In a paper presented to the Rotary Club of Auckland in 1978, the city’s then Deputy Mayor J.R Firth laid out what he saw as the two primary issues dominating the minds of Council and its ratepayers. The first being the ubiquitous issue of rates, the second being a more recent proposal to pedestrianise Queen Street.

“These two issues are related,” Firth wrote:

“They are connected by a much wider and more fundamental challenge affecting your city and its future… unless we revive the Central Business District and the adjoining inner city areas and unless we adopt and implement policies which will give new life to these areas there is a very real danger that the heart of both our city and the region will decline to the point where it is too late to stop the rot.”

“That rot is already starting to show itself.”

Sound familiar?

Queen Street, looking north from above the Plaza Cinema (right) – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1528-00005

In recent times, there’s been much talk from across the political spectrum about the ‘cardiac arrest’ of Queen Street, and how the ‘beating heart’ of Tāmaki Makaurau has been variously pummelled by lockdowns, the knock-on effects of the City Rail Link project, and more besides.

Queen Street, we’re told, is a “ghost town, slum, skid row.” Queen Street is a “street of shame.” Queen Street is “apocalyptic.”  More positively, Queen Street “should not be a thoroughfare, but a destination unto itself.”

This is not the first time that Queen Street has become a touchstone for wider anxieties about the state of our city and the social fabric that binds us, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Ultimately, Queen Street’s physical form is only a mass of concrete, colonially retrofitted to our natural landscape. Carved originally by the Wai Horotiu, the street cascades from the Karangahape Ridge to the Waitematā. “It’s a street dammit. Archetypal. Street, Ditch, Canyon,’ architect Pete Bossley wrote in 1978. It wasn’t even meant to be our city’s main street. The High Street-Shortland Street crescent had that crown until a fire in 1858, after which Queen Street ascended the throne.

Over time, however, we have anthropomorphised this strip of asphalt via our language – it is our beating heart, the main artery of our city’s circulatory system – and it is prone to the maladies of the human body; rot, decay, and the looming threat of death.

We can recognise the symbolic importance of main streets to residents of cities worldwide; as a vehicle for community and sociality, a call-back to a 20th century ‘ideals’ (think: Main Street, U.S.A.), as a place to process, protest, parade. However, Aucklanders are often provoked to care about Queen Street in these curiously corporeal terms.

So, once again, Queen Street has recently been pronounced dead. In order to fully understand the context for how and why, we must perform an exercise in historical Agatha Christie-ism, and investigate the other times it was reportedly murdered.

As Aotearoa’s premier city historian Ben Schrader says, “If we are better to understand what is happening in New Zealand society in the present, then historians need to enter the city streets, lanes and cul-de sacs of its past.”

The 1950s and 1960s

The post-war period in Auckland saw vast changes that had a direct effect on its centre city and the way it operated. Sprawl, suburban expansion, a state housing boom, and the enactment of the 1955 Master Transportation Plan saw a decline in the singular importance of the city-centre as opposed to suburban centres, even more so with the advent of the country’s newest phenomenon; the ‘shopping mall’.

Despite this, by 1950, retail in the city centre still accounted for half of all sales in Auckland.

This didn’t stop a simmering paranoia. An Auckland Star article from 1953 noted that, ‘the suburban life of Auckland is gradually becoming anchored in the suburbs themselves. Queen Street is becoming the grandparent — to be visited from time to time.’

In 1950, the Queen Street Business Association was formed out of of a manifest need to ‘brighten up’ the street. Often panned was the disjointed visual clutter of newer buildings juxtaposed with older buildings; a 1954 New Zealand Herald article arguing that ‘it cannot be denied that Auckland’s entrance hall is no fitting introduction to a great mansion inhabited by some 350,000 people.’

A 1955 article once again dissected the Street’s anatomy; ‘the heart of the city has continued to beat, but it has not grown commensurably with the body; in fact, it has not grown much at all.’

While everyone could agree that there was a problem, the solution was much harder to determine.

The strain between who or what should have the right to belong on the street festered into full-scale warfare, black ink spilling like blood in columns of newspapers and council records across this period as evidence of the territorial battle between motor cars, public transport, and pedestrians. The Queen Street Business Association in the camp of the former, and Auckland City Council in the camp of the latter.

