything into flux when thinking about this space.

Moreover, there are doubts about the numbers, especially the traffic modeling that has been used to justify chopping down the trees – astonishingly, it takes no account of the impact of the opening of the Waterview Connection. Auckland Transport simply doesn’t know how many people will be using this intersection in 2026, nor in what modes they’ll be using it – but proposes cutting down these trees just in case.

There’s talk of “future-proofing” this stretch of road by making it as wide as possible. But given the value of these trees to Aucklanders, the paltry return on cutting them down for this design, and the uncertainty around the justifications for doing so — surely the only way to “future-proof” this space is by leaving the trees where they are, unless and until there is an iron-clad case for removing them for the benefit of all Aucklanders.

Here is how this looks to people outside this room: trees planted by city visionaries nearly a century ago are to be torn down by faceless officers and an unelected CCO.

This is a terrible situation for ratepayers, the city, for you, for all of us.

Luckily there’s a way out. This is the right issue and the right time to bring your wisdom to bear on a potential tragedy that cannot be remedied in hindsight. We need you to rigorously examine the case your officers are making.

Because we know that Auckland Transport can do better than this. We’ve seen courageous and exciting projects that balance transport needs with brilliant placemaking. In this case, the placemaking has already been done for us, by visionary people who have now gone before.

They say a civilization grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. It stays great when the rest of us look after that legacy. These pōhutukawa are not just obstacles in the road. They are assets and treasures, rākau rangatira, for the people of Auckland. We can’t put them back once they are gone.

We therefore urge you to choose an interim solution, like Option 6; wait until the Waterview Connection is open and the resulting traffic patterns understood; wait until the Western Springs master plan is established and Motat’s future plans become clear — so that the needs of all the people moving through this space, in every mode, can be balanced with the irreplaceable historic fabric of the streetscape. As Auckland Transport’s own remit puts it: you want to be getting people to places they want to go.

We ask you to exercise your wisdom by adopting a resolution that leaves these trees in place.

We’d like to suggest and table the following resolution for your consideration.

That: Auckland Transport recognise the significant community interest in retaining the pōhutukawa trees at 820 Great North Road, decline the NoR Hearings Panel recommendation to remove them, and direct its officers to seek alternatives that meet the transport network’s wider objectives while preserving this historic streetscape and its trees.

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  1. “After going into a closed session”. I thought public bodies were only allowed to close meetings to the public to discuss personal, legal and financial details. Those don’t seem to apply in this case, so why?

    1. On the surface I think you are right, but on reflection no doubt, the discussions were about “personal, legal and financial details” so probably qualifies on all 3 counts.
      As no doubt many of the board personally didn’t want it to go ahead. And if it did it would have legal and financial impacts due to a likely Environment Court Appeal.
      So holding these discussions “in camera” was probably justifiable.

      As for LGOIMA applying to AT? I think only parts of that act apply, given that technically AT is not a “public body” (by law), so escapes many of the requirements of one – for good and bad.
      It is as I recall subject to the OIA despite originally being recommended not to be.

      Maybe some other CCO’s need the spotlight put on them? ACIL and ATEED are two other CCOs that spring to mind.

    2. The truth is that public bodies exclude the public if they think they might be embarrassed if the public are there. The rest is justification.

  2. The best thing is that the Board not only decided to find a solution that keeps the trees but Dr Levy also stressed that the proposed outcome fails to deliver on the key priorities of Active and Transit modes. We are surely to see a much much better outcome as a result of this.

    I commend the Board for its sagacity, it was an unamious decision apparently, and, eventually, I guess we can say the process worked too. Though hopefully these kinds of detectives can come a little earlier in the process…!

    Hopefully the executive level will take full heed of the implications of this decision when evaluating their next projects…?

    Perhaps in the future we will see this a major turning point?

    1. Yes, right decisions, for the right reasons. But why it had to go down to the wire on the last day possible for a yay or nay decision – is a total mystery.

