This is a guest post submitted by reader Harriet. 

Town Centre Upgrade

We talk so much about how to make the CBD more pedestrian friendly by removing general traffic, and concentrating on public transport and active modes instead, but do we do this enough for our town centres? For the CBD we talk about traffic calming, diverting and even removal of cars for places like Queen Street, so why don’t we apply the same logic to our town centres?

Town centres for the most part sit along main arterial roads. As Auckland has expanded outwards, and over time became more auto focused, these roads have increasingly become through routes for people driving past, rather than functioning as places. Let’s think about the CBD. Is Queen Street a through route arterial or is it focused on access? Policies especially since the 90’s have encouraged motorists to use orbital routes by reducing the speed limits on Queen Street, Barnes Dance crossings, and street upgrades to encourage pedestrian access. In the future Queen Street could become a pedestrian mall with LRT (Light Rapid Transit, or light rail). In a way Symonds Street, Albert/Nelson/Hobson are like western and eastern ring roads. Most motorists therefore freely elect to use these orbital routes. So can applying the same principles to our town centres which presently have radial through roads and instead change it up investing in orbital routes instead which will allow traffic to still flow around, but leaving our Town Centres free for people. Could this be a win win?

Mt Albert was once a strong historical town centre with access to the old tram network, it has now fallen into decay. The local board has lately fought for revival and DART has brought an upgraded station but people still flock to St. Lukes Mall or the CBD.  Anyone who has been to Mt Albert can see that New North Road is used as a through route for people driving to New Lynn, Avondale and further afield, not for people coming to Mt Albert. New North Road thus has been upgraded for this purpose being a dual carriageway through the town centre, not including the protected parking on the station side and on-street parking on the other side. Traffic lights are phased for vehicle flow and the walkways remain decayed and cracked. All this creates a seriously unfriendly environment for pedestrians and shoppers. The new town centre plan really does little to change this. It keeps the same amount of lanes, not adding in any real cycle or bus priority with really token improvements to aesthetics.

Tram heading to Mt Albert

What if we treated Mt Albert the same way we would treat Queen Street, or even the ways other cities would treat their own versions of Queen Street? What if we wanted our town centres to be destinations, not another set of traffic lights? What if we wanted to create great town centres for people without even hurting traffic flows? It’s possible, if just like the CBD here and in other cities we think orbital not radial.

Here is my alternative proposal. If we rail-bridged the Woodward Road level crossing (which needs to be done regardless) and if we diverted New North Road down Carrington Road and Woodward , we would remove one level crossing and create a bypass of Mt Albert Town Centre. From the Woodward Road/Richardson Road intersection to the Mt Albert Road/Carrington Road intersection there would be a section of road completely free from general traffic. The area especially on the NAL (Western Line Side) is mostly post-war low density retail, light industrial, re-purposed warehouses and a service station. If we pedestrianised the old New North Road this would leave enough room for cycle lanes, shops to re-purpose the old walkways into outdoor space and of course plenty of space for pedestrians. If up-zoned to allow mixed use and higher density this would create plenty of area for apartments, offices and retail right next to Mt Albert Station and a future light rail terminus for the Sandringham Road LRT, all without drastically affecting traffic flows. Traffic instead would use the orbital route or potentially switch to SH16 when the upgrades including Waterview are completed.

Objections would be:

  1. Parking (always  parking) – Study after study has shown that retail owners greatly overestimate the amount of customers who come by car compared to active modes and PT. That after improvement to active modes & PT more customers tend to visit not less. Also, with more residents as part of the mixed use potential development, there will be a larger base of local shoppers who can simply walk to the centre.
  1. Bus Access – In the long run, before 2023, it is possible to have both Sandringham Road LRT which could potentially terminate at Mt Albert and likely to have the CRL with potentially 5 minute frequencies to Henderson and the City plus a 3 train per hour crosstown service. We are moving to a best practice bus network which would mean there will be significantly fewer New North Road buses after the CRL, as well as Electric Buses which will be more Town Centre friendly due to less pollution both noise & air. In the short run buses could use the Town Centre with strict rules on idling & speed restrictions.
  1. It will create a negative outcome for some on the new orbital route – Perhaps in some ways, however, the proximity of the town centre and increased transport options would likely increase their property values and they would have access to the improved town centre. Also, Woodward Road is busy at present and the removal of the level crossing would be of great benefit to the residents.
  1. Wouldn’t it be better to just reduce the traffic? Possibly. However, I wanted to show a win-win situation where through motorists wouldn’t realistically be affected travel wise and the local people would have their town centre returned to them. Who doesn’t love win-win?

