On Monday next week the new Auckland Council formally comes into being. The agenda for its first meeting has already been uploaded to the new Council’s website. Let’s hope such timely uploading is a sign of good things to come! Much of what’s included in the agenda for the Council’s first meeting is standard “house-keeping” stuff – although it will be interesting to find out the structure of the different Council committees, including who ends up chairing them. But hidden as the last agenda item in the meeting is the first difficult decision the council will need to make: whether to approve the St Lukes Plan Change or not. Auckland City Council it would seem didn’t get around to making such a decision (I originally called this gutsy to potentially go against the recommendation of the commissioners, but now I actually think it was gutless of the previous Council to simply put it onto the new Auckland Council). I’ve previously blogged about it here, and to summarise basically it will allow St Lukes shopping centre to double in size.

The situation facing the new Council with regards to the St Lukes plan change is summarised here. Effectively, they have incredibly little scope to do anything but approve the plan change – despite the huge community opposition that appears to be mounting. The officers present the Council with two options:
While it’s very likely someone will appeal the Plan Change should it be approved, the decision made by Council is important, because it determines what side of the fence they end up on in the appeals process. With the new Super City structure in place there will also be no opportunity for someone like the ARC to support local community groups in their opposition, which means that any appellants will be taking on both the Council and Westfield. A pretty scary prospect if you ask me. Perhaps the one potential saving grace is that both ARTA and NZTA submitted on the plan change – so that might mean (I’m not sure of it though) that Auckland Transport could appeal the plan change if they so desired.

But anyway, it seems very likely the Council will have to approve the plan change. But is that the right decision? As I was a submitter on the plan change in the first place (back when it was notified I lived locally) I have received all the documentation and had a good read through the logic behind both the planner’s recommendations (which recommended approval subject to a number of amendments) and the final decision (which seems to have largely bowed to what Westfield wanted in the first place). So I’m reasonably up to speed with what has happened here thus far.

My general opinion, right from the start, has been that St Lukes is simply is the wrong place to become Auckland’s biggest shopping mall. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. It has relatively poor access to public transport. Most other shopping malls in Auckland have far better public transport access: Henderson’s next to a train station, so is New Lynn and Newmarket, Manukau City will be next to a train station by the middle of next year. Albany has a busway station that’s nearby. Sylvia Park has a train station next to it and so forth. St Lukes really is the odd one out in being away from the train network (Morningside station really doesn’t count in my opinion) and not even properly on a bus route (all the buses on New North Road and Sandringham Road have to detour to get there.
  2. It’s not in a ‘proper’ town centre. Aside from Sylvia Park (which seems to have aspirations of becoming a town centre) most of the other shopping centres are generally located in areas with a mix of other shops too – and are often traditional town centres. Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Glenfield, Shore City and Milford are all examples of this. What happens in these situations is that the shopping centre assists the town centre by attracting people to the area – perhaps the best example being Dressmart’s contribution to Onehunga. In the case of St Lukes, it just eats away at nearby town centres like Balmoral and Mt Albert, undermining – rather than contributing – to their success.

These two factors seem pretty obvious, and pretty fundamental to the question of whether or not approval should be given to this plan change. However, because of the convoluted nature of Auckland’s planning system – and the reluctance of various agencies to do their job properly in my opinion – these fundamental issues have generally been given scant consideration in the final decision-making process for the plan change. And what’s worse, because of the nature of the planning system, they have quite rightly been given this scant consideration.

Let’s look first at the “town centre issue”. It seems fundamentally obvious to me that St Lukes is not a proper town centre. Sure, there’s a big white box surrounded by carparks the makes up the main mall – and across a million lanes of traffic (which takes pedestrians about half an hour to cross because of the horrific traffic-light phasing) there are a bunch of other shops hidden behind a giant carpark. But does that really make a two centre? How does that compare to places like Mt Eden Village, New Lynn, Takapuna and Newmarket or local centres like Mt Albert or Balmoral? There’s no public space, there are few community facilities, there’s an utterly terrible pedestrian environment, there’s no relationship between the street and the shops (although the proposed improvement to this is perhaps the one saving grace of the plan change).