Digging up the tram tracks on Queen Street – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 998-44

Seemingly no-one was backing public transport, or not in the way we like to think about it today. In 1956, the tram tracks were pulled up and this was celebrated by a weeklong festival for Queen Street under the guise of ‘progress’, to make way for the trolley-bus. A ‘Miss Queen Street’ was elected: 19-year-old Miss Janice Mary Bramwell, a bank teller at the Queen Street Branch of the Bank of New Zealand.

When fifteen-minute limits on parking on the Street were introduced by Council in 1965 in an effort to attract more visitors and increase turnover, the Queen Street Business Association hit back in a filibuster-esque four-hour debate, presenting photos of a supposedly empty Queen Street to Council with a hope to reverse the parking limit. ‘Take the buildings out of the pictures’, businessman Mr. Rolf Porter said, ‘and it could be Waiuku. It is certainly not as busy as most provincial towns.’

Sound familiar?

The 1970s

1968 saw the start of the second term of Mayor Sir Dove Myer Robinson and with it, his visionary plan to fix the city centre.

The City Centre Masterplan of its time, 1971’s Central Area Proposals outlined ideas by which Council could fix the crisis of Queen Street, defined in writing as ‘the conflict created where the paths of pedestrians and vehicles must cross’.

From Central Area Proposals, 1971.

Suggestions included: widening footpaths on the thoroughfare, partly closing the street to vehicles, closing the street entirely to vehicles, and even first-floor level pedestrian linkages and ‘movers’.

However, by the time the Central Area Plan transpired three years later in 1974, these ideas were largely abandoned, due to proposed underground rail works… that never transpired. In its place was Council’s recommendation that 7000 car parks be built in the central area in the next 15 years. A diluted version of the vision before it.

Death by a thousand cars – Robinson’s mayoral opponent Jim Anderton called The Plan, ‘a continuation of the witless murder of the inner city’. In a scathing critique of Council’s backtracking in the Auckland Architectural Association Bulletin, Boyce Richardson  noted that, ‘[t]he pulsating sense of life which comes from the presence of all sorts of people doing all sorts of things is reduced’. A letter to Robbie from a Ms Dorothy Maddock of Avondale reads: “I feel like you have forgotten the place of ‘people’ in your plans. It is the people who make a city live, and not the noisy, polluting motor car.”

Born out of the criticisms of the Central Area Plan and declining patronage, 1977 saw the birth of a Queen Street pedestrian mall sub-committee in the Town Planning Division. The kiss of human life for a dying city centre was how its champion Mayor Robinson sold it.

The planning process eventually resulted in a conceptual traffic-free space in the Wellesley-Victoria block, conditional on a one-week trial mall in the first week of the school holidays in May 1979. (More on Auckland City Council’s first proper foray into tactical urbanism in another post soon.)

The proposed mall generated media, public scrutiny and lobbying to a level that Mayor Robinson ‘had never before seen.’ As a Mrs. S. Moore of Babyland Ladieswear: Tots to Teens wrote to council, ‘say no to any kind of stupid mall’ signing the letter off ‘yours disgustedly.’

Sound familiar?

The 1980s

Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, turns out there’s more than one way to kill a street.

The 1980s saw the Queen Street the subject of public conversation shift to the private sector as Auckland’s commercial reputation was cemented as a ‘huge amorphous mass largely populated by dollar-chasing businessmen, uncultured executives, and Rangitoto Yankees’.

This converged in the commercial centre of Auckland, the most expensive square on the New Zealand Monopoly board, the Golden Mile — Queen Street.

Pedestrians crossing at the Victoria Street East intersection in Queen Street, 1982, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1727-101

The 1980s saw a Queen Street building boom at a time of unprecedented sharemarket strength before the crash in 1987, mirrored high-rises jutting out like shards of glass, lining the edges of the Wai Horotiu valley.

‘Will it be a case of ‘mirror-mirror, on every wall?’ asks Heath Lees in his introduction to an episode of the documentary series Kaleidoscope, while in another episode, one interviewee laments that ‘Queen Street never had much soul to begin with, but it has lost what it had…. It’s like strip-mining, or slash and burn farming. It’s investment development.’