If we think orbital and not radial is it possible we could have a Swanston Street in every town centre in Auckland, such as Kingsland, Mt Eden, Glen Innes, Sandringham, Avondale, New Lynn, Ellerslie and more?

Is it possible that with a little creative thinking, town centres can become great places just like CBDs or like Santa Monica Promenade? What do you think, any ideas of your own? Also, let me know in the comments if you would like this to become a series as I do have ideas for the above.

Santa Monica Promenade
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    1. The main section goes from 7 lanes incl. parking to only 4 lanes incl. parking…

      And one lane less than now on Carrington Road and Mt Albert Rd.

        1. No worries – they were not very widely circulated except for that one press release, it seems clear!

  1. Hi Harriet

    Great blog post, and it’s great that Mt Albert town centre is finally getting some discussion. But I have to disagree with your concept. Bypasses and ring roads are not successful ways to revive town centres, and pedestrianising suburban high streets have been similar failures (Onehunga, New Brighton). What works in the CBD doesn’t necessarily work out in the minor centres.

    I totally agree that the current format of Mt Albert centre is a failure, and that far too much priority has been given to traffic. In an ideal world we’d all walk, cycle, bus or train to Mt Albert shops but in reality, consideration needs to be given to all modes, and that includes cars. A balanced approach is what’s required and kicking cars out entirely is no better than the status quo which kicks the other modes out in favour of cars. As much as I hate to admit it: some quantity of through traffic and some car parking is a good thing for centres. There. I said it.

    For my 2 cents, I actually think the proposed upgrade does a pretty good job of finding that balance. And from my experience there’s a huge amount of support among the community for it (I’m a local, FYI).

    1. you’re missing the key point that LAND USE is the main determinant to how well an area will thrive, not the presence of traffic. Take New Brighton for example. It used to be thriving, mainly because it had the advantage of Saturday trading when no-one else was. Over time that advantage disappeared, as did the trade; hence the push a few years back to reintroduce a road into part of the pedestrian mall. However that has not had any significant effect, mainly because the retail that is there hasn’t essentially changed; the main retail players had moved out leaving some tired old shops and numerous vacant ones. Putting a road back in wasn’t going to change that. Fortunately there are now plans to introduce a swimming complex that will provide an anchor destination, as well as some more residential nearby. I imagine that those things will have more effect on improving the activity in the area than the road did.

      1. Absolutely. And it’s more appropriate land use that the locals ultimately want in their town centre. But isn’t the streetscape and amenity one of the key factors that encourages people to invest in land use? (although I appreciate that there’s a chicken-and-egg element to this argument)

    2. Think Onehunga failed because transport not there to match. 2tph on OBL compared to 6tph each way on Western. Onehunga also is slow to get to for buses NNR is easier.

      Also land use hasn’t matched, land use as part of the reform should be mixed use zoning I would hope the low value warehouses would be developed and the shops below frontage renewed as apartments built on top.

      Car parking is important but think about it like a shopping mall. The car parks are around the edges and inside is basically a street with shops either side, no cars pass through or park inside the centres shops lane. It’s about applying the same to our town centres parking around the land with the shops around.

      1. I was in the library café in Onehunga once. The café itself is really nice, but unfortunately it is sitting in the middle of a swath of urban wasteland. I felt a bit bad for the owners of the café.

  2. Could this actually improve traffic flows in the area by removing one conflict between new north road and carrington? Today carrington road is always backed up so bad.

    Would need to widen the carrington rd rail overbridge or loose the proposed cycle lane.

    1. Carrington Road backs up because of…
      1. two lanes into one at Unitec (get rid of this and make it lh turn only)
      2. lack of bus lanes/truck lanes

      Paint fixes 1, quick fix for 2, done

      Woodward Road is much tougher

      1. Think Woodwards main issue is the level crossing down 12 times an hour now at peak.

        I recommended that the level crossing should be removed as it needs to be removed anyway realistically

        1. How many times per hour do the traffic lights at the nearby intersection go red? 20 or 30? Woodward Rd is a residential street, it seems unusual to advocate sending more cars down there or even to care about that crossing.

