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:

  1. The buildings that exist (or no longer exist) in a place, and
  2. 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.

203-209 Ponsonby Rd in 1960s
Terraced houses on Ponsonby Road in the 1960s. (Source)

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.

203-209 Ponsonby Rd in 2010s
The houses remain the same… but the place has changed. (Source)

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?

Share this


    1. Rent control is without a doubt a suboptimal policy for preserving housing affordability. It keep housing costs down for the relatively small number of people who win the rent control lottery, while raising them for everyone else. Furthermore, the experience in New York – which has one of the most extensive rent control systems in the world – shows that the majority of people benefitting from the program are not anywhere near the poverty line.

      See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/magazine/the-perverse-effects-of-rent-regulation.html

        1. The other way to do that without having to regulate and distort the market is to have private benefactors sponsoring artists. This has of course been one of the main means of supporting artists throughout history.

        2. “Regulate” and “distort” implies some sort of pure market that exists without governmental intervention

          If your idea of “pure” is the state of nature, enjoy Somalia

      1. New York’s rent control and stabilisation programme is mired in exceptions and bad compromises with landlords. As the article noted, only houses built before a certain date have rent control been applied. It’s difficult to judge rent control and regulation as an idea based on a very flawed (IMHO) implementation.

        What about experience from other countries? Germany for example (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_regulation#Germany) sets an upper limit on rent increases for all rentals (no more than 20% over three years.) Together with strong tenure law the cost of housing there seems to remain stable.

    2. It is really important that a few cities have rent control so that authors of economics text books have some examples of a daft policy. It means more people want to live there and fewer people want to build there and no easy way to close the widening gap between supply and demand.

      1. I think most economists would prefer rent control to be abolished so they could point to a concrete instance in which economists’ views actually changed policy!

        1. “‘Rent Control -Some economist (I forget who) once called it “the best way to destroy a city, other than bombing.” ‘”
          New York eh? Total failure of a city. Whereas here in Auckland, we have all the housing problems solved.

        2. You have weird logic harrymc. “we have problems here in Auckland, New York has different problems, I like New York therefore we should create their problems here as well as our own”

  1. Ponsonby was full of students, hippies and Pacific Islanders in the 1960’s and 70’s when I was a student. By the late 1970’s the gentrification had set in and big PI families were realising that for the price of the drafty 3br Ponsonby/Grey Lynn villa they could buy new 5br in south Auckland. When I came to buy in the late 1970’s, gentrification had well set in. I could not afford Ponsonby or Grey Lynn and the northern slopes of Mt Eden/Grafton were all occupied by landlords renting to students and nurses. I settled for Kingsland which was still very affordable and with the motorway having just ripped through the gully, they were practically paying people to live there.

  2. The greatest irony for Heritage campaigners, especially through the PAUP process is that almost buildings such as the Ponsonby Rd one shown above would be impossible to build now. The dispersal ensuring regulations still on the books from the sprawl era, and vigourously promoted by the fear-mongers like the 2040 group; height limits, parking minimums; set-backs, density maximums etc, all ensure that nothing of the sort can happen again.

    1. I once heard heritage zoning described as a way to *prevent* today’s zoning regulations from being applied. That seems about right.

  3. There’s a reality here and that is Auckland will always and into the future have a shortage of affordable living for the likes of those on low, no, or minimal incomes. Auckland is for sale and has been globally so for at least 5 years now. There really is no turning back unless, just maybe, a communist government were to be elected. And I suspect that won’t happen anytime soon. Seriously, pontificating in the face of those loaded with dollars is pretty much futile. Not being negative, I love the idea of maintaining the spirit of various areas, but sadly money (local and foreign) is talking and anything central Auckland is for sale to the highest bidder.

  4. ‘Management’ of supply and demand via social housing policy that works the balance between the two supply side levers; availability of rental property and affordability of first mortgages, is in my opinion a better approach than rent control. Sure there is still the lottery aspect and it would probably have to be run by government administrations; though a mix of local and central govt interventions could add an a useful dynamic.

  5. or keep the façade of the nicer buildings and build apartments etc above them. Retail/offices on the lower levels, apartments above.

  6. Somebody once wrote that a city is only made by it’s dodgy alleys, bohemian hangouts and the distinctly ungentrified spaces that organically develop. Auckland has already taken all the dirt out of Fort St, and K Road is really the last bastion of tastiness in this increasingly homogenised cityscape. Auckland Central is without a doubt better than it was a decade ago, but preserving heritage is not given enough stock, and K Road and her gay clubs, transvestites, hookah pipes and hooker types give Auckland a little spice, which I believe is healthy for a vibrant downtown. I have heard St Kevin’s Arcade is to be renovated, I hope that they can preserve its magic. By the way you have to check out that cafe in the St James on Queen, that place is gorgeous! And how about that crumbling church down Richmond Road, can it be converted to a B n B or something like they do in Italy these days? Long live artistas, bohemians and alternative society!

    1. +1

      Also, everyone seems to forget you NEED a place to stay out late, buy drugs, watch street fights etc

      If K Rd isn’t it, it will spread to other places. Better to have it all concentrated in one place- close to Ambulance, Police and Hospital.

  7. K Road like other streets has seen many changes. In K road’s case it has changed from being the premier shopping street in New Zealand with 4 departmental stores and no prostitution to a decline to being known for sex shops, prostitutes and clubs.

    Personally I have no regrets on the reduction of the sex shops which are being converted back into shops.