Architect Pip Cheshire sarcastically egged on this new development, in a 1981 Metro article. ‘Ah the prestige, the status, the newest slab block, high rise, mirror-glazed shadow in the city noon-day sun.’ He continues, ‘[h]ow sad it is that the lattice-slender grace of construction cranes gives birth to such hideous mass, brutal parodies of the best dreams of that soulless “form follows function” dogma.’

The death-life-health-body analogy is emphasised again by Michael John Fisher in his 1985 B.Arch. thesis, ‘The Decay of a City’. He asks, ‘[w]hy is it that a city in the midst of an unprecedented building boom is also dying?…The possibility of the city becoming a rich man’s ghetto is very real’.

Sound familiar?

Back to the Future

Returning to Deputy Mayor Firth’s 1978 address to the Rotary Club, he had a solution in mind:

‘We have to put a human heart rather than a vehicle heart into the centre of this city’

Traffic in Queen Street, looking south from Fort Street (left), 1982, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1727-100

It’s this heart transplant that has incited tension and debate well into the twenty-first century.

We’ve been asking ourselves the same questions time and time again. What is the role of Queen Street in our city – as a place for people and pedestrians, public transport, or a thoroughfare for cars? Who belongs there? How do we bring life back into our city centre?

And how can a street be dead and alive at the same time, at so many different points through history? It is Auckland’s very own Schrodinger’s cat.

As we move through the cultural shocks and shifts of Covid-19, the challenges of addressing climate change, and towards the council elections, it’s timely to pause and contemplate how this narrative – of the constant near-death-experience of our central city – has been constructed and reconstructed over the years.

It’s also useful to note which voices have made it out of the Mayoral letter pile and onto the front pages across the decades. For as many angry letters as there are in Auckland Council Archives, there are just as many letters of support for people-centred change.

And, for all the death notices for Queen Street in the newspapers, there are an equal number of defibrillators ready to restore the heart of our city’s natural rhythm – from the collective vision of the Central Area Proposals of 1971, to the City Centre Master Plan of 2020.

Surely it’s time to put those plans to use, and not leave them in a box in Council Archives for a future generation to dig through and wonder at what could have been.

How do we bring a street back to life? It’s this simple: we bring life back to the street.

This guest post has been adapted from a series of the author’s blog posts about Queen Street hosted on the Auckland History Initiative website, as well as her 2019 honours dissertation. All views are the authors’ own. Thanks to the Auckland History Initiative and its director Linda Bryder, as well as the team at Auckland Council Archive.

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  1. What is the point of Queen Street, other than a stretch of road that seems to get more attention than anywhere else in New Zealand? What’s its benefit? What does it provide? I’ve lived in NZ for 12 years and still don’t get it. Would much rather walk down a pedestrianised High Street or Lorne Street. In those 12 years I’ve been here Queen Street has never had

    Interesting Skyscrapers (other than SAP building)
    Interesting shops
    Literally any hospitality venues
    Public amenities
    Tourist attractions
    Lots of heritage buildings

    All the attention I’ve ever seen is from older people, who remember how it used to be. Don’t think I’ve seen or heard any young people pushing for a reviltised Queen Street or planning for its future, and with the new CRL station the focus may move even further away from Queen Street…if they hadn’t truly ruined Albert Street by returning it to a car centric nightmare that it was.

    It’ time to move on and stop wasting money on it when other centres have been asking for revitilisation for decades.

    1. I agree, although Queen Street does also get a lot of attention from GA too.
      I reckon just leave it as it was (which wasn’t that bad) and spend the money on all the other much worse areas of the city. In fact make it 4 lanes of traffic again if that is what the retailers really want, on the condition (signed by all building owners) that it will not be changed back again for at least 20 years as it has had its budget spent. Maybe if Queen Street was 4 lanes of traffic again then they could remove traffic from Hobson and Neilson streets (although surely they are thriving with all those lovely lanes and traffic).

    2. Actually there are a number of interesting older buildings on Queen Street including, from north to south: the former Chief Post Office (now Britomart Transport Centre), Dilworth Building, Queen’s Arcade, Landmark House (Queen St/Durham St West), Civic Theatre, Town Hall, MLC Building, the terrace of shops now mainly Asian restaurants (south of Turner St) and the Baptist Tabernacle. They include public amenities.

