The Auckland City Centre is entering a phase of profound change. The rest of this decade it’ll be undergoing a more extensive and disruptive renovation than your average Ponsonby villa. The designers and financiers are at work and the men and machines are are about to start. The caterpillar is entering that difficult and mysterious chrysalis phase; what kind of butterfly will emerge?

Some of the probable additions to AKL’s skyline [image: Luke Elliot]
If even half of what is proposed gets underway almost every aspect of the centre city will be different.

The Skyline

Precinct Property’s 500 million dollar total rebuild of the Downtown centre and a new 36 storey commercial tower is confrmed to start next year. The 39 storey St James apartment tower is also all go [with the re-opening of the ground floor to the public soon]. An apartment tower on Albert and Swanson has begun. There are a huge number of residential towers seriously close to launching some of which are 50+ floors. These are on Victoria St, Customs St, Commerce St, Greys Ave and more. The biggest of them all Elliot Towers is rumoured to underway next year. Mansons have bought the current herald site and said to looking at residential there. On the same block 125 Queen St is finally getting refurbished bringing much needed new commercial space in the city [+ about 1000 new inner city workers]. Of course the Convention Centre and its associated hotel will start too. Waterfront Auckland have announced new mid rise apartment developments and a new hotel beginning as well. This list is not by any means exhaustive. Auckland is now a builders’ boom town. And it will resemble nothing other than an enormous sand pit for the next few years.

The Street

Regardless of the forms of these buildings they are going to have profound impacts at street level; flooding the footpaths with people, stimulating more and more retail and especially hospitality services. Add to this the disruption of the works themselves, for example later this year the first stage of the CRL is going to start. Digging up everything from Britomart through Downtown, up Albert St to Wyndam St. If the proposed Light Rail system goes ahead that will mean the [no doubt staged] digging up of the whole length of Queen St and other places, Dominion Rd, Wynyard Quarter. Street space is becoming more and more contested. Driving in the city is going to get increasingly pointless, most will avoid it. But unlike last century that won’t mean people won’t come to the city. One, because it’s become so attractive with unique retail offers, unrivalled entertainment attractions, and a fat concentration of jobs. Two, because people are discovering how good the improving Transit options are becoming, so why bother driving. And three, because increasing numbers are already there; it’s where they live anyway.

And that Transit boom is going to continue, or even accelerate. Britomart throughput is now running at 35 000 people daily, when planned it wasn’t even expected to reach 20 000 until 2021 [see below; the blue line is still growing at that angle; it is now literally off the chart]:

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

Why is this happening? A lot of people in wider Auckland still think the city is unappealing or unimportant. Aren’t we spreading new housing out at the edges? Aren’t new businesses building near the suburbs in those business parks? Well ironically one of the reasons so much growth and investment is happening in City Centre is because those same people, the ones that prefer their suburban neighbourhoods to the city, don’t want any change near them. The City Centre is one of the few places that it is possible to add new dwellings or offices at scale, and because it is a very constrained area with high land value this can only be done with tall buildings. The more suburban people refuse to have growth near them the more, in a growing city, investment has to concentrate where it can, and in Auckland that means downtown.

Auckland's first electric  tram 1902
Auckland’s first electric tram 1902

Auckland is still spreading outwards and businesses are growing in suburban centres, but these areas are not appealing or appropriate for all people and all businesses, and nor are they sufficient; the City Centre is growing by both these metrics too, and at a greater pace. The 2013 census showed that AKL city is the fastest accelerating place to live in the entire country, growing at over 48% between 2006-2013, and currently the city is experiencing a new shortage of office space and an interesting reshaping of the retail market. The education sector is also still strong there, with Auckland Uni consolidating to its now three Central City sites and building more inner city student accommodation. City growth is strong and broadly based: residential, commercial, retail, and institutional.

There are risks and opportunities in this but what is certain, outside of a sudden economic collapse, is that the City Centre will be a completely different place in a few years, in form, and in terms of how it will operate. And the signs are promising that what we are heading to is an almost unrecognisably better city at street level than it has been in living memory.

What is happening is simply that it is returning to being a city of people. Ten of thousands of new inner city residents, thousands of new visitors in thousands of additional hotel beds each night, hundreds of thousands of workers and learners arriving daily from all over the wider city each day too. All shopping, eating, drinking, and playing within the ring of the motorway collar. Auckland is moving from being one of the dullest and most lifeless conurbations in the world to offering a new level of intensity and activity. Well that is certainly the possibility in front of us now.