It seems to me that the commissioners understood this situation to some extent – that St Lukes is really pushing the limit of what might be called a town centre. I think the commissioners also felt that it the question of whether or not St Lukes was a town centre was quite fundamental to their decision on the plan change. However, once again due to Auckland’s convoluted planning system and despite all evidence pointing otherwise, an official decision had actually already been made – due to a recent environment court settlement (between Westfield and the Regional Council) on Plan Change 6 to the Auckland Regional Policy Statement, St Lukes had officially been declared a “town centre”. The commissioners noted the importance of this decision:

In so many respects, the settlement of the ARPS plan change appeal, leading to the designation of St Lukes as a ‘town centre’, sealed the fate of this subsequent plan change. I imagine the commissioners mulled over the question of “how could St Lukes be a town centre and then have the City Council not approve a plan change that seeks to try as hard as possible to give effect to this”?

In short, the environment court settlement between the ARC and Westfield meant that the fundamental question of whether or not St Lukes is the right place to build Auckland’s biggest shopping mall could not really be taken into much consideration. Despite the commissioners probably feeling that St Lukes really doesn’t look or feel like a town centre, they had to ignore such fundamental problems and questions. This is outlined below: …and…
I guess we can only contemplate whether the commissioners would have come to a different recommendation on this plan change had the ARPS not included St Lukes as a town centre – but my feeling is that would have been quite likely.

Turning now to the other fundamental issue – whether St Lukes’ poor level of public transport provision should have swayed the commissioners towards declining the plan change. This issue is mentioned by the commissioners in an introductory way when they consider how much of a ‘town centre’ St Lukes really is:
PC6 refers to plan change 6 of the ARPS, rather than the specific plan change the commissioners were consideration (which is PC8). Interestingly enough, this shows that they really did consider the St Lukes centre to be “out of step” with what would normally be considered a ‘town centre’ – and a major reason for that consideration was the lack of public transport. However, they then fall into the trap of stating that “it’s not Westfield’s problem”. While certainly Westfield is not responsible for providing public transport, if we continue to separate the decisions we make on land-use planning from their impacts on transport we will continue to make the same old mistakes, undermine public transport and increase our auto-dependency.

One of the interesting things in the commissioners’ decision, as it relates to transport matters, is how it would appear Westfield argued both that public transport to the area wasn’t as bad as people were saying (and therefore the plan change shouldn’t be declined for such a reason) but also argued that public transport to the area was generally poorer than to other shopping centres (and therefore they should be allowed to provide a huge number of parking spaces). Here’s what Westfield’s transport expert says about the quality of PT provision:
The difficulty with making this “ARTA’s problem” is that, once again, fundamentally St Lukes is very difficult to serve with high quality public transport. Diverting more Sandringham Road or New North Road buses via the mall creates a significant loss of time for all other commuters on those routes. The Morningside train station cannot magically be pulled closer to the mall. Perhaps the one easy thing to do would be an increase in weekend cross-town 007 services, but compared to other shopping centres and other real town centres, it is damn difficult to improve public transport provision to the area – hence the fundamental question of whether St Lukes is the right place for this (or indeed the right place to be designated a town centre in the first place).

The poor provision of PT (and the limited ability to improve it) ends up being used as justification to effectively “exempt” St Lukes from region-wide policies designed to cut back on the amount of off-street parking provided, and thereby encourage people to use alternative transport options – rather than clogging up the roads with their cars:
Once again, the problem is not that St Lukes doesn’t attract enough public transport patrons for it to be provided. The problem is that St Lukes is simply located in the wrong place – not on a public transport corridor. Fundamentally, it’s just in the wrong place.

So what to make of this all? Well, overall the whole thing in my opinion is just a giant mess. An utter planning failure all around. While I disagree with the extent to which the commissioners separate out land-use and transport (the “let’s make it ARTA’s problem” approach), in general I completely understand why they have decided to recommend approval. In essence, the decisions made on the Regional Policy Statement PC6, to (for some unknown reason) make St Lukes a town centre meant that the commissioners’ hands were tied. They asked themselves the question of “as this is (supposedly) a town centre, how can we decline a plan change that seeks to formalise that?” Of course, the answer they came to was “well we can’t”. And this is the decision that the Council will, inevitably, have to end up making (and probably the Environment Court should it go to appeal) – that given the regional planning framework in place, there’s simply no way to do anything but approve this.

That certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good planning outcome though. As a result of this mess we’re going to end up with St Lukes nearly doubling in size, the addition of a huge number of parking spaces (and therefore huge amounts of traffic) and little, if any, improvement to public transport to serve this. The disjoint between land-use and transport will be exacerbated, undermining the integration that so many of our planning documents and strategies have tried – so unsuccessfully – to achieve. I don’t even know what’s the best we can hope for now – perhaps making crossing St Lukes Road more pedestrian friendly and thereby integrating the two halves of this supposed ‘town centre’? But St Lukes Road will be so busy, from all this extra shopping traffic, that it will be incredibly difficult to achieve this. What about ARTA’s plans to implement a QTN along St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive? Well with all this extra traffic I think we can probably kiss that goodbye – as there will be no chance of managing to implement bus lanes. St Lukes will continue to undermine the viability of nearby real town centres: like Mt Albert and Balmoral, probably to a greater extent than ever before given its ability to become such a “mega-mall”.

There’s probably some ability to still argue over the details: whether the interface controls between the expanded mall and the neighbouring residential properties can be improved. Whether the heights are exactly right. Whether ARTA wanting to put a QTN through the area means a big rethink in the traffic plans. Whether it’s possible to narrow St Lukes Road a bit so that it’s more like a normal town centre main street and so forth. These are important arguments that might yet require consideration at an appeal, but fundamentally I don’t think there’s any chance that this won’t eventually be approved.

I guess if we are to try to find a silver lining in this complete and utter mess, it is that while the Auckland Council spends 2011 formulating the Spatial Plan they will have the perfect example of why we need a Spatial Plan – in the form of the mess of the St Lukes situation. The Council will hopefully learn the importance of being careful about where it selects ‘town centres’ to be, so that they are real town centres located on logical public transport routes. The planning disaster that St Lukes has turned into will hopefully show the Council exactly why it is so important to properly integrate land-use and transport planning. Perhaps, in a similar (although somewhat less dramatic) way that the demolition of Pennsylvania Railway Station in New York City led to the formation of a heritage protection movement there, the complete and utter planning disaster or St Lukes will waken us up to the need to get our regional planning right. Because, as St Lukes has shown, if you stuff up the big picture strategies everything falls apart.

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    1. Actually, what I would do is run a free connector/shuttle up to Morningside station (demand-responsive, perhaps – potential for an electric vehicle?) and provide the RTN connectivity that way. Or, run the shuttle from the station to St Lukes – dropping people much closer in than the current buses manage – and then across to Sandringham or Dominion Rd.

      Arguably that might remove the need to run any buses along St Lukes Rd, as well.

      1. It was said that Westfield is not responsible for this, the council would be. So Westfield makes the profit and the ratepayers of Auckland pay. Hmmmmm.

  1. Just thinking about this, a gondola or PRT type system might be a good way to solve this issue. It could run from Morningside station down the road and right into the middle of the mall where passengers could get off then across St Lukes Rd to the other part of the ‘town centre’. That way it could have a higher frequency than something like a tram so it would be more useful and the novelty would help to drive PT use. The main problem I had with the Mandalay bay tram is that it is infrequent due to the way they run it and seems quite slow.

    1. The tram would take about 2 minutes to the journey. It would probably stop for about 30 seconds to a minute at each station meaning the headway would be roughly 5/6 mins for a single train system, and 2 1/2 to 3 mins for a double train system.

    2. I think the trip time is about 2 mins. This gives a frequency of 5mins with 30 second stops. I twin train system would half this. I think either 5 minute or 2.5 minute frequency and 2 min trip times would be fast enough.

      The Mandalay bay system is stupid from a transport perspective. But that’s not what it’s designed to be good at. It is designed to expose you to the massive marketing of their casino’s. That’s why the express only operates in one direction only, effectively wasting half its capacity.

