On Monday next week the new Auckland Council formally comes into being. The agenda for its first meeting has already been uploaded to the new Council’s website. Let’s hope such timely uploading is a sign of good things to come! Much of what’s included in the agenda for the Council’s first meeting is standard “house-keeping” stuff – although it will be interesting to find out the structure of the different Council committees, including who ends up chairing them. But hidden as the last agenda item in the meeting is the first difficult decision the council will need to make: whether to approve the St Lukes Plan Change or not. Auckland City Council it would seem didn’t get around to making such a decision (I originally called this gutsy to potentially go against the recommendation of the commissioners, but now I actually think it was gutless of the previous Council to simply put it onto the new Auckland Council). I’ve previously blogged about it here, and to summarise basically it will allow St Lukes shopping centre to double in size.
The situation facing the new Council with regards to the St Lukes plan change is summarised here. Effectively, they have incredibly little scope to do anything but approve the plan change – despite the huge community opposition that appears to be mounting. The officers present the Council with two options:
While it’s very likely someone will appeal the Plan Change should it be approved, the decision made by Council is important, because it determines what side of the fence they end up on in the appeals process. With the new Super City structure in place there will also be no opportunity for someone like the ARC to support local community groups in their opposition, which means that any appellants will be taking on both the Council and Westfield. A pretty scary prospect if you ask me. Perhaps the one potential saving grace is that both ARTA and NZTA submitted on the plan change – so that might mean (I’m not sure of it though) that Auckland Transport could appeal the plan change if they so desired.
But anyway, it seems very likely the Council will have to approve the plan change. But is that the right decision? As I was a submitter on the plan change in the first place (back when it was notified I lived locally) I have received all the documentation and had a good read through the logic behind both the planner’s recommendations (which recommended approval subject to a number of amendments) and the final decision (which seems to have largely bowed to what Westfield wanted in the first place). So I’m reasonably up to speed with what has happened here thus far.
My general opinion, right from the start, has been that St Lukes is simply is the wrong place to become Auckland’s biggest shopping mall. There are two primary reasons for this:
- It has relatively poor access to public transport. Most other shopping malls in Auckland have far better public transport access: Henderson’s next to a train station, so is New Lynn and Newmarket, Manukau City will be next to a train station by the middle of next year. Albany has a busway station that’s nearby. Sylvia Park has a train station next to it and so forth. St Lukes really is the odd one out in being away from the train network (Morningside station really doesn’t count in my opinion) and not even properly on a bus route (all the buses on New North Road and Sandringham Road have to detour to get there.
- It’s not in a ‘proper’ town centre. Aside from Sylvia Park (which seems to have aspirations of becoming a town centre) most of the other shopping centres are generally located in areas with a mix of other shops too – and are often traditional town centres. Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Glenfield, Shore City and Milford are all examples of this. What happens in these situations is that the shopping centre assists the town centre by attracting people to the area – perhaps the best example being Dressmart’s contribution to Onehunga. In the case of St Lukes, it just eats away at nearby town centres like Balmoral and Mt Albert, undermining – rather than contributing – to their success.
These two factors seem pretty obvious, and pretty fundamental to the question of whether or not approval should be given to this plan change. However, because of the convoluted nature of Auckland’s planning system – and the reluctance of various agencies to do their job properly in my opinion – these fundamental issues have generally been given scant consideration in the final decision-making process for the plan change. And what’s worse, because of the nature of the planning system, they have quite rightly been given this scant consideration.
Let’s look first at the “town centre issue”. It seems fundamentally obvious to me that St Lukes is not a proper town centre. Sure, there’s a big white box surrounded by carparks the makes up the main mall – and across a million lanes of traffic (which takes pedestrians about half an hour to cross because of the horrific traffic-light phasing) there are a bunch of other shops hidden behind a giant carpark. But does that really make a two centre? How does that compare to places like Mt Eden Village, New Lynn, Takapuna and Newmarket or local centres like Mt Albert or Balmoral? There’s no public space, there are few community facilities, there’s an utterly terrible pedestrian environment, there’s no relationship between the street and the shops (although the proposed improvement to this is perhaps the one saving grace of the plan change).
It seems to me that the commissioners understood this situation to some extent – that St Lukes is really pushing the limit of what might be called a town centre. I think the commissioners also felt that it the question of whether or not St Lukes was a town centre was quite fundamental to their decision on the plan change. However, once again due to Auckland’s convoluted planning system and despite all evidence pointing otherwise, an official decision had actually already been made – due to a recent environment court settlement (between Westfield and the Regional Council) on Plan Change 6 to the Auckland Regional Policy Statement, St Lukes had officially been declared a “town centre”. The commissioners noted the importance of this decision:
In so many respects, the settlement of the ARPS plan change appeal, leading to the designation of St Lukes as a ‘town centre’, sealed the fate of this subsequent plan change. I imagine the commissioners mulled over the question of “how could St Lukes be a town centre and then have the City Council not approve a plan change that seeks to try as hard as possible to give effect to this”?
In short, the environment court settlement between the ARC and Westfield meant that the fundamental question of whether or not St Lukes is the right place to build Auckland’s biggest shopping mall could not really be taken into much consideration. Despite the commissioners probably feeling that St Lukes really doesn’t look or feel like a town centre, they had to ignore such fundamental problems and questions. This is outlined below: …and…
I guess we can only contemplate whether the commissioners would have come to a different recommendation on this plan change had the ARPS not included St Lukes as a town centre – but my feeling is that would have been quite likely.
