17 Jun 2021

Auckland businesses near CRL work protest for compensation

From Checkpoint, 5:11 pm on 17 June 2021

Out of pocket Auckland businesses trading alongside a giant City Rail Link trench say they may fold before the project is complete.

The Albert Street business owners protested outside the Auckland Council building today, demanding compensation for interruption caused by the $4.4 billion underground rail project.

For years, Roma Blooms has been trying to turn a profit while effectively invisible to would-be buyers.

Shobhana Ranchhodji and Jugdish Naran are struggling to make a living next to a giant City Rail Link (CRL) trench that is cut through the heart of Albert St.

Huge barriers shield their business from the public eye. The pair say some days they're forced to throw out $1000 dollars of unsold flowers.

"They did say it'll be minimal effect from the get go on the businesses and government was listening to this," Ranchhodji said.

"Minimal effect? Do you believe this is minimal effect on the businesses? And now that they're aware of it, what are they doing?"

Anger is boiling over among business owners.

Two dozen people protested on the steps of the Auckland Council offices this morning demanding compensation.

Business people protesting at the Auckland Council today. Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Roma Blooms' tale of woe is shared by many - some have sold and moved on, some have cut back hours, while others have folded altogether.

And things are about to get much, much worse for the likes of Roma Blooms, with the imminent, two-year closure of the Albert-Victoria street intersection - just outside its front door - from 30 June.

That will completely barricade Shobhana Ranchhodji's flower shop from view.

"We have got stock that we have to sell and it's a perishable stock. We have to bear the brunt of that loss because CRL were not good communicators throughout this project with us," she said.

The works along Albert St won't be finished until the end of 2023, nearly eight years after work started out the front of Roma Blooms.

Businesses have been offered help such as social media services and business advice.

But they want compensation for the interruption caused by the works.

CRL says it has helped, though, by providing rent relief for businesses affected by construction delays at the lower end of Albert Street.

Claims to date total more than $617,000.

But Shobhana Ranchhodji said her business had not received any financial help and a package for just the delays was far from good enough.

"The real hardship is what is happening whilst this project is having to do the work to build the tunnel," she said.

Craig Presland is chief operating officer at Evolve Education Group.

He had a message for the likes of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Transport Minister Michael Wood.

"Be fair, be reasonable, show leadership, think about the small guys as well," he said.

"This is a very big project for Auckland City, we know that, but what about the small businesses and the impact?"

Evolve isn't a small company, but Presland said the company's Lollipops Childhood Centre on Albert is racking up huge losses because of CRL.

The space it leases, in a largely abandoned building on Albert St, is costing about $500,000 a year.

"Once over 100 children were attending five years ago, now down to under 50. Access into and out of the building is very difficult for parents now dropping their children in the morning and picking up in the afternoon," Presland said.

"So we're seeking compensation. We're paying very expensive rent, there's been no rent relief from the landlord and so we need compensation from the council or City Rail Link in order to remain commercially viable."

Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck points out large-scale overseas projects have budgeted for compensation for businesses, pointing to Sydney's light rail project.

"Sydney had a budget of $60 million, Seattle had a budget of $50 million 20 years ago," she said.

"We need to do these things right if we're doing these large-scale projects."

CRL's previous payments were for delays on the project's C2 contract for works on lower Albert St.

"So these people affected by these works now, and the upcoming intersection closure, they have nothing because CRL has said it's only about delays," she said.

"Now we're saying this is way more than delays, this is day-by-day impacts."

In a statement, CRL said it was not funded to provide compensation for disruption, and those decisions were for Auckland Council and the government.

Transport Minister Michael Wood last week told Checkpoint he had asked officials to see if the initial compensation package could be extended to other businesses.

In the meantime, Albert Street businesses continue to count the losses.