    3. Ironically this is a pretty good list of reasons as to why it should be perfectly fine to gut Queen Street as we know it, run the stream back, bring in trams or whatever. It really should just be a central plaza. It’s that simple. Treating it like it needs to something for all comers is how we’ve ended up in no-man’s land.

      1. I want the stream back. That would be fantastic. I love singapore for that reason, it’s green.

        1. Yes agree, something like that would give me a reason to visit and linger ( and even spend money) on Queen St.

    4. > Would much rather walk down a pedestrianised High Street or Lorne Street.

      Good luck if everyone switched from Queen to High Street, you wouldn’t be able to move most days.

        1. Though i’d have to say a pedestrianised HIgh Street would be an absolute treat, but more of a destination for a cafe, bar, botique shopping, I just don’t think it would handle a role as the main throughfare.

    5. “What is the point of Queen Street”

      It’s a road for driving from uptown to midtown, and thence from midtown to downtown.

      That’s it’s primary purpose. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s what had been built, and so that’s how we use it.

  2. Aah the good old days. Mrs mfwic and I saw a man stabbed in Queen Street when we were students in 1984. It has always been a bit shit.

      1. Mrs mfwic was at that concert. I had already gone home and missed it completely. She tells me it was started by the Police and not by Dave Dobbyn.

  3. I guess Queen Street looked good back when Wynyard Quarter was still a strip of empty industrial land.

    It is not a sign that the city centre is dying. It is just that Queen Street is getting left behind.

  4. Bring back trams and half cab Dennis buses and coal fired trains and ferries and six o’clock closing that will probably fix it. I wonder how public transport fares compare then and now and whether the price of beer might change behaviour.

    1. How about no alcohol tax for alcohol sold on queen st?
      That would surely make it a destination.

  5. Reading all that history is fascinating, the feeling is that Queen St has never quite made it. Life has now passed it by,and it should have ” Do Not Resusitate ” added to it’s file, it is no longer a destination . People want open spaces,sea views,etc,not a wind swept hilly thorough fare,turn it into a feeder route to more appealing places.

    1. Or maybe try the one thing that has always been proposed but never implemented: a pedistrianised and transit mall, complete with cycleways.

      What’s to lose?

        1. Not 100% true. We have tried taking the trams out and replacing them with cars, but it didn’t seem to work for some reason.

        2. Joe, Queen St is the way it is because we have always treated it as a traffic sewer. Its amazing its done as well as it has when we have treated it like a motorway.

          Other places like Britomart and Wynyard have come from further back and surpassed it. I wonder why?

      1. The pediestrainised Mall was implemented for some time and the only vehicle allowed through it were the Trolley buses on the Railway Station to K’rd route and the great moaning business association whinged the whole time that nobody was going into their stores as they were more interested walking that stretch without being hit, and this was when the street had in my opinion 4x more than there is now .

      2. There was a pedestrian mall at the bottom of Queen Street, QE2 square, I don’t remember it being a success, but it was cold, dark and windy.

  6. The State or the Council ought to compulsorily acquire all those empty shopfronts on Queen Street and rent them out at cost of maintenance. The best way to bring life back to an urban area is to crash the rents. The problem is that it’s not the kind of “life” that the drivers of Ponsonby tractors want to see, and unfortunately they have a political stranglehold.

  7. Vibrancy, art, music, food, grand archtiecture; Queen Street feels like it has none of these things. It has boring / mediocre retail, empty shops and homelessness. Sigh.

  8. Lovely post. We do tend to go to things near Queen St, rather than on Queen St. I think the banks with their boring shopfronts ruined it a bit. I do prefer places where it’s nicer to walk. Some bits of the waterfront, Vulcan Lane / O’Connell St etc, Commercial Bay. I don’t like K Rd, it’s too noisy with traffic.

    1. Back in the mid to late 70’s no a Sunday Queen St had more people on it widow shopping or going to the pictures for the double features than it has now during the week , and that was when you had shops open 5 days a week .

      And in the 60’s when I was a kid , I use to come in with my Grandmother when she use to do her weekly grocery shop at Hutchinson’s 4sq which was downstairs where the Diolote building is now and buy her meat from the Auckland Meat company which opposite from them .

