Published 12 October 2012
When councillors run down their city centre with ease, you know a lot of change will be required before it becomes widely accepted as a quality environment.
But among the many criticisms at the council’s economic forum on Tuesday came suggestions for improvement: Quality might come.
The forum endorsed the approach being taken in a city centre retail action plan, which included making it “the premier shopping destination in New Zealand”. Which is what it used to be before suburban malls were invented.
Now, in the school holidays, it’s a quaint place for parents to bring their children, it’s a place for office workers – still by far the biggest, but nowadays only one of many – and it has some shopping. It still has the most expensive retail rents, but Newmarket closed the gap long ago with creation of a far more vibrant retail strip.
The retail action plan devised by the council in collaboration with Heart of the City aims at enhancing the distinct offerings in 8 precincts – Waterfront, Britomart, Queen St, High St, City west, Arts, K Rd & Victoria.
Council regional economic policy principal advisor David Taylor-Valiant told the forum the objectives included consolidating the retail core, getting more visitors into Queen St and more spending at the weekends, making shopping “one of the main reasons why people visit the city centre”, developing guidelines for the precincts’ development & investment, developing resources to sell the city centre to potential investors, investigating ways to attract new businesses and “achieve the desired retail mix” and sponsoring events that support key retail sectors.
For the council, task will include promoting high quality design and enforcing bylaws to improve “look & feel” perceptions. The plan would make access a priority, improving public transport services and implementing parking management changes. Tania Loveridge, of Heart of the City, said those changes would make the decision to come into the city centre more attractive, not prohibitive.
But first, the councillor reaction. Cllr Sandra Coney told the forum: “I was in Wellington last week, walked around the city centre in the evening and was struck by how many people were out & about. One of the things that struck me as to why Wellington seems to work and Auckland doesn’t is the greater mix of retail – a second-hand bookshop, galleries, Aotea Centre (in Auckland) closed away, places to eat, there are no big banks in the active part of the cbd.
“There were heaps of young people out in the street, completely different from Queen St, where they drink to get blotto, throw up and start biffing people. In Wellington, they were out to have a good time, it had a much more community feel. In Auckland I don’t get that sense of community at all, it feels like a place where people come to misbehave.
“The question would be, how do you learn from other places that have made their cbds successful, because this plan all seems a little bit theoretical to me. My message is, I don’t particularly want the big international retailers, it’s the interesting little shops in Wellington that I thought made it attractive.”
Mr Taylor-Valiant said Auckland had taken a lot from Melbourne over the past 5 years. Within the cbd, he said some of the quirky shops had moved from High & O’Connell Sts down to Britomart, “but that gives opportunities to nurture other shops”.
While Cllr Coney thought big malls, such as those at St Lukes & Newmarket, were “sucking the life out of” the Auckland cbd, Wellington didn’t have the same kind of retail competition, so Wellingtonians still went to the cbd to shop.
Mrs Loveridge said development of Britomart and changes in High St had brought an upsurge in shopper interest.
Cllr Cathy Casey, an opponent of the plan change enabling the St Lukes mall to double in size, said what was missing from the plan was more important than what was in it: “We don’t have a retail strategy yet, so how do we cope with the doubling of St Lukes mall and influx of retailers that are going to suck the city centre dry?”
Mr Taylor-Valiant: “We don’t have a regional strategy but we do have the Auckland Plan. The idea we’re following is consolidation. If we can make a point of difference we can then stand on our own feet.”
Cllr Casey: I’m not convinced of the ability to market the city centre as a destiny for domestic visitors.”
Mrs Loveridge: “The current destination marketing campaign is within Heart of the City. We’ve done that for the last 4 years with pretty good results so far. We also continue to have discussions with Ateed (council company Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development Ltd) on their marketing campaign for the region, No passport required. So we’re not looking to create a new campaign as a result of this, it’s really a continuation of what we’ve created so far.”
Cllr Casey saw another deficiency in the plan: “Nowhere in here does it talk about NZ-made, NZ-created, NZ-manufactured, New Zealand artists, Auckland produce. You don’t actually say buy New Zealand, buy local.”
Council economic development manager Harvey Brookes agreed that was important, but added: “Retail is an open free market. There is a point at which we can’t over-direct what goes into the city centre. We have to define what you’re saying without telling certain retailers they’re welcome or not welcome.”
On Cllr Casey’s point that the plan was about marking the city centre “as different from the rest of Auckland, as being in competition with the rest of Auckland”, Mr Taylor-Valiant said the council’s idea was to connect the region’s centres better into a hub & spoke model.
Even that ran into trouble, though, as Mr Brookes explained: “Heart of the City’s a bid (business improvement district). We’ve got 45 others and we’re working with them on how the retail offer can be improved.”
Orakei Local Board deputy chairman Mark Thomas said the draft plan “doesn’t give me a sense of how we think we are, which makes it more difficult to see how we think we’re going to get to”.
Around that point, he discovered the forum was being asked to endorse the plan without having the full document. Mr Brookes said that would be made available when the plan went to the next step, the Auckland Plan committee.
Cllr Wayne Walker commented: “One thing that doesn’t get picked up that I’ve observed in other cities is that people congregate in their city centres, they want to be seen there. We don’t do it. I think one of the critical things about that is going to be more pedestrianisation. The other thing I observed is a lot of stuff we could & should be doing and doesn’t cost a lot of money. When it’s raining, look at all the spots (along the cbd streets) where you get hit by water.
“You’ll see markets in Rio, Melbourne. We need that, need to be cultivating that and unconventional retail, and existing retailers might see it as a threat. When you go to the theatre (in other cities), there’s a multitude of things that tie in with each other. There’s a lot of basic stuff that doesn’t cost a lot of money that we could be doing right now.”
Cllr Dick Quax took a harder look at the plan: “You talk about ‘intrigue & entice’, but what is going to happen to make me shop in the Auckland cbd? Apart from buying coffees, I don’t shop in the cbd.”
The helpful forum chairman, Cllr Cameron Brewer: “You’re more Newmarket, aren’t you? How do we seduce Cllr Quax? A cbd running track, perhaps.”
Mr Brookes said a great retail offer has to be part of the city centre masterplan, but there were also many other things around the city that you wouldn’t get anywhere else: “If Aucklanders are given an excellent choice they will take to that. When you go to Wellington you don’t go to the Hutt, if in Australia you go to the big city. Unfortunately in New Zealand we’ve got it the other way round, we market Milford Sound.”
Cllr Quax: “What actions are being contemplated in the unitary plan to intrigue & entice people into the city centre?”
Mr Taylor-Valiant said it was more than the unitary plan: “It is things to attract, to continue to improve the public realm, to allow businesses to set up in the city without red tape.”
Cllr Christine Fletcher, who was an MP from 1990-99, said she walked the Wellington waterfront every morning and felt jealous: “Beauty had to be a factor into that mix. If you want to understand the migration of commerce down to Britomart, it isn’t because it has a station down there, it is a beautiful place, a place people want to be. If we design crappy public spaces around retail, people won’t go there. Very often it doesn’t cost any more to build something that’s aesthetically pleasing.”
Cllr Brewer said the cbd’s future was assured because of population projections, more inner-city residents, more people working there and more visitors. However, Mr Brookes cautioned: “It highlights why we have to get this right. If we don’t, we will end up losing our city centre to the region.”
Want to comment? Go to the forum.
Attribution: Forum meeting, story written by Bob Dey for the Bob Dey Property Report.