One of best things Auckland is getting as a result of the great upgrade that is the City Rail Link is, at last, a proper urban public square in precisely the right place. The section of Lower Queen St in front of the grand old CPO that is now the Britomart train station, once void of all vehicles, will become the most important bit of paving in the city. Or at least it certainly has the potential to become the symbolic and functional starting point of the whole city: Not only will every protest or celebration will start or end there it is also where the city conceptually starts, down on the water’s edge. And out in front of a well used big public building that looks and feels enough like a northern european Rathaus, Italian Palazzo Publico, or north american City Hall, that relates to this public space way more successfully than our actual Town Hall ever has. That grand old ship of a building has always been rather closed off and remote, wedged up the hill too far from shore, with its entrance on the wrong side for the subsequently added public space.
Additionally it is certain to be full of people; they are delivered here everyday in ever increasing numbers by train, bus, and ferry. And in the 21st Century, I argue, the big Transit Centre is really the where the public interface with both each other and engage physically with local government in the way populations used to at Town Halls and big Post Offices. Those bureaucratic functions of city and state more usually take place online now, so the only routine way we collectively share that kind of interface is at the central station.
In fact I’ll go so far as to say that the new space, will it be know as Britomart Square?, will in fact help redeem the always awkward carpark roof that is Aotea Square, by giving it a balancing other self. These two places will act like the alpha and omega of the heart of Queen St, forming a shape like the cartoon drawing of a dog’s bone, or weights on a bar: in turn making this difficult-to-love gully floor into a more contained and bounded city spine. This, the flatter section of Queen St, will at last have somewhere to be from and to. Of course the redemption of Queen St also requires the painfully obvious removal of pointlessly circling lost private vehicles, a task that all our elected leaders and city apparatchiks have thus far failed to achieve, to the on going bewilderment of everyone. But I digress.
Now that Auckland is re-discovering the value of the urban public realm and is starting to reverse the decades of the ‘public squalor and private affluence’ philosophy imported from the US last century, a change that replacement of the dreadful and menacing downtown bus centre and carpark with the gleaming Britomart Train Station perfectly illustrates, it matters enormously how well this new public space is formed.
So here is the plan in its latest publicly released form. I am hearing rumours that the use of Galway and Tyler Sts for buses with them then entering the new public square as shown above may no longer be the plan; we can only hope that this is case. So apart from removing all [or almost all] vehicle traffic from lower Queen St the new public space is formed by the sale of the existing QEII Square to Precinct Properties who plan to rebuild the western street edge up to three stories [19m], as shown in the render below.
With a promised kink to the current line of the old Air NZ building, now the HSBC building, being the only relief in the line of new glazed shop fronts facing and defining the Square’s western edge.
The plan above identifies some waterside options [A, B, + C] for new public space that the Council is exploring to replace the loss of QEII square. Improvement and increase to these areas would all be welcome, and of course we’ve already paid a fortune to buy Queen’s wharf from ourselves, yet none are really urban civic public spaces like the piazza being promised here. Lower Queen St, D, was always public space, like every road. And in fact has been a people space [ie without traffic] at various times in the past:
This is a condition I can remember and was about as successful as the dreary and shaded QEII Square it connected to, but at least the unbuilt expanse of QEII Square meant in the afternoon once the shadow of the then Air NZ building moved onto Quay St it was sunny and bright.
Architect and urbanist Graeme Scott, Chair of the Urban Design Forum, fears we could be making another sub-optimal public place here with this current plan but also believes that with a relatively minor hack the potential shortcomings could be substantially improved. In his submission to the Private Plan modification to rezone QEII Square last November he writes:
So rather than the ‘pedestrianised street’ as proposed in the Council and Precinct deal an actual Square in shape, and critically one that doesn’t increase the shading problems already caused by the HSBC building, this is achieved by restricting the new building on the downtown site back to the line of the current HSCB building:
Where #21 is the existing Zurich House #1 is the HSBC, blue shading is the part to be built on by Precinct. Scott also feels the lane through to Albert St [Pink ] is too narrow on current plans so here it is shown at a 12m width. The resultant new public space [Green] is both less shaded and more complex and offering a section of north facing wall backing on to Zurich House which will be especially valuable in the morning and less susceptible to wind coming down Queen St.
This of course means less gross floor area for Precinct to use to get a return on their development and no doubt a renegotiation of the deal agreed to by Council last year would be required. But on this issue, without getting into specifics Scott says:
I find Scott’s arguments compelling.
First that it is very important we work hard to get this place right. I understand that the pressure to conclude a deal with Precinct over this site must have been furious, but now that the dust has settled I think it is time to take another look at the options and most importantly the public realm outcomes here. The plan change process is not complete, so while I’m sure the desire, especially by Precinct, to move forward as currently planned is no doubt strong, the public interest must be protected too, because, as Scott says, once it’s gone; it’s gone.
Second, his solution is looks both powerful and subtle; the essence of the deal remains, but the outcome is substantially improved for everyone.
*****Update: a couple of additional images showing the bulk of the scheme as currently planned  and the variation proposed by Graeme Scott :