  9. In any city cultural events are very important.
    More people attend cultural and music events than go to sport events. Local or international shows etc and 1000s of people attend over days or weeks.
    Prior to Covid there were many at the art gallery, Aotea center, Sky city, Town Hall and the Library.
    I look forward to many enjoyable evenings in the city.

  10. Not unreasonable to ask what AC’s CCMP effects have actually been, compared to forecast.
    More public money has gone into CBD revitalisation – from Wynyard Quarter to Port and up to K’Road – than at ay time in its past 150 years.
    What outcomes have been delivered?

  11. Thanks for the great post.

    There are too many successful city centres around the world involving the removal of cars for us to resist doing the same here, on Queen St. There haven’t been any rational arguments against doing so; only old stale car dependent reckons.

    Queen St needs people. We need more developers specialising in converting office buildings to apartments.

    1. I wonder when Queen Street was at its busiest? At a guess I would say it was when the tram lines were in. If so surely the “must have cars” argument is crap.

      1. One starts to wonder why this beating heart with all the shops isn’t on Hobson Street or Fanshawe Street. These definitely have way more cars than Queen Street. And Hobson Street has tons of on-street parking too.

  12. Population of Auckland has grown hugely and will, it seems, grow further. The population of the city centre has gown, too, so Queen St needs to be handed over to these people. The tractor drivers (urban or rural) have other places to go now. The same number of metres of building frontage define what can be put in there (malls, arcades and multi-levels apart) and the street space needs to carry whoever can come and be there, for whatever reason. They are now much more likely to come by foot, bike, bus or train. There are enough off-street car parks for as many people as need to come that way (although the tractors may not fit as easily as they did on Queen Street).
    Look as far back as you can, and as clearly as you can, to be able to see forwards. Churchill’s advice to the new Queen applies just as well to Queen Street.
    As Simon Bridges moves in from Auckland’s autoholics refugee camp, I hope he gets to see the picture a bit more clearly.

  13. A great great grandfather of mine had an office in Queen Street in 1863.
    It was called the Canada building, and I think it was on the corner of Queen
    and Shortland Streets.
    Anyone out there have more info, or maybe a photo ? (of the building, not of GGG).

    1. My Grandfather was the last manager of the Kaiapoi warehouse building on Wellesly St where the entrance to the Aotea Station is now being built before they moved into Elliot st where the Antrum is now .

  14. Why is that we have to come to this blog to get some decent research on these issues? Are the MSM just lazy? How is someone who is a professional journalist able to get away with doing no research at all and proclaim that Queen Street is dead just because they heard someone down at the local bowls club say so?

  15. They knew the answer from the 70s, just make it pedestrian, a central plaza where host temporary markets in the middle and than you add some green and playgrounds in the middle. At that point people would want to spend time in there. It is really fascinating for me to see how people don’t understand that. And btw rid off the port from the city, all major city in the world have moved the port far from their centre!

    1. Am on the Metro in BCN right now. The port is still very much part of the city but thankfully due to the cities age, streets in the centre are too narrow for cars and public transport went in early for the rest of the city.

  16. The reason people go to shopping malls these days is because 1) they don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car/van/truck/bus 2) they don’t get deafened by creaky diesel vehicles roaring around 3) they don’t have to breathe diesel fumes, so thick they make the air hazy, while doing their shopping 4) they don’t have to worry about getting mugged 5) fewer beggers around and 6) there are a variety of pleasant things for the family to do (e.g. one parent stays with kids on the playground while the other goes to buy something, then swap).

  17. Queen st just has a bad kind of energy. Bad fung shui. Its a hallway rather than a lounge.
    Most of central auckland is like that. Too hilly and disorganised. Some streets are good like the auck uni street next to albert park and high street but most streets are in the wrong place.
    Only way to fix it is to change the flow and make queen street a series of flatter public squares then wide stairs down to the next level of public square/park. That would change the flow from north south hallway that feels like you want to keep moving down to a stable place that makes you want to stop and stay.

  18. Is the dominant axis of downtown Auckland changing from up-down to across?

    Already seen that with Britomart and Wynyard developments in recent decades and intensification over the Hobson St ridgeline towards Freemans Bay. The busy Aotea CRL station and adjacent Victoria Linear ‘Park’ will add to it. A4E will fundamentally change our movement patterns across the Horotiu valley.

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