Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Patrick was originally published in June 2014.

This is a quick post on the Downtown site. Precinct Properties, the owner of the Mall and the two existing towers [Zurich Hse + HSBC Building] between Lower Queen St and Lower Albert St, are expected to lodge a resource consent in a couple of months for a total rebuild of this site. We expect this proposal to include:

  • a 36 story tower on the south west corner, opposite the Customs Hse
  • 3 story retail precinct in between the three towers
  • an unknown quantity or location of carparking
  • the reinstatement of streets, or ‘street-like’ ground level public realm through the site instead of QE II Square.

Other significant and related issues:

  • Construction is expected to begin next year [2015] and will include the tunnels for the City Rail Link through the site, regardless of the government’s position on this project. Council funding is secured for this.
  • Buses will be removed from Lower Queen St and moved at least in part to Lower Albert St. Lower Queen will become a vehicle free pedestrian space at least for the length in front of Britomart Station.

We are told to expect both a new east/west street connecting the Piazza in front of Britomart to the buses on Lower Albert and a north/south street between Quay and Customs. The later is a reinstatement of a previously existing street called Little Queen, and is what I am focussing on in this post.

In 1966 10 highly detail topographical maps were produced from arial photographs of Auckland City, now in the Auckland Libraries Collection [where the black and white images in this post are also from]. These maps are a fantastic source of detailed information on 1960s Auckland; here is a close-up of the Downtown site before the current 1970s mall was built there, the CPO turned Britomart Station is bottom centre between Calway [sic; should be Galway] and Tyler:

Little Queen St 1966

So running between the Ferry Building and the Customs House was Little Queen St. The Harbour Board owned all the reclaimed land in the vicinity of the port and, like POAL today, it was focused on making more of it, either out of the sea, or in this case, it contrived to invent real estate out of a public road in order to ‘rationalise’ that resource. Presumably the trade off then with the city and the citizens was how we came to get the most dreary public space in the city: QE II square, proving for ever that not all open space is equal, especially urban open space.

Little Queen St 1973

The east side looking towards the sea and Ferry Building [and one person].Little Queen St Esat 1070-75

The same side from a higher angle with a couple of humans and more than 10 buses. The street is pretty wide, wider it seems than its Melbourne namesakes; Little Collins and Little Bourke. Or perhaps just emptier?

Quay and Little Queen 1965

Quay St from the Ferry Building looking towards Lower Queen [The still extant Endeans building on the left and the Cupola of Britomart poking above], Little Queen on the right. 1965. Plenty of tarmac.

The history of this site is fascinating* as it is a clear example of the failures of mid twentieth century modernist urban master planning. But the outcome we are familiar with now isn’t simply a matter of design fashion but also the demographic, social, and commercial landscape of the period; the spirit of the times.

montgomery ward huntington beach ca 1966 pleasantfamilyshopping

The 1960s and 70s were at the height of the ‘flight from the centre’ period, a time of anti-urban idealisation of the new decentralised suburban life. A then sexy new Californian dream of a car centred complete life away from the tired old city centre: Living, shopping, and working without bothering with the old fashioned, degraded city. Clean, convenient, new. Supported and subsidised by Central and Local government policy in a myriad of ways, especially in transport spending in Auckland once Robbie’s Rail was killed. This lack of confidence in the city and disregard for the existing urban built environment was the dominant theme of the time so I guess it is of no surprise that the outcome of that Downtown redevelopment is suboptimal.

There was vocal opposition to the design we now have when it was proposed, in particular the shading of the new Square by the now HSBC building was, correctly, predicted to be severely limiting, and for years it struggled commercially [although more recently I believe it was one of  previous owner Westfield’s better performers, and their only property without onsite and free parking], the site now clearly offers its new owners a huge opportunity but only if completely redesigned and rebuilt. And that opportunity is simply people. The return of people in concentrations to a now more exciting and busy city environment that only good public transport and dense land habitation can provide.

In this regard then, it is essential that the quality of the new work; both the architectural form of the new buildings and the relations between these buildings; the negative space between, these new streets, are of the highest standard, and provide real public spaces, unlike the faux public space of the suburban mall, or the formlessness and inauthenticity of the current QE II square. And in this the challenge is greater than at Britomart as there are no pre-sprawl era buildings to revive to give structure, scale, and continuity, and still the blocking mass of the HSBC building [which covers the northern end of the old Little Queen St] as well as a new tower to accommodate. Precinct and their architects have a great deal to balance but they know if they get it right all else will follow: The people.