Auckland has had boom times before, and each of these leave a near permanent mark on the built fabric of the city [the Timespanner blog has examples in great detail].  So it matters profoundly what we add to the city this time. We are at the beginning of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the postwar outward boom that came with such a high cost for the older parts of the city. By forcing the parts of the city built on an earlier infrastructure model to adapt to a car only system we rendered them unappealing and underperforming, and the old city very nearly did not survive this era. Only the persistence of some institutions, particularly the Universities, enabled it to hang on as well as it did. The car as an organising device is ideal for social patterns with a high degree of distance and dispersal. It is essentially anti-urban in its ability to eat distance but at the price of its inefficient use of space; it constantly fights against the logic of human concentration that cities rely on to thrive. It not only thrives on dispersal, it also enforces it.

Queen St 1960s
Queen St 1960s

But now the wheel has turned and cities everywhere are booming on the back a of model much more like the earlier one [see here for example: Seven cities going car-free]. This old-new model is built on the understanding that people in numbers both already present in the city and arriving on spatially efficient Transit systems providing the economic and social concentration necessary for urban vitality and success.

This seems likely to lead to a situation more or less observable in many cities world-wide where there is an intense and highly walkable and Transit served centre surrounded by largely auto-dependent suburbs. Melbourne, for example, is increasingly taking this form. And, interestingly the abrupt physical severance of Auckland’s motorway collar might just make ours one of the more starkly contrasting places to develop along these lines. A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns.

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014
Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Frankly I think this is fine, it could make for the best of both worlds. Those who want to live with the space and green of the suburbs can continue to do so but are also able to dip into a vibrant city for work, education, or especially entertainment, on efficient electric Transit, ferries, and buses when that suits. A vibrant core of vital commercial and cultural intensity sustained by those who choose to live in the middle of it 24/7. The intensity of this core plus any other growing Metro Centres [will Albany really become intense? Manukau City?] meaning the sprawl isn’t limitless and the countryside not pushed so far away that it is inaccessible. Auckland as Goldilocks; not all one thing or the other; neither all suburb nor all city. People will use or ignore which ever parts they want, and soon members of the same households will be able to indulge their different tastes without some having to leave the country.

What are the threats to this vision? Well we do actually have to build the Transit, this means completing the CRL soon as is possible, and ideally replacing a good chunk of the buses with higher capacity and more appealing Light Rail. To connect these two halves; the success of both the centre and the region it serves depend on it. But also we have deliver a much better public realm on the streets and especially at the water’s edge. We have to retain and enhance the smaller scale older street systems to contrast with the coming towers, like we have at Britomart and O’Connell St. All these moves require leadership and commitment and an acceptance that the process of getting there will be contested and difficult.

I have no fear that people in the wider city won’t be happy to choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys, especially into the city, then jump back into them for others across the wider city or out of town. After all it’s happening already. This is not then a bold prediction, merely the extrapolation of current trends. And it is the trend that tells us more about the future than the status quo. More of this:

CBD Transport Change

than this

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s
CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

or this

AKL m'ways 70s
AKL Grafton Gully 70s
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    1. Indeed; great post Patrick. “A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns” – but is the city centre the business up front, or the party round the back?

      1. Por quena las dos?

        On a serious note I think we need to look at how we can spread the density love around in a way that actually placates the local residents. Albany and Manukau present obvious opportunities because they don’t have existing detached properties and are close to great transit. If the city centre is the mullet where can we put our rats tails? And how can we start them. I think smales farm represents another opportunity and possibly the onehunga centre but how do we ensure that other transit developments spread the love? Is it enough to just humanize the street scape and let the market do the rest?

        1. I agree with your view on continuing development in Onehunga….its time for Waterfront Auckland to spend some effort on looking at the opportunities to develop the Onehunga Wharf. The area has the public transport connections already and there is amble scope to build apartments/townhouses to make it even more vibrant than it is now. I would like to see the Onehunga Wharf developed into something like the Granville Island markets in Vancouver, it would be a great addition to the city!

