1493246389132 - Squatters set up World Masters Games info centre in Auckland Council rent protest

Squatters set up World Masters Games info centre in Auckland Council rent protest

Frustrated volunteers are squatting in an empty Auckland Council-owned building to provide an information centre during the World Masters Games.

The unofficial information centre opened on the first day of the masters games, April 21, in the old Devonport Borough Council building on Auckland’s North Shore.

The occupation was instigated by the Devonport Business Association, after two years of stalled negotiations with Auckland Council to obtain a lease on the building.

Devonport Business Association chair Dianne Hale said the group saw the masters games as an opportunity to make a statement about their long-held wish to offer a permanent Devonport information centre.

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“We took the bull by the horns and thought we’d do a pop-up for 10 days and offer a service to the public at no cost,” Hale said

“After talking to the volunteers, we decided we would have the centre open over what we assumed would be a relatively busy time – the masters games.

“We’re doing what we think is probably council’s role anyway and fulfilling a need to offer these services.

“We’ve sort of been told indirectly we’ve been a bit out of line; however, at this stage from what I can ascertain there’s been no heavy hands come in which is good.”

Auckland Council head of corporate property Rod Aitken said the occupation of the ground floor of the council building at 3 Victoria Rd, Devonport was initially unknown to council officers.

“The council and its organisations were not responsible for allowing access to this space. We are investigating this further,” Aitken said.

Auckland Council’s property team is now arranging a meeting with the Devonport volunteers group, Aitken said.

Negotiations for a new lease on the Victoria Rd property have gone back and forth between Auckland Council and the Devonport Business Association since 2015.

For the past year, the sticking point has been the cost of rent, which the business association said the council initially offered at $5000 per month. 

In December last year, the business association reported a reduced rent offer of just under $3000 per month.

Hale said the business association would like the rent reduced further or, ideally, have none at all.

“I think they [Auckland Council] see us as being a bit of a pain in the side really, that they see more commercial opportunity elsewhere.”

To further compound the the lease dispute, in April this year, Auckland Council said the Victoria Rd building was below acceptable earthquake-prone building standards.

Yet, Hale says the council has not produced any official document stating the building is below 34 per cent of the New Building Standard – necessary to be deemed earthquake proof.

“We’re somewhat cynical about the whole thing because we’ve had a look at the council file, the papers we’ve been able to get, and we can’t see anything that indicates the building is below 34 per cent,” Hale said.

But down at the occupied Devonport Council building, spirits are nevertheless high among information centre volunteers.

“I think from the Devonport Business Association’s perspective they thought, ‘Oh we’re not going to miss this opportunity, let’s just get in there and squat’,” coordinator of the Devonport information volunteers Rebecca McMillan said.

“A few volunteers have been born here at the [former] maternity hospital, so their breadth of knowledge is incredible.”

One of the squatting volunteers, Tony Dunkley, was also a volunteer at a previous Devonport information centre for 15 years before it moved to an unsuccessful council-run i-Site facility on Devonport Wharf in 2013.

“I love it. It should never have been closed in the first place, and they didn’t make a very good job of it on the wharf [which closed in late 2016],” Dunkley said.

Prior to the 2013 the move to Devonport Wharf, an information centre had existed at the same council building the volunteers are now occupying at 3 Victoria Rd.

Beyond the masters games, the future plans of the Devonport volunteers group is unclear.

Hale said they will have a debrief following the 10-day pop-up session, and gauge its support from the number of signatures they have gathered from visitors – so far averaging 80 a day.

“We’d like to do it for the Lions tour but clearly it would be quite good to keep the momentum going in the interim, so that it’s not something that just pops up again and people are unfamiliar with,” Hale said.