K Road is changing. The city’s long-time boho heart is, in a way, sitting between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, there’s a city centre that’s bursting at the seams with university students and suit-clad professionals; on the other, post-gentrification Ponsonby.
A recent post on Public Address by Tina Plunkett took a look at the potential impact that some new developments on K Road might have on the area’s culture:
The shutting down of cultural institutions across Auckland to make way for towers of small, shoebox apartments is becoming almost epidemic – but at the same time we need growth of quality, spacious, inner-city living areas.
In the past year Karangahape Road has lost every single one of her original sex shops – but is this a bad thing? The landmark Las Vegas Girl is the last to succumb to closure. K Road is definitely in the throes of switching over.
But there are shimmers of hope popping up. In recent years we’ve had additions to this strip that are community focused, culturally aware and importantly, kind. Coco’s Cantina and Flying Out records are both prime examples of new businesses that are wholeheartedly embraced by our community, and by their own cultural communities. We need to support them. By supporting them, we keep our dream alive.
But what is next on the chopping block? The King’s Arms? Whammy Bar? The Old Folks Ass? Can they survive in a market of growing rents, amid the sound of the developers’ diggers?
This is an interesting and important issue. There isn’t necessarily a single right answer, but there is the possibility of a useful conversation.
Tina asks the following question about the trade-off between culture and growth:
We need to ask at what point we draw a line and stop sacrificing the culture for accommodation. The outer wings of our city highlight our relationship with heritage, history and culture. K Road has been a haven for ideas, community, music, arts, freedom and a shitload of fun for successive generations. Are we happy to toss that aside?
What’s worth more to us in Auckland? Our identity in our music, culture and arts – or six more flats?
This is a good question to ask, but I think we have to re-phrase it to get a meaningful answer.
In particular, I think it’s important to distinguish between two things that people often conflate:
- The buildings that exist (or no longer exist) in a place, and
- The social and economic function of a place, which is mainly about the people that use it.
There’s a relationship between built environment and social and economic functions, of course. Run-down warehouse space with high ceilings is famously amenable to starving artists in search of live/work space and punks in search of squats. But it’s not as direct a relationship as you might think.
That’s because buildings change uses over their lifetimes, and cycle through periods of high rents and low rents depending upon when they were built, vacated, depreciated, renovated, etc. Think of Ponsonby – twenty years ago, many of the pre-war wooden houses in the suburb were run-down and quite cheap. As a result, they provided housing for people on lower incomes.
Today, the buildings are largely the same from the outside, as heritage preservation rules and changing aesthetic preferences have kept people from demolishing them. But they now serve a totally different social and economic function: housing rather well-off people at a premium price. In the process, the old Ponsonby society has been displaced – or simply melted into thin air.
Apply these lessons to K Road. What do they tell us?
The first thing is that we should be less concerned with the buildings on the street (and the ownership of the buildings) than we are about the social and economic function of the place. Old buildings can be important and interesting and there are valid arguments for their preservation.
But if the aim is to preserve K Road (or any other place in Auckland) as a place for culture and creativity, only focusing on the buildings will result in failure. The buildings may not be demolished, but if there’s demand for the space rents will rise, the spaces will be renovated with sleek Danish interiors, and culture will be priced out in the process.
So what can be done?
Tina’s post offers a few insights about what might work.
We need to start by recognising that some degree of change is inevitable and probably beneficial. New buildings will be constructed, and some old ones will be torn down in the process. This is good for several reasons.
First, as Tina notes, Auckland’s got a shortage of affordable living space at the moment, so more apartments would be helpful. More small, affordable dwellings will make it easier for the people who make K Road what it is to keep living in the area.
Second, although it would obviously be bad for K Road if it were all dynamited and rebuilt in one go, a steady trickle of new construction tends to support the ongoing cultural vibrancy of an area. It means that there will always be some buildings that are getting a bit shabby and thus providing a low-rent place for various creative endeavours.
In short, new buildings are probably alright. But, as Tina notes throughout her article, we need to ask whether they will function in a way that reinforces (or undermines) the existing culture.
The existing community can influence this process for the better by engaging with developers and new entrants to help them to understand what makes the place tick. This obviously works best when a place already has a strong community and identifiable values – as K Road does. It’s certainly encouraging to see examples of new businesses in the area that want to enhance K Road rather than replace it.
What do you think about what’s happening on K Road?