          1. Agree. The whole of False Creek’s revitalisaiton (including Granville Island) in Vancouver has been a great success.

  1. Great post. Absolutely superb.

    The city has become noticeably busier each and every year in recent times, especially on Friday afternoons in summer when a cruise ship is in.

    My bet is that next year there will be really huge problems with Queen Street’s footpaths getting overloaded and closures of Queen St will be necessary because of the volume of pedestrians.

  2. Great piece of commentary, Patrick.
    The scale of change is huge and very exciting – and we’re seeing it accompanied by a change in expectation and behaviour as well, especially around how people access the centre and the quality of areas they expect within it. One point I’d challenge is the ‘enormous sandpit’: yes, there will be a lot going on, but we are working hard to phase and manage the projects and their interdependencies, so that the impact is minimised wherever possible. There are also a lot of events coming up that need to be able to fit in and around that work. We want activity in the city to grow during the change, not be limited.
    You’re spot on that boosting public transport use now is key to managing that change. I got off a very full six-car electric train the other day, and realised it probably had nearly as many commuters as the civic car park. That’s hugely significant. Improving walking and cycling networks is critical too. Hopefully the rapid evolution of a quality cycle network to and through the centre will see some long-term changes in travel choice.
    We’ll get a map up on the city centre web pages in the next week or so showing all the projects on the table (although the timing of many is of course dependent on the LTP process). In short, we’re talking nearly 50 public sector projects and about 25 major private developments.

    1. Hi Oliver. All strength to your elbow with that coordination. I see the ‘giant sandpit’ as a huge opportunity to make some long lasting improvements rather than something to be feared. but of course a raging torrent can be as much of a problem as a dried up stream… But really Auckland is lucky to be facing the problem of so much happening at once than the reverse.

      Am concerned a little however that there may not be enough high altitude consideration of the great possibilities in front of us. No real discussion about the end point like they are having in Helsinki… Or is there a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ policy at work here?

      This is a historical moment of city re-shaping on a scale last seen when the trams were ripped up and the motorways started. We have a very real chance to build a truly great little metropolis here now: will we grasp it?

      Is our thinking bold enough? Is there enough awareness of the historical opportunity?

      1. As long as the mayor etc go on poor-mouthing, all those things won’t get done. It seems he wants the CRL to be his legacy. But what if the voters don’t go along with the enhanced system? That’s very probable, citizens being what they are. Promising low rates increases isn’t the path to greatness, especially now when the city is thriving. Make hay while the sun shines, they say. There seems to be a limited appetite for that right now, and it’s a pity. Becoming the worlds most livable city takes money and commitment. the money part is a problem because of resistance to taxes. Commitment is a problem because of the three month term of office.

      2. Thanks Patrick,
        Awareness of the historical opportunity? Yep – it’s called the City Centre Masterplan! And the Auckland Plan. And the Economic Development Strategy, the Integrated Transport Programme, the Waterfront Plan, the Local Board Plan…
        The great thing now is getting on and delivering these things.

      3. Great article Patrick. Yes it seems that there are so many of us are wanting a different future, and that we SHOULD be on the cusp of a genuinely transformational change. The sheer volume of RLTP submissions and heavy favour for walking, cycling and PT are good examples of this aspiration.. BUT my fear is that there is an awful lot of AT window dressing happening. They are making w,c and PT front of stage, but behind the doors it is BAU.. with old fashioned planners and engineers still focusing on deficiency analysis, predicting the population and trying to sure up provision of more of the same in greenfields areas.

        Yes Auckland needs to provide for people that want to live our lives in different ways.. and for those of us living close to the city and good public transport, we can have great urban lives.. but is the same pattern of investment just going to keep being replicated ad nauseum in to the future? Will this just keep perpetuating our reliance and take away resources that could be used to invest in public transport as the priority, rather than as the ad on when it is patently impossible to build more roading capacity? For instance, engineers and planners are all itching to begin greenfields master planning. They want to plan for new arterials, linkages, motorways to accomodate the projected demands. Some of this does include busways, (northwestern motorway), but it is as an add on.. rather than any real consideration of “instead of” or as a reallocation of existing motorway space even as a temporary measure. Aspirations for liveability, or any real understanding of the implicaitons of doing what we always have done dont seem to be getting a look in? Would be interested to know what your thoughts are on this? What sort of planning should we be encouraging in the greenfields areas? My fear is that a new suite of motorway and roading infrastructure in the burbs will take precedence in the funding scramble!

  3. It’s a good time for the city and I’m really excited for heading home in January.

    When we’re back in, the lady wants a dog. From my apartment the nearest patch of grass is on Federal Street by St Patricks, then Emily Place, then Albert Park by Bowen Street. The waters edge is entirely devoid of grass and none of these are proper ‘dog off leash’ areas. The first two are too small for me to be comfortable dealing with animal ‘business’ as there are bound to be people all over it on a nice day.

    it sounds pedantic, but that, playgrounds, safe cycling infra and proper ‘day to day’ retail stores are the only things missing now, I feel.The latter two will get dealt with (hopefully), but I’ve heard nothing on the first two. The development is great, but if we want ‘normal’ people to live here we need an alternative to quarter acre sections. Dog parks and playgrounds are a huge factor in that.

    1. Dogs are a great indicator of improved urban living conditions as you no doubt witness in Vancouver. I have seen lots more dogs in AKL lately. It’s just a matter of time before we see dog parks IMO.

      1. A better indicator is children. You see kids all the time in European cities. All the services are there and parents perceive security as being good enough that they don’t fear for their children’s lives. I like seeing kids in urban/downtown green spaces. Nothing livens a place like kids playing.

          1. Ah, the folks in Stonefields, they, like a century or more ago Victorians, think that “children should be seen and not heard”.

            They also believe that council (via AT) should provide them and their tenants with copious free on-street parking at $10K a pop, whereever the developer hasn’t provided enough off street parking.

            There is no sense of proportion or community spirit shown by some there.

        1. I live in one of the lower height (ie three storey) apartments near Vic Park. Quite a few kids in our apartment. Most of them were in immigrant families but a Euro -Kiwi couple with small kids just moved in upstairs from me a couple of weeks ago. More kids has corresponded with less 4am drunken, shouting, NZ and overseas students I’m happy to say as well, though we still get the odd 4am wakeup.

    2. Schools? There’s no public school very near the central city – guessing that might be on the horizon.

      And yes, beautifully written piece, I live in Wellington, love the place, but this made me feel a touch jealous of Auckland. Which is a fairly recent thing and a good thing.

      1. Freemans Bay Primary and the great Auckland Girls Grammar are just outside of the strangling m’way noose. You can see heaps of city kids trying to negotiate NZTA/AT’s horrendous intersections and woeful lack of pedestrian amenity to try to get to and from school and the city, especially up Wellington St.

        K Rd station is going to to be great for Auckland Girls, currently lots of girls transfer at Britomart or Newmarket to get to this fine old school in lovely grounds, just taking out those extra legs of the journey for them will be great, as will opening up this state school to more parts of the city more easily.

        Myers Park Kindy is a ripper, and there’s Kadimah on the other side too serving AKL’s Jewish community. The private Senior College in upper Lorne St is our most inner city option.

        1. A good public funded primary and secondary school that is easily accessible in city is needed. Also apartments that are pet friendy is also needed. Finally the cost of apartment per sqm should be competitive with houses on suburb.

          1. More than apartments that allow pets (but I wouldn’t mind getting birds or fish if allowed in mine) I’d really like to see apartments that prioritise storage space over car parks. My apartments only have storage space for the two bedroom units and not the one bedrooms but every unit has a carpark!

      2. I think that Auckland eventually passing Wellington as NZs urban capital is good for both cities, it will mean Auckland is a lot better but should hopefully help to push Wellington to improve too.

      3. Large areas of central Auckland are within the Auckland Grammar zone, which is pretty easy to access from the city on bus or train.

  4. The new tower next the egregious HSBC building will block the northern aspect of everyone who wants to look at the harbour. QE2 square, a unique open space, will be lost forever, and commuters will be crowded into the eternal shadow of a replacement alleyway. However, the council will pocket a few million so that’s all that matters.

    1. QE II square is a dog, and I can’t wait for it to be put out of its misery. Great to have the street edge returned there. ‘Unique’ is funny; uniquely useless.

      And it seems you have got the points of the compass confused. The new tower is on the southern side of the site, completely unlike the blocking HSBC building.

        1. It isn’t, unlike the walkway through the centre of Britomart and the protected (from the wind) Takutai Sq, only a hop, step and jump from this ‘unique’ place.