    What the article ignores is that K road is and always was a residential area.with people living above the shops and the surrounding streets. The buildings that people want preserving were built when K road was a prosperous street with many local people. These people were removed to build the motorway which lead the street to decline.

    In the last 20 years there have been a number of apartment blocks that have been built just off the main road. Also the departmental stores has been converted into apartments. This has lead to an increase in the local population which has enabled the street to come out of a decline and enabled places like Coco’s and Apero to survive. The building of more apartments in the area should be encouraged to increase the local population and permit local businesses to prosper.

    Some of the buildings need to be demolished as they are in danger of falling down in a bad storm let alone a minor earthquake. It would be great if they were replaced by development similar to Parisian blocks with retail on the ground floor, commercial on the first and second floor and apartments above. This would enable a compact city with people being able to live close to their work and social life.

    If the population increased sufficiently it could enable the reopening of the Mercury Theatre.

    O’Malleys menswear is still trading. There are still sex shops on K road though reading the article one would expect they had all been closed. There are still more coffee shops and cafes, and better quality, on K road than Ponsonby Road. There are fewer prostitutes than there used to be and the remaining ones are not as drugged up. Yes, K road is changing, but it always has.

    1. “Yes, K road is changing, but it always has.”

      Couldn’t agree more. Bohemian types may bemoan K Rd’s changing nature, but that’s just because they are the current incumbents. They neglect that K Rd has already changed from a forested ridge to a shanty. Then it changed from a shanty to high street. And then it changed from a high street into a seedy underworld. It will change again. And again. And again.

      The notion that the current state of K Rd is, despite the seediness, the absolute height of culture that should be bottled and preserved forever is almost absurd. Are these people suggesting that this K Rd incarnation is seriously the best it’s ever been, or ever will be? Don’t get me wrong – I love Coco’s. I love Whammy Bar. And I have a great story about a friend who worked at Peaches & Cream for a night, that I retell at every opportunity. But I for one welcome change with open arms.

      1. Retail is ever changing. Where it changes the most is where it is hippest. It comes from appealing to a young demographic with new ideas, tastes, and aesthetic sense which values edginess. The danger is that these areas can become mainstream as young people age or abandon them for more contemporary areas. Those areas tend to be in the vanguard of retail innovation and experimentation, a description that fits K Road well. You will know they’re in trouble when landlords start signing long term leases with chains and others who can pay higher rent. For now, though, things are going in a good direction on K Road, though it’s a story that has yet to be written.

      2. Michael and Steve – great points about how cities in general (and K Rd in particular) are always undergoing a process of continual change. Stopping change is when the city itself stops…

        1. I agree with you, for once.

          We romaniticise the slums only once we’ve kicked enough of the poor and dangerous/”dangerous” out.

  8. “K Road has lost every one of her sex shops.” But is that a *good* thing?

    The retail sex business is going the way of the dodo because of internet porn, and its complete demise is near. But such businesses have been essential infrastructure for the visitor market – especially conventioners – for many years. They won’t go away completely because to compete in the convention and visitor market, you have to have some. If not on K Road, then somewhere. The question is, where?

  9. That article had an oddly NIMBY tone to it. It accepted the need for more apartments in theory, but without explanation bemoaned a perfectly good development on the real groovy site (the record store will survive by the way). The article complains about “shoebox apartments” as bringing gentrification but celebrates a restaurant that serves $30 bowls of spaghetti.

    I live in this area in an apartment built about ten years ago that wouldn’t pass the aesthetic judgement of this self appointed protector of “the community”. But if my building had not been built I wouldn’t be able to afford to live here. And if plenty more apartments are not built over the coming years then rents will be pushed up to a point where only the rich will be able to stay.

    I love the culture of this area, that’s part of why I choose to live here. But culture is a living thing, it is intangible, and it is much more than buildings. Protecting a specific culture is near impossible, and attempting to do so by blocking development will only push up prices and quicken the process of gentrification. If only more people who care about urban culture understood this.

    1. I agree with you completely. There’s a strain of NIMBYism that disguises itself by aligning with things that are not mainstream. The effect is very similar, and the eventual outcome is that these “interesting” people are pushed out by richer ones, having restricted supply and driven up costs.

    2. I don’t like to describe people as NIMBYs as I think it stigmatises rather than starts conversations. And I don’t know Tina Plunkett well enough to know where exactly she’s coming from. I thought she had a nuanced enough take on the issue to be worth discussing – I didn’t agree with everything she wrote but I didn’t disagree with all of it either.

      Coco’s Cantina is an interesting case. I haven’t eaten there myself – I’m not really a $30 pasta kinda guy – but I understand that the owners are willing to lend out the space for community groups after hours. So they seem to be serving a useful role in the community despite the prices.

  10. Transportblog appears (somewhat ironically, all things considered) to be forgetting the biggest change about to hit K road, one that will sweep aside its current community. We are constructing the CRL to provide mass transit services directly to this site and K road will soon be home to some very high property values.

  11. As the apartment prices in the K road depending on size are already over a million and the new apartments being built are well over a million one can argue the property prices are already very high.

    One aspect that is interesting is the number of retired people downsizing from a large home into an apartment rather than into a retirement village complex. They have decided they are far to active to move to a retirement complex and enjoy being close to everything in K road.

    The increase in the local elderly population is a reason for the development of the Beresford square station entrance rather than the Mercury road with its steep slope. A number of elderly residents have mentioned to me that they have difficulty getting up Mercury lane and would have difficulty using the Mercury road entrance.

  12. There are different aspects of culture.

    Strip clubs culture is often associated with gangs, drugs and crimes.
    The artist culture is often associated with poverty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *