Thinking about the best way forward with O’Connell St [see here for proposed changes] surely must take into account what we want to see happen in the surrounding area. At the northern end is Shortland St and that won’t be too affected by any of the options although it would probably benefit from simplified movements by closing O’Connell to traffic. But for this post I want to look at the more important southern end of this little and lovely Street. One of the few remaining streets in Auckland that retains the qualities of a true city street; narrow, tightly built, textured, and completely without vehicle crossings.
Obviously High St/Vulcan Lane is one of the primary retail hubs of the central city, servicing visitors from the wider city, country, and overseas. Surely it is in the best interests of the city to extend the success of this precinct by spreading its qualities a little further back from High St. Despite the proportion of space in High St itself given to vehicles it is clear that this area works because of those features that generally frustrate the driver but attract the pedestrian. Narrow somewhat claustrophobic streets, intensely built, textured, and randomly ordered buildings. Variation, accretion, disorder, patina.
Let’s have a look at what might be possible.
Below is a map of the area that I am calling the ‘High St Hinterland’. Bounded by Shortland St to the north and that funny severed bit of Albert Park to the south, and extending up the hill to Bankside St; enclosed by the rear of the Northern Club and the Fonterra buildings that face Princess St:
And here is an earlier map. By comparing the two you can see how the City Traffic Engineers and Planners took advantage of the wholesale demolition of the old buildings here in the late 1980s here to ‘rationalise’ the street layout by eliminating the narrow Warspite St and redirecting Courthouse Lane to align with O’Connell St, and Bacon’s Lane with Fields Lane. They also widened these out to car friendly dimensions allowing for more flow, despite the street lengths and neighbourhood quality not really being suitable for speed of movement. This also enabled more on street parking to go with the new in-building parking. Yes really.
Ah so sensible! See how much better it is now for traffic than this terribly irrational Medieval street pattern. These images could be of Florence, or Covent Garden, or Monmartre, or Melbourne’s furiously lively laneways.
I don’t want to get too stuck on the buildings that have been lost as we will never get them back. But I think it is useful see how much this area was changed and for what purpose in order to focus on what we can do now to improve this area. Particularly how we manage and prioritise the roadspace, and what we encourage in any future development.
Here is a shot from 1986 just before the place was smashed. Quite intensely built, no beauty that awkward effort at the front, looks like it was expecting a few more floors, but that’s not the point. It’s the scale and texture of the buildings built right up to the edge of narrow and labyrinthine Victorian lanes that would make this whole block a thriving retail and small business boomland were it still standing today.
And here is what we have instead:
Auckland’s finest structure. And it’s not just that this is the stump of an unbuilt tower because even if it had who knows how many stories above here it would still be sucking the life force and commerce out of this once busy little network of streets. Everything about this is vile; the clumsy set-back with attendant derisory planters ruining any sense of urban enclosure to its surrounding streets while pretending at verdant mitigation. The hideous security grillage that it offers to any fool still on those streets- no doubt only those scurrying back to their cars. The shabby outbuildings attached like dunnies on an old villa, its lumpen mass as if preparing for aerial bombardment [if only]. And of course, best of all, all those car movements that it generates by its very presence to a place that should be filled with people and life and other business than just car storage.
Clearly this needs the urgent attention of the wreaking ball, but until such a time as we can get a demolition order on the basis of criminal hideousness I have another argument for this doubtless highly profitable ‘amenity’. But more on that soon. First let’s keep looking around. Here’s a view up the steep eastern half of Chancery St:
Clearly this is lost place, a public space entirely given over to the parking convenience of the Shortland St towers on the left and on the right the parking stump shown in the previous image. There are some six car entrances and exists on the left hand side and nothing else but blank concrete. At the top are the plodding po-mo architectural manoeuvres of the truly lumpen Fonterra building. Icing on the cake: 6 or 7 Auckland Transport on-street parking spaces. Nothing to be done here. Lost.