  2. What I’d like to know is how they can consider a privately owned, commercially operated space that is patrolled by private security with the right to exclude anyone they like to be a ‘town centre’.

    1. I think the broader area around the corner of St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive is considered the “town centre”. There are more car-dependent shops on the other side of the road around Wagener Place these days.

  3. Why does Morningside station not count? I would have thought a small simple compromise would be to get Westfield to pay for signposting to and from the train station both within and outside the mall, plus maybe some design features that would make pedestrian access from the north side attractive, and perhaps a bit of a contribution to improving the pedestrian environment along Morningside Drive. It is not a long walk and these things could make a difference.

    1. Morningside is around 800m away, with fewer than 1% of current visitors to the mall using the train. Sure, we could improve it a bit – but ultimately I think it is just too far away.

    2. Actually, in public transport terms, asking people to walk 800m is like asking them to walk to Hamilton: possible, but they’re mostly going to tell you to take a long walk off a short pier. Especially if the destination is a shopping mall, where people frequently depart carrying bags and the like and won’t want to face a long walk to a train station.

      I’m wondering if this could be an ideal situation for implementing a light-rail circuit: Dominion Road-St Lukes-Morningside station. It’s not a huge distance, and would tie together the b-Line buses with the Western Line.

      As for pedestrian access across St Lukes Rd, I think that requiring Westfield to build a high-volume footbridge or underpass as a first condition on any further expansion would be a good start. And underpass would probably be better, as I think St Lukes Rd/Balmoral Rd is one of the designated over-dimension routes for Auckland.

  4. We have a new council with a mandate to improve public transport options. They can push it back to the panel with a direction for the public transport access issues to be addressed. Westfield may then suddenly find it within them to provide solutions to the issue.

  5. The panel discussion contains the tacit assumption that one can solve a perceived public transport access problem by ‘providing better bus services’ – usually expressed in a vague general way which ignores the nitty gritty of designing an efficient route network.

    This is a common attitude among ignorant or don’t care politicians or planning bureaucrats. They love ‘flexible’ bus services because it means you can ignore PT issues in your basic location decisions. They put their new hospital or university on a hilltop 1km from the nearest rational PT through route – just far enough to be too far to walk; just close enough to make waiting 10 minutes for a connecting bus really irritating. They institute a half hourly shuttle bus to bridge the gap, then wonder why non-one uses it.

    If the poor location makes it impossible to design an efficient network, then you can provide all the buses you like, but it won’t make people use them. You could run a shuttle bus from Morningside every two minutes day and night and it might raise train users from 1% to 3% of St Lukes customers. Big deal.

    See also Jarrett Walker’s blog on ‘be on the way’

    It would be intellectually more honest to say, ‘St Lukes cannot be efficiently served by public transport. Improving bus services, to the limited extent that the poor location allows, could conceivably raise the PT mode share from 5% to 10% [for the sake of argument, I have no idea what the real figures are but I’d be surprised if they’re more]. However it cannot be expected that this will ever be more than a ‘charity’ service for people without cars, and it cannot be expected to make any noticeable difference to traffic congestion.’

    You then make your decision on whether to call St Lukes a ‘town centre’ based on how much this future concerns you.

  6. “It would be intellectually more honest to say, ‘St Lukes cannot be efficiently served by public transport. Improving bus services, to the limited extent that the poor location allows, could conceivably raise the PT mode share from 5% to 10% [for the sake of argument, I have no idea what the real figures are but I’d be surprised if they’re more].”

    Actually, places like Silvia Park have shit PT usage % levels too, DESPITE the rail stations. As Josh says – there’s a heck of a diffeence between places like Newmarket (which attract PT uses because they are mature town centres) and places like Silvia Park and St Lukes which are discrete retail centres (only).

    Both Silvia Park and St Lukes can eventually become real town centres, but they are decades off.

  7. The issue with St Lukes is not so much rail services, and much more bus services. Rail does not serve the St Lukes catchment very well, Avondale is the main centre along the rail line that is part of the primary St Lukes catchment.
    I see the main catchment of the mall as being Avondale, Pt Chev, Grey Lynn, and the Sandringham, Mt Eden and Dominion Road corridors.

