Wilson Parking has made millions from charging for parking in the post-earthquake waste lands of central Christchurch. Philip Matthews reports on the company Cantabrians love to hate.
The company Cantabrians love to hate
The Saturday morning netball dads – and mums – have a car parking routine. First you try to grab one of the free parks on the streets adjacent to the Christchurch Netball Centre at South Hagley Park but good luck with that. These days you are also competing with displaced hospital traffic.
The second option is to find $3 in coins for a space at Hagley College. Collected by students on weekend duty, the money goes to the school. No one could argue with that.
And a distant third? Well, there is always Wilson Parking.
Wilson Parking has become notorious in Christchurch since the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Parking meters and minimal fences are installed on vacant lots that even the company’s southern general manager Vernon Aubrey described to The Press in April as ‘‘bomb sites’’. They look like warzone car parks: uneven, potholed, muddy, often poorly-lit and sometimes even flooded.
Rubbish accumulates. After parking at the Wilson site near the Netball Centre, and paying $6 plus fees to be there for just over an hour, I notice an abandoned pushchair broken in two and scattered near a hedge, unceremoniously dumped with other household garbage. A month later, it is still there, now with a broken television next to it.
I want to know more about Wilson Parking. It seems to be having a one-way relationship with Christchurch. We see its redand-white signs and we notice its meters during daylight but we struggle to find a human presence.
How many are employed? How much money does it take out of Christchurch? How much rent is paid for the vacant lots it uses?
Does the company feel it has an image problem? Does it even notice the bad feeling from some or even most users? It can seem like the parking company Cantabrians love to hate.
Here is a typical example, from the letters page of The Press in July. A correspondent had enjoyed the wonderful new asset that is the arts venue known as The Piano. Parking is handily located on two Wilson sites near the Armagh St venue but ‘‘like many others this Wilson car park is a demolition site with humps and hollows, large puddles and littered with large, rough stones,’’ the correspondent wrote.
Expecting that many of The Piano’s music and arts events take place in the evening, she wondered how the elderly and women in high heels might negotiate this uneven terrain in the dark. ‘‘The fact we pay to use these spaces is almost unbelievable.’’
‘‘Almost’’ is the key word in that sentence, perhaps because nothing is completely unbelievable in post-quake Christchurch.
So here are some numbers. Wilson Parking New Zealand Limited’s annual report for the year ending June 30, 2016, gives a sense of the size of the business. Revenue from parking was $97.9 million, up from $89.3m a year earlier. Revenue from the security arm of the company was $66.6m. The total revenue was $150.3m, which has been rising steadily from previous years.
But there are big costs too. Employee costs of $57m. Rents and leases cost $45.4m. Another $20.7m was paid to third party car park owners. The company’s profit after paying an income tax bill of $3.9m was just $10.1m.
Who are they? Raymond Ping Luen Kwok, chairman of the board of directors, is a Hong Kong-based businessman. Forbes estimated in 2016 that he and his brother Thomas were worth a combined US$16.2 billion (NZ$22.2b), making them reportedly the fifth-richest family in Asia. The brothers were arrested on bribery charges in 2012 – both pleaded not guilty and only Thomas was convicted.
They own the Singapore-based Wilson Parking Holdings, whose parking empire extends across
‘‘We are aware New Zealanders find paying for parking a sore point and often view Wilson Parking in a negative light.’’ Southern general manager Vernon Aubrey
Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Macau, Malaysia and China. Kwok’s sons Christopher and Edward are also on the eightperson board of Wilson Parking New Zealand.
Its controversial security division has been the target of protesters in Australia. Car parks in Melbourne and Sydney were blockaded in 2016 over Wilson Security’s work in offshore detention centres.
Back home, my questions go to Wilson Parking’s corporate office in Auckland.
Wilson Parking operates 47 car park sites across Christchurch on behalf of local owners. That adds up to 1500 parking spaces. Fifty people are employed by Wilson Parking in Christchurch.
It operates more than 285 car parks across New Zealand, equating to around 30,000 vehicles parked every day.
But how much revenue does parking in Christchurch generate for Wilson Parking?
The contracts it holds with property owners are ‘‘commercially sensitive’’, a spokeswoman says.
‘‘Some [property owners] lost their buildings and incomes due to the Christchurch earthquakes. The parking revenue from these sites helps provide these owners with some income.’’
She adds that, ‘‘Following the earthquakes, Wilson Parking lost the vast majority of its car parks. Through this period of disruption and strain it continued to pay rentals on a number of unusable sites in order to support local owners.’’
The company owns no property in Christchurch, she says.
Wilson Parking’s spokeswoman will not say how much revenue Christchurch generates for the company. But as 16 per cent of its car parks are in the city, and $97.9m is generated nationally, it could be as high as $10m annually, allowing for different rates in different cities and varying levels of occupancy. If each of its Christchurch parking spaces generated only $10 per day, that would be over $5m annually.