          A lack of bus lanes on New North Rd is of much greater concern. Adding these would make the Mt Albert town centre equivalent to Mt Eden from a traffic perspective.

      2. I was thinking about heading east. It backs up because NNR gets all the priority with the light phasing at Mt Albert which thus would remove.

        Heading south west it backs up all the way from pt chev.

  3. If the Sandringham Road LRT terminates around the Countdown Stoddard Road, how would this connect through?

    1. Potentially I was careful not to say would have as it may not happen.

      Stoddard connects to Richardson which comes up on NNR around where my ped mall starts. If SMART is built as LRT as well as the Botany extension which was mentioned in the last SMART report yo investigate a crosstown RTN of LRT would be possible from Mt A to Botany.

      The routes however are not concrete yet though will be interesting to see what final ATAP report says next month.

  4. I agree with Michael – Good traffic flows are necessary for retail survival. Very busy roads do reduce centre viability, especially when they remove car parks and cause a lot of noise (including that of bus stops – very noisey in large numbers!). But, yes, too much is given away to the commuter. Where can I go to enjoy brunch and read an ipaper? Grey Lynn (great north road) is another example of a road that needs to go on a diet.

    But lets be honest. – the real cause of Local Centre decline is the strip mall and supermarket. New North Rd is a perfect example. Look at Mt Albert Pak N Save – – isolated, 100s of metres from the centre with no connection to anything around it and no ability to connect with the town centre. Supermarkets could be the ‘heart’ of smaller centres but instead they decide to compete. Even when located within a centre, it is simply unacceptable that they internalise all shopping behind a giant blank wall and a sea of car parks. European cities would never allow with such a gross attack on public amenity.

    If we want centres to be vibrant and successful places, we need greater restrictions on ad-hoc retail outside of centres along main roads. The little liquor stores and other shops dotted along main roads, and the strip malls, are eroding the viability of centres (and the amenity of residential areas, and the efficiency of arterials).

    And you are right about general amenity – iYou dont often find great restaurants, taverns and cafes in a place that’s run-down. These amenities, co-located with childcare centres and gyms, are the best hope we have of achieving a social core in our smaller centres.

    1. The thing I noted in Europe was that virtually every single city I visited had a traffic-free centre, whether it was 50,000 or 2,000,000 people. It didn’t seem to be affecting the vibrancy of the trade in any of those places. If you’re really worried about how close you can drive to the town centre, some of the places featured underground car-parking right below the town square. But I’d say that it was the good selection of shops/cafes/etc and the close proximity of many people living in/near the centres that made the difference.

    2. One of the things I noted was land use needed to change a Newmarket mixed use zone would be appropriate for town centres.

      I would envision the area becoming more developed with frontages being approved as apartments built on top of existing shops as well as new mixed use development on the existing low value land use warehouses and petrol station.

      Countdown/New World could be approached also for one of the above sites they have been opening more urban supermarkets recently.

  5. I’ve been thinking recently how would you solve/improve township of Ellerslie. Big thoroughfare and can really slow with the ped crossing cars parking etc when around peak times and popular cafe morning & lunch times. Have had people dashing in front of my moving vehicle at night crossing esp at the corner area. I wonder if a small section of shared cobbled path would work about where the corner is of Main Highway & Roberts St down to say half the town centre or even to Arthur St. Could branch up a little to any connected roads. People going straight through could go over the motorway interchange with Great South Road, but perhaps would only work if this was upgraded to allow straight over crossing to the other side. Would be interesting what other car movements would result with people trying to avoid a slow drive through.

      1. GI; Yes! It’s just sitting there now with a great fast train, and a brand new community building in Te Oro. What it needs is a bold master plan of 4-7 storey apartment buildings with retail/ community below, and better public realm. Then Panuku (would need to be a public programme, I reckon) to build one block at a time, refining the design, listening to the community, and taking them on a journey. I appreciate this is a big change from the current tatty current form; very tired cheaply built sub-modernist retail lumps.

        This volume is the way to deliver both affordable living and population to lift the retail performance and deliver more safety through ‘eyes on the street’ and enhanced community. It would require courage and determination and clear local benefits to gain acceptance, but done well, could really deliver a greatly improved outcome in would should be a great location. Then move on to other similar places like Papatoetoe…

        1. Also remember HNZ transferred lots of the properties and land in the area to Tamaki Regeneration a JV between AC and the Government, I believe they are interested in Urban Renewal.