    The position of St Lukes goes against the grain of the old tram-line style of development, with it being located annoyingly close but too far away from both New North and Sandringham roads. That means for a high quality bus service all users will have to change at least once.
    Even for semi-decent services to St Lukes much needs to happen. The frequency of 007 needs to be increased to at least every 10min, and major upgrades need to be done to the Balmoral intersections so people can change easily from tram-line services to cross-town services. Even with these I think PT usage will remain low as any services will be complicated, and offer no convenience over car travel.

    Would be much preferable for New Lynn to be the major centre of the inner west, and then the CBD will serve the isthmus. The St Lukes expansion will work against both of these aims.

  8. Luke,
    Never a truer work spoken. I doubt Waitakere City would have let this happen, they have gone out of their way to promote Henderson, Westgate and New Lynn town centres pouring millions into new PT developments, even building a $40 mill council centre to support Henderson and its rail station.

    Auckland City by contrast have done little to support its traditional town centres by caving in to big box retailers. They have turned new big box mega-centres into an artform creating developments like Lunn Av, St Johns, which are killing its official town centres like Glenn Innes and Panmure. I for one will not be mourning its passing. Hopefull there is still some hope for Otahuhu, Avondale, Panmure, Glen Innes, Mt Albert and Blockhouse Bay but I fear the damage has already been done by C and R and their cohorts.

    1. The last one decided to leave it for the current one. The current one may well have deferred the decision to a later date, to allow new councillors to get up to speed before voting. Anyone know for sure?

    1. They do own Lynn Mall, yes. But they already own most of the land required for expansion of St Lukes, and now just need the plan change approved to allow the construction. Taking the development to Lynn Mall would mean abandoning long-laid plans and trying to sell dozens of properties in a depressed market, not to mention that trying to accumulate properties around Lynn Mall would be more expensive because a) it’s not surrounded by houses, and b) people would know it was happening, and why, and hold out for a better deal. Or just hold out entirely, just to foil Westfield, as was the case with the cobbler in Newmarket who refused to sell his leasehold to Westfield and whose landlord supported his stand.

  9. Westfield does NOT own LynnMall. LynnMall is owned by AMP and an Australian trust.

    The cobbler in Newmarket ALSO did not have a dispute with Westfield, but with Newcrest Group & Tram Lease Property (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10421330).

    It is interesting that Westfield gets blamed for everything here, it seems, even stuff totally unrelated to it. In opposition, Kiwi Income are somehow the saints, just because they off-set some of their Silvia Park development contributions for a railway station.

    1. ingolfson, my bad. As for the cobbler, given that it was Westfield that were seeking approval to build across Nuffield Street it’s easy to get confused as to which bastard development company is which.

      Westfield are considered scum for any number of reasons, not least of which is their business practices. I’ve not heard horror stories about Kiwi Income (not to say there aren’t any) but I’ve heard plenty about Westfield, starting with how they’ll force struggling small retailers to honour the refit clause in the contract and then terminate the lease so that they’ve got a freshly-redone store available for lease. Never mind what they charge for the privilege of being tenants, either.
      It’s not that Kiwi Income are considered saints for the train station, it’s just that Westfield are so awful that you have to be verging on satanic before you look worse. KI also had a lot of traffic management requirements enforced in the design and development of Sylvia Park, and some of us would like to see similar requirements ordered for St Lukes. Road widening, links with rail, etc. Obviously Westfield aren’t going to be paying to re-route the Western Line, but some kind of rapid transit link to Morningside Station would be nice.

  10. “Westfield are considered scum for any number of reasons, not least of which is their business practices. I’ve not heard horror stories about Kiwi Income (not to say there aren’t any) but I’ve heard plenty about Westfield, starting with how they’ll force struggling small retailers to honour the refit clause in the contract and then terminate the lease so that they’ve got a freshly-redone store available for lease. Never mind what they charge for the privilege of being tenants, either.”

    The Westfield guys I have dealt with were not any worse than any other large corporate guys, and I have not heard any horror stories – maybe they have a habit of being creatively retold and multiplied like the story about “the cobbler and Westfield”? But then I don’t deal with leasing.