Questions about the typical rent paid to owners of land used by Wilson Parking are also not answered due to their ‘‘commercially sensitive nature’’. The spokeswoman can say that Wilson Parking is ‘‘often approached by local landowners who own pockets of land and we repackage the site as a retail parking offering’’.
What about the quality of these retail parking offerings, though?
‘‘Maintenance varies site by site,’’ the spokeswoman says. ‘‘The majority of Wilson’s Christchurch sites are development sites, meaning they could be appropriated at any time. This often makes it difficult to heavily invest in their appearance.’’
In other words, Wilson Parking occupies sites during a transitional time between demolition and building and as no one knows how long that will be, why make them look pretty?
That said, ‘‘Wilson Parking is currently working with Regenerate Christchurch to improve appearances of some sites across the city.’’
Regenerate Christchurch is approached for comment about this exciting development in urban aesthetics but it turns out the Wilson spokeswoman means the urban regeneration team at the Christchurch City Council.
A council spokeswoman says the council team has ‘‘provided Wilson Parking [with] some of our planters to improve the visual amenity of surface car parks in the central city’’.
The Christchurch City Council does not lease council land to Wilson Parking but it does lease space in car parks that Wilson manages on land owned by others, says Bruce Rendall, head of facilities in property and planning.
But Wilson Parking does use some land owned by the public. It is easy to see that big pieces of Crown land are currently doing time as car parks. Areas earmarked for the undeveloped East Frame are occupied by Wilson Parking. Some of this land was compulsorily acquired from previous owners for the rebuild blueprint’s big utopian projects.
A spokesman for the Crownowned development company Otakaro says it leases six sites to Wilson Parking and ‘‘receives a percentage of the revenue generated in return’’. The sites are at 119-125 Lichfield St, the corner of Hereford St and Manchester St, 38 Oxford Tce, 133-139 Gloucester St, 610-614 Colombo St and 93-105 Manchester St.
‘‘Providing temporary parking on some Crown land has been appropriate while private car parking buildings were being constructed,’’ the Otakaro spokesman says.
There is a code of practice for parking companies, which Wilson Parking and its subsidiary, Parking Enforcement Services, have signed up to, but it says nothing about the visual state of car parks.
How did it come to this? How did Christchurch became the capital of scruffy open-air parking?
John Higgins, head of resource consents at the Christchurch City Council, explains that it goes back to March 2011. The Canterbury Earthquake (Resource Management Act Permitted Activities) Order 2011 enabled the council to permit temporary activity for displaced people and businesses that would otherwise not comply with the District Plan.
Wilson Parking qualified as it had ‘‘several thousand parking bays that were displaced by the Canterbury earthquake sequence,’’ Higgins says. The period covered by the temporary permits was extended in 2016, meaning Christchurch has another four years of it.
‘‘Most of Wilson’s current sites have been established with temporary accommodation approvals and therefore can operate until 2021,’’ Higgins says.
June 30, 2021, to be exact. But it has not been a completely wild frontier. There are some rules, Higgins explains.
‘‘Wilson’s temporary accommodation approvals for car parking sites in the city are subject to standards relating to the use of those sites. These vary from site to site, but generally include a requirement for the site to provide a compacted stone/gravel surface and not to create any significant adverse effects.’’
But anyone looking at the Wilson car park on the corner of Colombo St and Hereford St would assume the rules have been bent. There is no stone or gravel, just mud and wide, dirty puddles.
The council said in 2012 it was ‘‘relaxed’’ about the growth of Wilson Parking on empty lots as ‘‘getting them sealed stops dust from coming up’’.
Does the public ever complain? There is no shortage of national stories about people stung by Wilson’s standard $65 fine for staying over the allotted time. Here is a rare good news story: a
Press letter writer said the $65 fine was waived after the company was told that ‘‘in the darkness we couldn’t even find a meter’’.
The Commerce Commission’s Consumer Issues Report found that Wilson Parking was New Zealand’s ninth most complained about company in 2015.
The Wilson Parking spokeswoman says that 10 per cent of complaints come from Christchurch and are predominantly ‘‘related to minor issues’’ like problems with tickets or full car parks.
There may be another way to see it. Perhaps Wilson Parking is the company Christchurch loves to hate because it reflects the sorry state of the central city and the slow rebuild back to us.
We could arguably see Wilson Parking as one facet of the transitional time, the strange decade between the 2011 earthquake and the probable end of the temporary permits in 2021. If the Gap Filler projects or the Transitional Cathedral or Re:Start have been the bright side of the transitional era, then perhaps muddy, ugly parking lots that look like bomb sites are the inevitable dark side.
Some final words from the company.
‘‘We are aware New Zealanders find paying for parking a sore point and often view Wilson Parking in a negative light,’’ says southern general manager Vernon Aubrey. ‘‘We realise people have a choice when parking and are committed to providing them with a seamless parking experience.’’