A critical difference now is that these new projects are not for and by people that see little value in the city, a place only fit for escape. In that sense they are building for a new age, and one that offers the chance at least of the return of those powerful but difficult to summon qualities of great cities and great city places: Enchantment, mystery, possibility.

No pressure then.

* There is a totally absorbing history of the lead up to the downtown development in the Architecture New Zealand 2. 21013 by architect Dennis Smith. Highly recommended. Shows various schemes, perfectly of their time, and all completely dominated by car parking.

UPDATE: The kind folks at Architecture Now have put Dennis’ great article online now.

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19 comments

  1. “it is essential that the quality of the new work; … the relations between these buildings; the negative space between, these new streets,.are of the highest standard, and provide real public spaces, unlike the faux public space …of the current QE II square.”

    Shame that the new QEII Square isn’t going to live up to this, and will instead be another huge paved area, with three token trees. But they’re using a mix of different coloured paving, so hey, that should make it exciting.

    Fortunately, it looks like at least the building is well designed, for those that move around outside it.

    1. What gets me is the number of people in the public who seem to be taken in by a repaving job:

      Road layout around a square fixed? No. Stormwater issues fixed? No. More trees planted? No, some were removed. Useful recreation area added? No. Safer for vulnerable users? No. Seating better? No, it’s funky but it’s going to fall apart.

      But the paving’s changed. Isn’t it wonderful?

  2. Very interesting thanks Patrick. Always wondered why I couldn’t make sense of what street is what from some of these older pictures of around the area.

  3. Reading this article again I cant help thinking of the value of the public land in Little Queen Street lost or given away for very little. The space then may have been poorly used, but imagine what we could have done with it now? Once given to private hands, such assetts are rarely returned to the public.

    It makes me wonder, should we require a valuation on all public land used in public projects before approving them? We allocate huge amounts of public space to freeway projects but only count the cost of the construction or newly acquired land. Whereas the busway, LRT and heavy rail projects use far less space to move the same number of people. This would make any road planner think twice before proposing a tunnel portal in a “spare” park.

    1. +1 And while other cities are now reclaiming public space by reallocating their expressways and motorways back to being people-friendly boulevards, we’re decades behind, and still building them.

    2. Or imagine NZTA and AT being run like proper companies and returning a profit on their investments! We don’t give power or food or shelter away at cost price, but even ACT haven’t campaigned on privatising or profitising transport. Weird eh.

      1. I wasn’t meaning to imply we should put a profit imperative on transport, just that we should take account of all the costs, including land, when we make decisions about it. If we did that, I suspect we would build much narrower roads 🙂

  4. I swear there was a design concept image a year ago showing a proper Queen St stream, light rail and pedestrian areas on Queen St, and now I can’t find it for the life of me. The stream area was a few feet below road level and there greenery above it at street level. Does this ring bells for anyone?

      1. It was a low-angle shot showing the stream flowing in a culvert about four feet below street level, and then LRT at street level. Is it possible I imagined this? If that’s the case, how do I make it happen?

  5. The Architecture Now article is great. The architect drew up pretty plans that were not viable. The money men came along and built something else. Some things never change.

    1. Is it that too much public land and money involved at once brings out the egos? I wonder if the hairy arm theory would have worked here?

    2. After reading that Article is was said that the square they were going to provide was going to be vibrant place and they only time it was ever that way was New Years Eve when people were aloud to party , the rest of the year it was just a wind swept corporate designed hole and every reincarnation it got worst . It seemed the ones that design these places never visit them except to cut some ribbon then they hide in their board rooms until the next ribbon cutting ceremony

      1. The real issue was they did the square at a time when the fashion was to separate out activities into areas. So the public space couldn’t be a market square it had to just be public space with no reason for anyone to go there unless you were assembling to march up Queen St. The only exception was in the 80’s there was a wooden hut with fake big wooden wheels that sold icecreams in a waffle cone. Danish Delights smelled fantastic but tasted below average so you only ever bought one.

        1. Yeah, that’s spot on, miffy. I’m intending – now the 650 can take me there – to visit the Glen Innes town centre; a place I used to go quite often when I was a teenager (fish shop, vege shop and fabric shop were good). I’ve heard it’s got a great, small square, in a good urban form, but that the shopkeepers and/or Council don’t like to encourage activities in the square, for some unknown reason.

          Our Pt Chev square has been somewhat underutilised due to the complexities of who owns it and how you can get permission to run things in it. We’re trying to fix that.

          1. And if I remember there was also a fruit and vege cart there also but I think the council priced both of them out of there with all their regulations

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