    “Never mind what they charge for the privilege of being tenants, either.”

    That’s capitalism for you. I don’t like the system all the time myself, but in capitalism, charging all you can get away with is not evil – it’s how you play.

    “but some kind of rapid transit link to Morningside Station would be nice.”

    Build it from the development contributions, then.

    1. The cobbler story is hardly creatively retold, other than mistaking one developer for another.

      Kiwi Income hasn’t been in the news for increasing rents even during the recession. Similarly it doesn’t appear to have been investigated for unsavoury trade practices. But I’m sure it’s all just a big misunderstanding, and Westfield have an undeserved reputation for being bastards.

  11. Matt, show me some references to Westfield being investigated for unsavoury trade practices. I did some googling in NZ webspace, on terms such as “Westfield is” and after 50 hits found nothing that sounded really unsavoury (or savoury).

    As far as I am aware of them, they may play commercial hardball, and they obviously have a bad rep in some quarters (yours, and some other people I have met) – but I’m not sure that reputation is all their fault. As a massive foreign player, as having only (relatively) recently entered the NZ market – by buying up lots of local interests to boot – and as the main poster child for MALLS (the big bad things destroying NZ’s way of life and all that), I suspect that they have become a projection space for a lot of disgruntlement that other companies playing hardball in the same way don’t get.

    1. Try “Westfield ACCC investigation”. Or “Westfield lease termination”. For tenants squealing at having their rents put up at the end of last year, try “Westfield New Zealand rent increases”.

      Yes, some of it may be projection onto the biggest target for generally-perceived grievances. However, from a former flatmate who was a consulting engineer for fit-out projects at Westfield-owned malls, and at Botany and Sylvia, the only horror stories he ever recounted about how tenants were treated came from the Westfield tenants. It’s widely-known that their leases (at least for non-anchor tenants) require a re-fit at the end of the lease period, and I’ve heard several times of tenants who have then been pushed into situations where they vacated the newly-refitted premises.

  12. See, Matt, that may well be the difference between “unethical” and “harsh”.

    I agree that it’s harsh to kick somebody out at the end of the lease period after they have just upgraded the store. But you knew that was a possibility when you signed the lease – just like a residential tenant being made to do certain repairs and cleanups before he leaves (or is made to leave). But it’s not unethical if it was all on the table from the start. Just harsh.

    “For tenants squealing at having their rents put up at the end of last year, try “Westfield New Zealand rent increases”.”

    Again, quite possibly harsh, but a normal feature of capitalism. Again I think Westfield just gets more publicly visible flak because they are big, and have lots of tenants. Your neighbourhood store landlord who raises the rent will not make the paper, even though the effects on the corner dairy operator may be as bad.

    I guess the reason I defend Westfield here (I’m not a Westfield employee) is partially because it is never good practice to base planning judgement on emotion. If one doesn’t like malls, or big corporate capitalism, it may be tempting to go after the biggest target. But it would be more appropriate to work on the applicable laws, zoning regulations etc… in general, rather than single out one. I mean, Westfield have enough lawyers that any signling them out is bound to fail anyway.

    1. Our definition of “unethical” clearly differs. I consider it unethical to back a tenant into a corner where, because you know their turnover, you know they will have no choice but to vacate the premises, particularly since you also know that the premises will have been freshly refitted. These refits are not “you’re leaving, ergo, refit”, they’re “your lease term is up, refit, and we may or may not allow you to sign another lease, on whatever terms we decide.”
      And don’t give me the usual tripe about “choice”, because Westfield are sufficiently powerful that the choice is their way or the highway. The highway means, usually, not having premises in the busiest shopping precincts in the area. Markets are wonderful, until they’re not.

  13. Matt, you are saying that our economic system is often unethical. Congrats, we agree.

    Where we seem to disagree is whether or not it is realistic for large companies to behave better of their own. Most don’t, and never will, unless the rules force them to. So I see nothing unusual in Westfield’s practices. They are playing hardball in a SYSTEM set up to reward those who play hardball. That’s what capitalism and globalisation and constant calls for liberalisation of regulations and labour laws and so on gets you.

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