There’s a particularly large planning application (in the form of Private Plan Change 8) working its way through the Auckland City Council system at the moment, which relates to the possible expansion of the St Lukes shopping centre. The proposed expansion is pretty damn big – upping the possible size of the mall from around 45,000 m2 of floor area to a maximum of 92,500 m2, of which some would be office rather than retail. Similarly, the already rather large 2,018 space carpark would be increased to match the growth of the mall – to something near 4,000 spaces.
Along with 1100 others, I made a submission on the proposal – supporting some aspects of it but opposing others. I noted that some improvements would occur, such as enhanced integration with the surrounding area (the plan proposes to open up the mall to the street more, so it’s not just a big white box in a carpark) and attempts to improve walking/cycling/public transport access. However, I felt that overall these improvements were absolutely not counter-balanced by the negative effects that the enlargement would have – most particularly in terms of its traffic effects.
As someone who has lived near St Lukes for most of my life, and someone who still visits it fairly regularly, I’m aware of the well-known fact that the street network that surrounds the mall is pretty much at capacity during busy times. The traffic report with the plan change did not dispute this fact. Furthermore, the traffic report confirmed the extremely low proportion of visitors to the mall who use public transport (under 5%), and the relatively low proportion of visitors to the mall who walk or cycle there. As I’ve noted in my recent attempts to improve the bus routes along New North and Sandringham roads, St Lukes is located in an extremely poor and downright annoying place when it comes to public transport. Compared to just about every other shopping mall in Auckland, it is much more difficult to serve well. There’s no train station nearby (unlike Sylvia Park, Henderson, New Lynn and Newmarket), there’s no bus hub nearby (unlike Henderson, New Lynn, Manukau City, Newmarket and in the future Albany) and it’s not even in a location that’s easy to serve with a logical bus route (unlike pretty much every other mall in Auckland). Somewhat bizarrely, the Booz Allen report which accompanied the plan change had this to say about the level of public transport service for St Lukes: Geez, I’m utterly terrified to think what their standard would be for a shopping centre poorly served by public transport. In the real world, bus services aren’t particularly frequent along New North Road & Sandringham Road (at least not the ones that divert to St Lukes), while the railway line is so distant that not even 1 per cent of visitors to St Lukes use it – which means that it can effectively be deemed irrelevant.
So ultimately, it is going to be a big challenge to significantly improve this 4% figure – which means that at St Lukes grows it is inevitable that unless something pretty drastic is done, most people will continue to drive there and the streets will be clogged up more and more. This will be particularly exacerbated by roughly doubling the amount of on-site carparking. To avoid this traffic nightmare, my submission proposed a cap on the amount of parking, and a cap on the amount of additional floorspace that could be developed until the modeshare of public transport, walking and cycling was increased (in other words, put the ball in Westfield’s court as to how they’d go about reducing their own car dependency).
In assessing the plan change proposal, Auckland City’s planner has recommended approval, but with a number of potentially quite interesting alterations. I’ll talk about the amendments that relate to public transport first, and then get on to the parking issue. This is what’s said about public transport: I disagree with the final paragraph that it’d be impossible to propose a restriction – as in my opinion a District Plan rule can say whatever council wants it to say. Overall, it seems as though the planner’s report clearly recognises the problem that the plan change does nothing much to improve public transport – but then the planner backs away from actually trying to remedy that issue. A pity.
Looking at parking now, this is where things start to get quite interesting. The current mall has around one parking space per 22 m2 of floor space, and Westfield were proposing to retain that sort of ratio – although as a minimum rather than a maximum. However, perhaps as a result of my submission – and certainly it would seem as the result of pressure from ARTA and NZTA – the council wants to propose a maximum parking rate of 1 space for every 25 m2 of retail floor space. This is a step in the right direction, if a small one. However, Westfield are exceedingly grumpy about not being able to build as many carparks as they’d like (I often joke that they’d build a carpark over their grandmother they’re so keen on them). Westfield’s transport expert has this to say about why restricting parking is, in their opinion, the worst thing possible in the whole wide world: Let’s work through these points one by one. With regard to the first point, well the whole entire idea of restricting parking is to make it more annoying to drive and park there, and therefore encourage people to use alternative transport options. You only need to get stuck in a carpark for half an hour trying to find a carpark to learn that perhaps next time you should catch the bus or train there, or go at a more off-peak time. All of which are good things for the surrounding road network, as they reduce the peak-time loads on it. If restricting parking supply didn’t cause frustration and on-site congestion then there wouldn’t be any point to doing it!
In terms of the second point, that’s a complete red-herring as a District Plan rule or resource consent condition could require a certain amount of parking spaces be set aside for staff. Furthermore, isn’t it a good thing to encourage staff to use transport methods other than driving in order to get to work?
In terms of the third point, once again – discouraging those extra road trips to St Lukes at peak times is the whole point of restricting parking supply. I disagree that it would necessarily involve people travelling further to other shopping centres, as one could equally argue that people from afar would travel a long way to St Lukes (and therefore clog up the roads) if its parking was unrestricted. Nobody knows for sure which argument is stronger, so I think it should remain a moot point. What is obvious is that restricting parking would restrict the number of shoppers (unless Westfield actually got serious about trying to attract more people via public transport, walking and cycling rather than paying lip-service to it) and therefore hurt Westfield’s bottom-line. But, at risk of repeating myself, that is the point of restricting parking: to restrict the number of people that can drive to the shopping mall and therefore encourage more sustainable transport options.
There’s actually quite a lot of support for restricting parking supply from various agencies. NZTA’s planning expert has this to say:
ARTA’s planning expert has this to say: In my opinion even a 1:25m2 maximum is pretty tame compared to what is probably really necessary to help ensure St Lukes doesn’t just become a bigger traffic generating monster than it is now, and doesn’t make traffic jams around it even worse than they currently are. I remain enormously sceptical of the traffic modelling outputs that say (with a straight face, unbelievably) that doubling the size of the mall will not have a major impact on traffic, and will only require a few upgrades (like one more lane on Morningside Drive and one more set of traffic lights to access Exeter Road). One does wonder how a full 4000 space carpark will not create a lot more congestion than a full 2000 space carpark on the surrounding road network.
I still remain of the opinion that the development should be ‘capped’ at certain levels of additional floor area until the percentage of people accessing the mall via private vehicle can be reduced. This would ensure that effects on the road network are minimised and to ensure that St Lukes can be a step in the right direction in integrating transport and land-use – rather than a continuation of the extremely horrible “predict and provide” status quo that has led to Auckland being one of the most auto-dependent cities in the world. It would also force Westfield to be a bit creative about encouraging more people to use public transport to get to the mall (like providing them with free tickets with every $20 purchase perhaps?)
However, shifting to maximum parking rates is a step in the right direction, and it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is on that matter. Hopefully one day Westfield’s thinking on this issue will be dragged into the 21st century out of the dark ages, and they’ll realise that it’s actually in their own best interests to promote public transport, walking and cycling – after all it’s probably damn expensive building carparks!