          1. Yes, given we have some other good public spaces nearby (heck even at the end of Princes (?) Wharf past RWC2011 party central with the deckchairs etc looking out onto the Waitemata harbour, watching the ferries go past and reading a good book) and given QE2 has been a nothing space for ages and ages I don’t think i’ll be crying too much…just as long as a good place for the Kauri is found. No more kauri scandals please LOL!

      1. +1

        I had to spend four afternoons in QE 2 last week. It is a horrible place to be.

        Walking through it isn’t so bad, in two minutes you’ve passed it, but actually spending time there?

        Diesel fumes from the idling buses all day long, cars and vans parking on the square, the half assed tree sculpture/ urban forest/ waterless water feature (?) where the swinging antenna used to be.

        Aotea Square however is pumping right now. Glad the fest is now annual!

        Excellent post Patrick, and a question- are there any big projects starting along the other bits of the CRL? Upper Symonds, Newton, Mt Eden?

        1. Now that Newton Station has moved down to Mt Eden that entire area will be getting a completely new street network and a huge boost, it will be really well placed for as much mixed use dev that planning regs will allow:

          The sooner AT can get working on this site the better, frankly. The existing line and station need to be adapted to the future pattern and keep operating while the TBMs operate from the southern portal and the new CRL facing platforms and so forth are constructed. Going to be an interesting process.

  5. Car free cities? Nice idea. I completely support the idea of public transport.

    And yet I tried to take the train from Mt Albert to the city Monday. The only ticket kiosk was broken (none of us there could get it to do anything) and during our attempts, there was an announcement the trains were running 20-25 minutes late. Irrelevant, since we couldn’t get tickets anyway. We took the bus instead.

    I was a visitor to that area, but was told by a local that it’s not uncommon for this to happen – which is consistent with my limited experience. $9 and about 90 min door to door for public transport for a journey that would have been 20 minutes by car.

    Public transport needs to get way more reliable and economic (time and money) before there will be significant impact on private cars and avoidance of the CBD for recreation.

    1. Coming from the Shore every day, the express bus is far superior to driving. Who wants sit in crawling traffic and then pay up to $20 in parking, when you can take a stress-free bus ride and arrive at work early? Today I nearly missed my bus and was disappointed at the prospect of driving… it’s weird, I was so addicted to my car last year.

      1. Hahaha Ropata! That’s great to hear. Who would’ve thought – A car commuter last year disappointed at the thought of driving now LOL!

      2. I’m in a similar predicament here in Melbourne too. I’ve signed up to GoGet (car sharing) and I haven’t used it once! Last year, (when I was in NZ) I loved driving to school and shuddered at the days which I had to use public transport. Not driving feels so much…..different.

  6. Nice article Patrick. In my opinion, a ‘mullet’ city is pretty good – you do get the best bits of both suburbia and city. I definitely think we should have a bit more debate on Queen Street as I believe that it should be more of a cross between Swanston and Bourke Street mall. In the ‘mullet’ city, it is convienent and affordable to travel almost everywhere by transit or car, unless you enter a cbd parking lot after 10am.

    1. Inner city residents and businesses don’t want you – no one wants to, or can afford to subsidise your transit choices any more (road space and parking reqs) and are growing more without you than with you.

      1. Well yesterday I made the effort to visit the CBD together with Mrs mfwic and the eldest Miss mfwic we drive in and parked in the appalling Victoria St carpark (a curse on the committee who designed it). We walked in and out of every clothes shop on Queen St and High Street and contrary to your opinion not one of the retailers blocked the door and said “we don’t want you here”. Quite the opposite, the staff were all very friendly. We spent the combined sum of $4 (at the carpark) and left to spend up large on the Shore and online. But it was a fun day out.

    2. What a strange thing to say!
      The council runs three huge (and far too cheap) parking buildings that cover the whole cbd.
      Aotea covers theatre-land and K Rd (Short walk up Greys Ave).
      Downtown covers the bottom of the CBD, ferries, and short walk to Wynyard.
      Victoria St covers the rest of midtown, Albert Park and the universities.
      I have never, never been unable to find a park at the first one I’ve driven into. Even during film festival when The Civic is chocka, there’s a classical concert at Town Hall, and something on at Aotea Centre.
      Unless what you’re talking about is a princess park directly outside your destination. Are you Murray Crane behind that username, mfwic?

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