        2. That is a great idea. The council could choose a few centres like Glen Innes, Panmure, Avondale and Pt Chev. They could carry out a community consultation programme and change the rules to allow intensification. I suggest a friendly sounding name for it all like Liveable Communities.

    1. The problem in Auckland is that, whenever we have built the bypasses, arterials and motorways, we have never ‘civilised’ the areas we’ve sent traffic around so traffic continues to use these places as rat runs. Ellerslie is a prime example of this.

      1. Yes exactly, so slow it right down with a “shared space” (I said “shared path” in error above) & so any bypasses would become more attractive if that’s what a driver wants.

        1. Also I think it’s about the intention

          Bypasses objectives before were traffic engineers trying to increase flow they did really care about the town centre or land use.

          This would be from a urban planners point of view so the objective is to revive the town centre with the different objective different measures would be taken like road diets, shared spaces and ped malls with land use changed to mix use to reflect the new priority for the area

        2. Good point. We are now building Waterview, one of arguments given was to get local streets less traffic. Are we following guidelines through on THAT part of the deal? Probably nope.

  6. Thanks for the comments, love constructive criticism btw so don’t hold back. I promise to keep replying however battery is dying and going to Public Transpirt Users Association AGM tonight so no time to charge till later.

  7. Our local ‘town centre’ is the Stoddard road shops. Now that Maioro street connects to Stoddard road, Stoddard road west of Maioro is little more than an unnecessary shortcut. I think they could totally transform the area by making Stoddard road less attractive to motorists – e.g. speed bumps, calming, etc.
    Of course giving the town centre a proper name would also help!

      1. Agree LRT could change the Stoddard area, however will be tough due to SH20 and people wanting quick access to it.

      2. “Little Mogadishu” is what the locals call it, and it used to have the most amazing ethiopian bread sold in one of the food shops… then they changed something and it wasn’t as delicious anymore.

        The baker facing Richies does great stuff.

  8. Great Post. I really think Mt Albert like most town centres has a lot of unrealised potential. In Auckland there are sadly few examples of successful vibrant town centres. All these town centres should be lively destinations for tourists to venture too.

    I know thinking out west New Lynn is slowly improving with some good urban design of bypasses and shared spaces. Unfortunately It is taking a while for these retail spaces to lease.

    Glen Eden as discussed last week again could benefit from a bypass and more people living in the town centre.

    Henderson again massive potential with already some good facilities but too much traffic goes through Great North Road. There has been talk of turning this road in to a shared space ala New Lynn which could be more successful if more traffic was diverted. Henderson is a good compact size to be really successful.

    1. Glen Eden is a good one as well, high potentially to create a vibrant transit orientated urban area.

      Henderson needs massive improvement first the station needs an upgrade and some gates. I would also remove general traffic from the bus stops outside like New Lynn creating a proper interchange with good bus shelters.

      1. Yes good points. Henderson does need a proper interchange. Quality apartments in the town centre will also help which Panuku have planned hopefully.

        A better connection to west city mall is needed from the train station. Perhaps Westfield could build apartments above the mall opening up that whole train facing side.

    2. Unfortunately New Lynn isn’t improving. I walk around there every weekend (lately trying to catch an effing Pikachu) and since the new apartments went in, there hasn’t been much improvement. Still dead as a dodo.

      1. The weird thing about New Lynn is what you see when you step outside the station or Lynmall. Mostly car shops. The kind of environment where you wouldn’t expect human life on the street. Towards the northeast the residential areas are about a kilometre away.

        1. Yes New Lynn is still pretty quiet. It’s quite a sprawling monster and it’s epicentre is still the mall.

  9. Great post, Harriet – thanks for writing it! You definitely raise a good question about how we should best enable older retail centres to thrive.

    At the moment, main street suburban retail centres are neither fish nor fowl. It’s not exactly walkable, because AT’s priority is usually to pump a lot of cars down the arterials, but it’s not exactly drivable either because it hasn’t been built out with lots of parking.

    Really, they need to choose one or the other, or possibly a smart mix of both with walkable main streets and shared parking facilities out the back on bypass roads. (And recognise that shared parking a short walk away is only attractive if the walk itself is pleasant and safe.)

    And, as GlenK notes, land use change will hopefully be the agent of change in these places – bringing more people within walking distance. You can already kinda see these elements coming together in some places, like the Mt Eden shops.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I really want this to be a discussion on ideas for our town centres as they get forgotten about.