      It is interesting in the board seemed to be in this case “directing” the operational executives, which is way more than they usually do, as most of the board papers put up each month are merely done so for the board “to note”.

      Perhaps we will see the AT board living up to their titles as “Directors” far more than have up until now. And that might be a bad thing either given how badly the AT executives management team have performed of late.

      1. I understand the board have been much more active behind the scenes than has been let on and that’s why I think we’re seeing these good decisions starting to come though. They are the directors and they don’t want to just be a rubber stamping authority but having the options so they can make a decision on organisational direction.

        1. That’s great the hear. And is what we expected to see when AT was set up 4 years or so ago now.

          All I can say is “more of the same please” AT board. You have my (symbolic) vote.

          That fact they’re having to do this publicly and privately indicates there truly must be some real old T-Rex sized dinosaurs working in AT from the old pre-merger days.
          So do we have to wait until they are pensioned off or can AT’s board run an “end run” around these guys somehow?

    2. Indeed, living not far from the intersection I was a little sad to see the Pohutukawa go, but even more disappointed by the erosion of pedestrian amenity in what could be key pedestrian area (close to Motat, NW cycleway, future busway, etc). Brilliant to see these design weaknesses were what Levy focused on in his explanation. Noting over the other (south) side of the motorway in the image in this post, NZTA at least maintained the existing ped crossings on the on/off ramps. Versus the intersection on the north side designed by AT (or AT’s external consultants), absolute fail for peds, 3 buttons to get across. I’m really pleased the next design might improve on this … my fingers are crossed.

  3. this ranks very highly on the list of recent decisions. Reallocating funds from the Reeves Rd flyover to the Botany busway was a clear indication of AT’s transport priorities when confronted with constrained budgets, while this decision shows AT (at least at the Board level) are not prepared to sacrifice place-value, non-car access, nor local political capital at the altar of vehicle mobility.

    Jolisa’s speech was absolutely outstanding. The local boards and elected representatives (from all three major parties) who really stood up for their communities’ values in this instance also deserve a bouquet. The whole saga actually gives me a very positive feeling about Auckland’s governance – it suggests that if local communities and their representatives are coordinated and informed in the way they engage with AT, then they have a chance of influencing the outcome. The Local Boards, while lacking in financial resources, do exert a political influence – and this is appropriate.

    Provided the lessons are heeded then I think in the long run everyone is a winner, even the AT staff who suffered the ignominy of having their design rejected so publicly. While I think the design was clearly untenable in terms of its priorities and outcomes, I do feel empathy for the AT staff involved and would encourage us all to avoid gloating or making personally derogatory comments (I accept this is hard to do when passions get inflamed and egos bruised).

    Nonetheless I genuinely believe the vast majority of professionals do aspire for their work to contribute to the community.

    The primary issue here, as Peter noted in his recent post, is that the professionals working on the project from AT’s end were operating in a value-judgement vacuum, i.e. the communities values were not clearly articulated nor communicated early enough for them to understand what trade-offs were considered acceptable. If there’s one simple message from this, it’s that Aucklanders generally do not think that additional slip lane is an acceptable trade-off for 80 year old trees. However I think we need to build from this experience and get our heads together to provide professionals with clear guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable more generally.

    Finally, the positive impacts of such a decision, as we saw with the Basin Reserve flyover, are quite wide-ranging and can spillover into the professional discourse more generally. And for that I’m actually rather hopeful; Auckwood really does appear to be “growing up” and moving beyond the point of being an awkward urban teenager to instead being a mature adult where place is valued ahead of movement.


    1. ” I do feel empathy for the AT staff involved and would encourage us all to avoid gloating or making personally derogatory comments (I accept this is hard to do when passions get inflamed and egos bruised).”

      Yes, agreed – but only for the lower level engineers and planners, but it was quite clear from earlier meetings that AT presented at, that some of the senior engineers and managers – the ones who should know better – and who are presumably paid accordingly, to show this wisdom and leadership – treated their customers – the ratepayers and citizens of Auckland and in this case the objectors – with extreme arrogance & contempt, and showed clear derogation of them and their very clearly stated wishes on the value of all the trees at St Lukes.

      Those same managers and senior planners and engineers are also those, who like similar public servants, are often active at the boundary between their “political masters” and the people they work with and the public they serve.
      They are therefore serving two or more masters, and at times their loyalties can get muddled. But they should always understand, when a conflict of sorts arises – they must err on the side of the public.

      If AT’s “ethics committee” spent more time on giving them a brush up on the “soft skills” these folks appear to need, then we will have fewer poor decisions and their egos, will end up being a lot less bruised in the future.
      Something I think that will be better for everyone.
      That doesn’t mean don’t push the boundaries – but just do it in such a way that you manage to bring the people with you, not leave them behind as we nearly had here.

      “If there’s one simple message from this, it’s that Aucklanders generally do not think that additional slip lane is an acceptable trade-off for 80 year old trees”

      I think its more than this, its that Aucklanders but also NZ’ers as whole, no longer think that valuing all “movement” over “place” is an acceptable trade-off to make in all circumstances any more.

      This is why the protests to save the Pohutukawa6, prevent the Basin Reserve Flyover (and to some extent the Reeves road Flyover), and to stop the East/West motorway all took off the way they did.
      And its also why Skypath and other cycling projects and to some degree LRT on the Isthmus have caught the imagination of the public the way they have.

      Its safe to say this is probably not the last skirmish in this ongoing battle for place over movement. Bus lanes and removal pf on-street parking being the usual brush fires that need to be dealt with on and ongoing basis.
      And can’t say this is the next “Springbok Rugby Tour” moment for the region or even country yet – history will determine that.

      But it is a fine result, nonetheless.

      1. Are there any intersections where slip lanes make the experience better for active transport modes (walking and cycling)? Is it ever acceptable for AT to create a new intersection with a slip lane, given that it is prioritizing cars over active transport?

        1. If I am not wrong (and I may well be), slip lanes existed back when the trams plied the roads i nthe 30’s 40’s and 50’s.

          Old aerial photos of Auckland from Whites show slip lanes existed, presumably to allow cars and trucks to “slip around” the intersection corner and avoid blocking the trams right of way.
          Kind of like a physical “Left turn on Red” traffic rule.

          [I don’t know this for sure but its seems where the slip lanes/islands did exist this looked to be the main reason that they were present on some intersections and not others].

          Anyone know the reason/purpose for them from the tram days?

          I just think that the traffic engineers got carried away with using the from the tram days and then carried on misusing them to solve problems that could of, and should of, been solved in other ways.

          We’ve got a slip lane right outside our office and its a bugger to cross to get to the beg buttons for the rest of the crossing as you have to look extreme right (almost right behind you) to see if cars are coming up and intend to use it.
          And thats only the case if they bother to indicate their left turn that is.

          But I gather from photos this slip lane existed when the trams did and has never been taken away despite the amount of intersection do-overs it must have had since the trams last ran.

    2. From what I understand, AT didn’t design the intersection. This was done by outside contractors. A certain contracting engineer that is well known on this forum. Edmonds must be on shaky ground though. His answers yesterday were not cohesive.

    3. “would encourage us all to avoid gloating or making personally derogatory comments”

      Hear, hear. And being graceful in victory isn’t just a matter of decorum. It encourages more dialog and hence good results in the future.

      A hearty congratulations to all involved!

      1. Agreed Robert. We have probably all made some mistakes in the past. But this is a new future in a 180 degree direction and it looks bright for everyone, including protected trees and amenity and wise unbiased transport decisions.

  4. Well done to everyone pushing to save these members of our community (trees). As has been said, it shouldn’t have got to an eleventh hour decision. The board must have known about this project so this looks like a u-turn by them as well. Don’t cause our community so much anguish in the future, please.

