Reopening the Albert Park Tunnels: Is it all a pipe dream?

by Vomle Springford / 08 February, 2018
Wynyard Walk, Sydney

The main Albert Park tunnel could be similar to Sydney's Wynyard Walk. Underground tunnels like this have served as inspiration for Subterranean City's Albert Park tunnels concept. Photo/Getty.

RelatedArticlesModule - Auckland urbanism

Bill Reid has been trying to get the defunct tunnels under Albert Park reopened for years. Now with two business partners and possible funding from an as-yet-unnamed bank, it could be an idea whose time has come.

In a letter to the Auckland Star in 1944 about what to do with the air raid shelter tunnels under Albert Park, ‘A Woman of Vision’ wrote: “Why not make use of this tunnel, which has cost so much money, and have properly-conducted tours of sightseers at certain hours of the day? Charge one shilling per head and invest the money in the Victory Loan for the benefit of Auckland disabled soldiers of the First or Second Expeditionary Forces.”

Flash forward 73 years and a man named Bill Reid is now leading the vision ‒ with a bit of a tweak ‒ to reopen the tunnels as a tourism destination and urban link.

 

The 3.4km network of tunnels was originally built as shelter for 20,000 Aucklanders during World War Two when fears of Japanese bombers ran high, but they went unused. There was no shortage of ideas of what to do with the redundant tunnels: Open them to traffic, turn it into a carpark (proposed by the AA); create an archive chamber containing valuable books and pictures from library, gallery and museum collections. These ideas were abandoned because they were deemed either too impractical, uneconomical or just not as important as other city works. So the tunnels were filled in with millions of clay blocks and the timber structures gradually deteriorated. 

Albert-Park-Photo-from-Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries-ID-number-A13963

Looking across Kitchener Street towards Albert Park showing entrances to the tunnels (filled in) under the park, 1946. Photo courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, ID #7-A13963.

Reid has been trying for years ‒ since 1988 ‒ to reopen and restore the tunnels because of their historical significance. Every so often, media interest is stirred and there are murmurs of support from various authorities but nothing eventuates. Reid believes now is the right time. Why?

“We now have the right man in the right place at the right time and that’s Mayor [Phil] Goff. He is very pro our project.”

The council, as the landowner of Albert Park, has to be on board, says Reid. Another factor fueling his optimism is the recognition of tourism’s economic benefits. “When I first approached the Auckland City Council in 1988, tourism wasn’t the thing for New Zealand ‒ it was 15 million sheep, pigs, cows, and the All Blacks. Now it’s tourism.”

Reid also has two business partners on board now, transport planner Nicolas Reid (no relation) and Nicholas Andreef, the owner-operator of Waitomo Adventures. Last year, they set up a company, Subterranean City, and presented a proposal to the council to reconstruct the tunnels with one main key walking and cycle route, along with elevators up to the universities, civic spaces and tourism attractions.

Albert Park tunnel plan

A cross-section of how the main tunnel might look.

This week, they presented a feasibility study to the Waitemata Local Board, which governs the park and the next step is to present the full proposal with the business case at the next council meeting.

Reid says the initial “guesstimate” for the reconstruction was $20 million but it’s been revised up to $27 million. To add in more attractions, like the wine cellar, cheese cellar, glow worm cave and water rafting they’ve also proposed within the tunnels, would be extra.  

“Our first estimate is $27 million, that’s the basic cost, at no cost to any ratepayer or Auckland Council.” He says it would be privately funded by a commercial bank which he is unable to name at this stage, and people would pay between $1-2 to enter the tunnels.

As to whether it will happen by Christmas, as suggested in one media report, he clarifies it could take less than a year to build, excluding the time to obtain resource consents.

“It would take between two and three months for the construction company that we’ve chosen to set up a construction site at the bottom of Constitution Hill. Once they are fully set up and operational, they could have the tunnels open in six months because the tunnels are already formed.

“They only have to be excavated from the ceiling spoil that has dropped on top of the clay blocks, remove the clay blocks, wire mesh the ceiling and then shotcrete with compressed air into the sides and walls of the tunnels and asphalt seal the floor ‒ they could do that in six months.”

These kinds of tunnel projects are not new ‒ Reid and his team point to the Stockholm Metro system and Sydney’s Wynyard Walk as examples of what can be done. Reid shirks any naysayers. “There’s 9600 odd supporters on my Facebook page, and there are a handful that have objected [saying] that it won't happen.” But he’s determined in his vision and has been for 30 years: “It should have happened, it has to happen and it will happen.”

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