Turning now to the other fundamental issue – whether St Lukes’ poor level of public transport provision should have swayed the commissioners towards declining the plan change. This issue is mentioned by the commissioners in an introductory way when they consider how much of a ‘town centre’ St Lukes really is:
PC6 refers to plan change 6 of the ARPS, rather than the specific plan change the commissioners were consideration (which is PC8). Interestingly enough, this shows that they really did consider the St Lukes centre to be “out of step” with what would normally be considered a ‘town centre’ – and a major reason for that consideration was the lack of public transport. However, they then fall into the trap of stating that “it’s not Westfield’s problem”. While certainly Westfield is not responsible for providing public transport, if we continue to separate the decisions we make on land-use planning from their impacts on transport we will continue to make the same old mistakes, undermine public transport and increase our auto-dependency.
One of the interesting things in the commissioners’ decision, as it relates to transport matters, is how it would appear Westfield argued both that public transport to the area wasn’t as bad as people were saying (and therefore the plan change shouldn’t be declined for such a reason) but also argued that public transport to the area was generally poorer than to other shopping centres (and therefore they should be allowed to provide a huge number of parking spaces). Here’s what Westfield’s transport expert says about the quality of PT provision:
The difficulty with making this “ARTA’s problem” is that, once again, fundamentally St Lukes is very difficult to serve with high quality public transport. Diverting more Sandringham Road or New North Road buses via the mall creates a significant loss of time for all other commuters on those routes. The Morningside train station cannot magically be pulled closer to the mall. Perhaps the one easy thing to do would be an increase in weekend cross-town 007 services, but compared to other shopping centres and other real town centres, it is damn difficult to improve public transport provision to the area – hence the fundamental question of whether St Lukes is the right place for this (or indeed the right place to be designated a town centre in the first place).
The poor provision of PT (and the limited ability to improve it) ends up being used as justification to effectively “exempt” St Lukes from region-wide policies designed to cut back on the amount of off-street parking provided, and thereby encourage people to use alternative transport options – rather than clogging up the roads with their cars:
Once again, the problem is not that St Lukes doesn’t attract enough public transport patrons for it to be provided. The problem is that St Lukes is simply located in the wrong place – not on a public transport corridor. Fundamentally, it’s just in the wrong place.
So what to make of this all? Well, overall the whole thing in my opinion is just a giant mess. An utter planning failure all around. While I disagree with the extent to which the commissioners separate out land-use and transport (the “let’s make it ARTA’s problem” approach), in general I completely understand why they have decided to recommend approval. In essence, the decisions made on the Regional Policy Statement PC6, to (for some unknown reason) make St Lukes a town centre meant that the commissioners’ hands were tied. They asked themselves the question of “as this is (supposedly) a town centre, how can we decline a plan change that seeks to formalise that?” Of course, the answer they came to was “well we can’t”. And this is the decision that the Council will, inevitably, have to end up making (and probably the Environment Court should it go to appeal) – that given the regional planning framework in place, there’s simply no way to do anything but approve this.
That certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good planning outcome though. As a result of this mess we’re going to end up with St Lukes nearly doubling in size, the addition of a huge number of parking spaces (and therefore huge amounts of traffic) and little, if any, improvement to public transport to serve this. The disjoint between land-use and transport will be exacerbated, undermining the integration that so many of our planning documents and strategies have tried – so unsuccessfully – to achieve. I don’t even know what’s the best we can hope for now – perhaps making crossing St Lukes Road more pedestrian friendly and thereby integrating the two halves of this supposed ‘town centre’? But St Lukes Road will be so busy, from all this extra shopping traffic, that it will be incredibly difficult to achieve this. What about ARTA’s plans to implement a QTN along St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive? Well with all this extra traffic I think we can probably kiss that goodbye – as there will be no chance of managing to implement bus lanes. St Lukes will continue to undermine the viability of nearby real town centres: like Mt Albert and Balmoral, probably to a greater extent than ever before given its ability to become such a “mega-mall”.
There’s probably some ability to still argue over the details: whether the interface controls between the expanded mall and the neighbouring residential properties can be improved. Whether the heights are exactly right. Whether ARTA wanting to put a QTN through the area means a big rethink in the traffic plans. Whether it’s possible to narrow St Lukes Road a bit so that it’s more like a normal town centre main street and so forth. These are important arguments that might yet require consideration at an appeal, but fundamentally I don’t think there’s any chance that this won’t eventually be approved.
I guess if we are to try to find a silver lining in this complete and utter mess, it is that while the Auckland Council spends 2011 formulating the Spatial Plan they will have the perfect example of why we need a Spatial Plan – in the form of the mess of the St Lukes situation. The Council will hopefully learn the importance of being careful about where it selects ‘town centres’ to be, so that they are real town centres located on logical public transport routes. The planning disaster that St Lukes has turned into will hopefully show the Council exactly why it is so important to properly integrate land-use and transport planning. Perhaps, in a similar (although somewhat less dramatic) way that the demolition of Pennsylvania Railway Station in New York City led to the formation of a heritage protection movement there, the complete and utter planning disaster or St Lukes will waken us up to the need to get our regional planning right. Because, as St Lukes has shown, if you stuff up the big picture strategies everything falls apart.