    We’ve losing our prominent downtown public square, Ports of Auckland are readying to fill in more of our harbour to park cars (ever heard of a parking building?) – Len, where are you?

  5. Well done to those who led the charge -now the AT CEO needs to step up. The key point is the management gave very bad decisions, were AT typically arrogant and lied that there were no other options and their spokespeople let the situation drift out of control refusing to listen to the people and kept repeating the lies.

    This is typical behaviour at that level and we can only hope now AT’s board is on them and will never again allow rubber stamping of such illogical plain wrong decisions.

    The CEO needs to show this by cutting off some heads.Start with top road engineers and communications.

    Again thanks & well done Patrick, Shale, Ms Gracewood et al.
    And yes where is the Mayor? Like the crucial port reclamation decision he is missing in action and not showing leadership.

    BTW, yes to the person above, you can Official Info Act AT but board decisions in confidence come back redacted.

  6. A happy day for the pōhutukawa, and a great result for everyone! I’ll write more about this when I’ve got my breath back, but I just wanted to say a huge and public thank you to everyone involved in the battle in any capacity whatsoever.

    It was an honour to simply be the mouthpiece for a coherent, engaged, and tireless bunch of wonderful people, both official types (shout out to the Waitemata Local Board and the Parks Dept especially!) and ordinary citizens (petition makers and signers, banner painters, yarn bombers, letter writers, sign wavers, kids). They came at this campaign from a wide range of backgrounds, with a wide spectrum of political experience (from none at all to a fair amount), and with an incredibly useful range of skills. And they gave it everything they had, and more.

    One of the implicit tenets of our argument on behalf of these great old trees was “not everything that is valued can be measured in dollars” — and that is also absolutely true of the many, many hours these people donated to the challenging task of getting the attention of a publicly funded organisation that, for such a long time, showed little evidence of being inclined to listen.

    I’m so glad the members of the Board lent us their ears (at the very last minute!), and so clearly heard what the community and its representatives were saying. I thank them not just for their wisdom on this subject but also for their renewed commitment to a larger and better vision for how Aucklanders get around this great city.

    Something that has stuck in my mind from the outset: one member of our core group grew up hearing the story of how her grandfather had helped plant these trees. As a result of this campaign, we now all have a new story to tell our collective grandchildren in years to come: how we helped save them.

    1. Not only did the board listen, they spoke. Rapid Transit and active modes!!! The Pohutakawas must have channelled the Kauri Room as well as your speech Jolisa. Must mean that those are the only options to even bother investigating then!! Looks like traffic models go in the bin!! Does this mean Congestion Free Network, Seperated Cycling, and Pedestrians are where it is at? Go board, GO!!

  7. While it is good that the trees didn’t get chopped down, was it possible that the proposed road layout, could be built by narrowing the lanes and moving the shared path behind the trees?

    1. Forget the layouts Richard that is so 2pm last Friday. None of the layouts had Rapid Transit Top Notch, Top notch cycling or top notch for pedestrians. You could have had car at warp factor 9 but doesn’t mean didly.

  8. Well, now that the St Lukes intersection has been reopened to traffic after Easter Weekend, it’s possible to appreciate just how much we nearly lost.

    The difference in size from the previous intersection is astonishing – acres of tarmac, big sweeping turns over the now-elevated intersection area. It gives the whole MOTAT/Western Springs milieu a taste of the kind of urban charm and attention to the human dimension that I associate with the SH16 Maioro Road crossings, or the CMJ.

    In short, it’s just as absolutely horrible as all of the pessimists had forecast.

    So it’s really only the retention of the pohutukawa (both east and west of the intersection) that has allowed the area to retain some of its character, and give it some mitigation from feeling like a single massive uninterrupted roading corridor.

    I notice that a large branch (previously near to the road) has been lopped off one of the Six, but that’s a comparatively small price to pay for keeping the trees and preventing the complete ruination of this area.

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