      So happy to hear ideas other than my own

  10. I have lived on the North Shore near the town centres of Birkenhead and Milford. Both are quite nice town centres, and in both:
    – some thought has been given to people on foot: both town centres have zebra crossings across the main street. In Milford the crossing between Milford Rd and Kitchener Rd has a Barnes dance. Overall the impression there is that pedestrians are legit users of the street, rather than awkward interlopers.
    – the mall / supermarket is in the middle of the town centre
    – you can tell from the street grid around them that both are quite old town centres.

    Birkenhead actually has a bypass for traffic heading to the city, and there the town centre has quite a bit of traffic calming (speed bumps and raised zebra crossings).

    But also: the density 200 metres away is exactly the same as the density 1.5 km away, which is weird if you’re used to Europe, and really annoying if you’re looking for a place within walking distance of a town centre.

    Meanwhile, in Glenfield the proposal to put a zebra crossing was rejected because there would be a few parking spaces less.

  11. Hi Harriet. I think it would be hard to make this work commercially – aside from the fact the residents of Woodward Rd might have an issue with it. Time has left these shops behind – people choose to shop elsewhere (both St Lukes and Lynnmall are close) so you would only have cafes, takeaways and maybe the odd hairdresser who could possibly survive there – and all of them would prefer cars passing through. Pedestrianised streets have been tried at various times throughout NZ but usually they just kill off the few shops that were doing OK. Have a look at the shops in that sad square next to the Newmarket railway station if you want to see what it will look like. Just a bunch of For Lease signs – yet only metres from the highest priced retail spots in NZ.

    1. yeah that square is appalling. I was catching the train from there for the first time the other day and thought i’d grab a coffee on the way, but there was not one single cafe. Big sunny square right next to major train station and no where to get a coffee!

      1. Yeah that’s a poor design, to removed from Broadway with only a stab-alley link, and too low in the ceilings giving a claustrophobic feel. I’m sure it’s because the developer was left to design and fund it, but what I don’t get is why developers shoot themselves in the foot with this sort of thing. Don’t they realise a good public space means foot traffic and retail rents?

        Anyway, the Station Cafe actually does good coffee despite its cheesy lurid orange exterior.

        1. I reckon it’s actually got good bones and is entirely fixable. Yes the entrance from Broadway obviously needs sorting, but also that appallingly badly proportioned ‘loggia’ on the north side could be fixed, actually made fantastic, buy hacking out the floor above it to make the height work with its depth. The shops would then actually work, currently it’s so oppressive under there.

          Interestingly it’s just car parking up there. So telling; even a place with no vehicle access is being malignely affected by frigging car parking!

          Also buses should stop on Broadway near a new improved entrance along with buslanes there… Again a handful of carparks stuffing it up.

        2. I had thought of something similar, but the car parks above are owned by apartment owners, there is probably $2m just to buy them out, assuming they want to sell.

          What ever happened to the plan to open up the Broadway entrance anyway?

  12. In fact I don’t know what you can do with any of these old town centres – aside from perhaps finding a specialist theme. Hay-on Wye in Wales did it with old book shops – but even that I think has waned a bit in recent years with the rise of the web. There are simply too many of these small shops for the possible uses – Auckland is full of them. I would move the footpath out a bit and make a little garden in front of them and sell them as houses.

    1. Graeme it isn’t at all hard to know what to do to enable these centres to thrive:

      1. Reduce dominance and speed of vehicle through traffic.
      2. Connect strongly with alt modes; Rapid and Active.
      3. Strongly increase the number of immediate residents; build up, allowing building up.
      4. Invest in public realm & amenity; streetscape, street trees, public art, libraries etc
      5. Encourage local specificity to express itself from within community; events etc

      Linking top down and bottom up together as much as possible, experts and locals, public investment and private biz, history and change.

      Note: #1 is critical, but not sufficient.

      1. Mm I can confirm these points. As pointed out before, both Milford and Birkenhead are doing well. Regarding point 5, Birkenhead has a Santa parade, and Milford has a Pirate Day.

        When comparing malls and town centres, a thing which IMO really stands out is what kind of food you can get. It will be a sad day when your only option for eating out is the food court in a mall. The food chain outlets in there just can’t match what those little restaurants in those town centres have on offer.

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