Moving down to the flat section of Chancery St civilisation starts to break out. Much of this is because of the efforts of the Chancery Lane development. Although based on a mall-like bogus ‘lane’ and sitting on parking for the very thing in whose name that the original authentic street pattern was destroyed, this attempt at texture and scale re-creation does extend the High St vibe a little deeper into the hinterland [even if it does have a little too much of a shopping mall Noddyland tone about its forms]. And vitally, it has a fully active edge all the way along its half of Chancery lane and the same up its bit of O’Connell St. Yay. Streetlife.
But consider the street itself and again you can see that the god of vehicle priority has control of this space as footpaths are reduced to single file so that a dual carriageway and parking on both sides can be accommodated .
Stepping back further and we can see that the only place that those cars facing west on lower Chancery St can go is into the northern end of O’Connell St. Ah, sweeping corners everywhere; built for speed:
Also apparent is the vast acreage of asphalt.
So Hazzzah! It’s obvious isn’t it?
If we close O’Connell St to general traffic and make the bottom end of Chancery St oneway heading east, vehicle movements here would be reduced down to service vehicles and those using the Metrolpolis carpark and the few cars still dribbling through Freyberg Square [btw: Why?]. Bacon and Fields Lanes can service the parking buildings, there’s no need for those vehicles to come down to O’Connell St, except that they can. Lower Chancery St could have its footpaths restored to a reasonable and more welcoming width for the shops there. Generally the High St tone would be advanced further into this area. And there would still be room for parking on Chancery St as well as loading bays. Hardly an impossible distance to handtruck goods to Vulcan Lane and O’Connell St. Or alternatively allow deliveries say before 10 or 11 am into O’Connell; a common practice worldwide. But the bottom line is that there is no need for car movements through O’Connell.
I know the counterargument: but we must have parking and driving through here or how are the customers going to get to these shops? Setting aside the bigger argument around the need for better public transport because although there is still much to do there, there are in fact many who come to the city each day without using a car. No I have another point.
I want to see the benefit from the loss of all that other space further up the hill to driving infrastructure. If we must allow chunks of the city to be violated in the name of car convenience we should surely be able to point to the great benefits that this cost accrues? There are over 1000 parking spaces below Chancery Lane and in the adjacent stump.
So isn’t this calculation more than reasonable?: The top end of Chancery, along with Fields Lane, Bacon Lane, Bankside St, and the whole sweep of lower Kitchener St, is entirely owned by the car, so can’t we get half of O’Connell St back and widen the footpaths on lower Chancery St in return? Can’t we corral the beast a little here?
Here is Parkopedia [who knew!] showing a middle of a weekday lavish parking amenity in central AK.
Come on AC and AT you are going to have stop thinking like your last century forebears who participated in the total Fukushima-ing of this part of town, you more than owe all Auckland to change the default settings on how you think about quality of place versus ease of vehicle movement everywhere in the wider city, but especially in pedestrian and retail rich habitats like this.
In general I prefer the vitality of shared spaces to total pedestrianisation of streets, spaces which for some reason seem to struggle to resist twee additions and a general faux feeling. Perhaps they have by nature something of the castrati about them, you know, once were tough enough to take vehicles but now it’s only rubbish bins and over-designed street furniture….? But in this case it seems likely that to get the drivers to take the slightly counterintuitive turn up Chancery St the streetscape will have to be forceful. And the narrow width and fantastic buildings of this stretch of O’Connell I’m sure can man-up to a softer environment there. As well the adjacent Vulcan Lane has long been Auckland’s most successful carless street. Either way I think it is essential that there is no curb and chanelling here, it would be just too bossy and limiting, give the space the much more flexible single grade. I am still amazed at how the very proportions of Elliot St seem to have altered simply by this intervention. What a great location O’Connell St could be then for a fashion show, for example.
Here is the earlier post on this issue, complete with the arguments of the professionals working on it repeated in the comments. What do you think?