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A Further Look at O’Connell St: High St Hinterland

Thinking about the best way forward with O’Connell St [see here for proposed changes] surely must take into account what we want to see happen in the surrounding area. At the northern end is Shortland St and that won’t be too affected by any of the options although it would probably benefit from simplified movements by closing O’Connell to traffic. But for this post I want to look at the more important southern end of this little and lovely Street. One of the few remaining streets in Auckland that retains the qualities of a true city street; narrow, tightly built, textured, and completely without vehicle crossings.

O’Connell St from Shortland St

Obviously High St/Vulcan Lane is one of the primary retail hubs of the central city, servicing visitors from the wider city, country, and overseas. Surely it is in the best interests of the city to extend the success of this precinct by spreading its qualities a little further back from High St. Despite the proportion of space in High St itself given to vehicles it is clear that this area works because of those features that generally frustrate the driver but attract the pedestrian. Narrow somewhat claustrophobic streets, intensely built, textured, and randomly ordered buildings. Variation, accretion, disorder, patina.

Let’s have a look at what might be possible.

Below is a map of the area that I am calling the ‘High St Hinterland’. Bounded by Shortland St to the north and that funny severed bit of Albert Park to the south, and extending up the hill to Bankside St; enclosed by the rear of the Northern Club and the Fonterra buildings that face Princess St:

The High St Hinterland

And here is an earlier map. By comparing the two you can see how the City Traffic Engineers and Planners took advantage of the wholesale demolition of the old buildings here in the late 1980s here to ‘rationalise’ the street layout by eliminating the narrow Warspite St and redirecting Courthouse Lane to align with O’Connell St, and Bacon’s Lane with Fields Lane. They also widened these out to car friendly dimensions allowing for more flow, despite the street lengths and neighbourhood quality not really being suitable for speed of movement. This also enabled more on street parking to go with the new in-building parking. Yes really.

1966 ‘High St Hinterland’

Ah so sensible! See how much better it is now for traffic than this terribly irrational Medieval street pattern. These images could be of Florence, or Covent Garden, or Monmartre, or Melbourne’s furiously lively laneways.

1974 High St

I don’t want to get too stuck on the buildings that have been lost as we will never get them back. But I think it is useful see how much this area was changed and for what purpose in order to focus on what we can do now to improve this area. Particularly how we manage and prioritise the roadspace, and what we encourage in any future development.

Here is a shot from 1986 just before the place was smashed. Quite intensely built, no beauty that awkward effort at the front, looks like it was expecting a few more floors, but that’s not the point. It’s the scale and texture of the buildings built right up to the edge of narrow and labyrinthine Victorian lanes that would make this whole block a thriving retail and small business boomland were it still standing today.

Cafe Melba 1986

And here is what we have instead:

The Parking Stump

Auckland’s finest structure. And it’s not just that this is the stump of an unbuilt tower because even if it had who knows how many stories above here it would still be sucking the life force and commerce out of this once busy little network of streets. Everything about this is vile; the clumsy set-back with attendant derisory planters ruining any sense of urban enclosure to its surrounding streets while pretending at verdant mitigation. The hideous security grillage that it offers to any fool still on those streets- no doubt only those scurrying back to their cars. The shabby outbuildings attached like dunnies on an old villa, its lumpen mass as if preparing for aerial bombardment [if only]. And of course, best of all, all those car movements that it generates by its very presence to a place that should be filled with people and life and other business than just car storage.

Clearly this needs the urgent attention of the wreaking ball, but until such a time as we can get a demolition order on the basis of criminal hideousness I have another argument for this doubtless highly profitable ‘amenity’. But more on that soon. First let’s keep looking around. Here’s a view up the steep eastern half of Chancery St:

Upper Chancery St

Clearly this is lost place, a public space entirely given over to the parking convenience of the Shortland St towers on the left and on the right the parking stump shown in the previous image. There are some six car entrances and exists on the left hand side and nothing else but blank concrete. At the top are the plodding po-mo architectural manoeuvres of the truly lumpen Fonterra building. Icing on the cake: 6 or 7 Auckland Transport on-street parking spaces. Nothing to be done here. Lost.

Chancery St

Moving down to the flat section of Chancery St civilisation starts to break out. Much of this is because of the efforts of the Chancery Lane development. Although based on a mall-like bogus ‘lane’ and sitting on parking for the very thing in whose name that the original authentic street pattern was destroyed, this attempt at texture and scale re-creation does extend the High St vibe a little deeper into the hinterland [even if it does have a little too much of a shopping mall Noddyland tone about its forms]. And vitally, it has a fully active edge all the way along its half of Chancery lane and the same up its bit of O’Connell St. Yay. Streetlife.

But consider the street itself and again you can see that the god of vehicle priority has control of this space as footpaths are reduced to single file so that a dual carriageway and parking on both sides can be accommodated .

Stepping back further and we can see that the only place that those cars facing west on lower Chancery St can go is into the northern end of O’Connell St. Ah, sweeping corners everywhere; built for speed:

Also apparent is the vast acreage of asphalt.

So Hazzzah! It’s obvious isn’t it?

If we close O’Connell St to general traffic and make the bottom end of Chancery St oneway heading east, vehicle movements here would be reduced down to service vehicles and those using the Metrolpolis carpark and the few cars still dribbling through Freyberg Square [btw: Why?]. Bacon and Fields Lanes can service the parking buildings, there’s no need for those vehicles to come down to O’Connell St, except that they can. Lower Chancery St could have its footpaths restored to a reasonable and more welcoming width for the shops there. Generally the High St tone would be advanced further into this area. And there would still be room for parking on Chancery St as well as loading bays. Hardly an impossible distance to handtruck goods to Vulcan Lane and O’Connell St. Or alternatively allow deliveries say before 10 or 11 am into O’Connell; a common practice worldwide. But the bottom line is that there is no need for car movements through O’Connell.

I know the counterargument: but we must have parking and driving through here or how are the customers going to get to these shops? Setting aside the bigger argument around the need for better public transport because although there is still much to do there, there are in fact many who come to the city each day without using a car. No I have another point.

I want to see the benefit from the loss of all that other space further up the hill to driving infrastructure. If we must allow chunks of the city to be violated in the name of car convenience we should surely be able to point to the great benefits that this cost accrues? There are over 1000 parking spaces below Chancery Lane and in the adjacent stump.

So isn’t this calculation more than reasonable?: The top end of Chancery, along with Fields Lane, Bacon Lane, Bankside St, and the whole sweep of lower Kitchener St, is entirely owned by the car, so can’t we get half of O’Connell St back and widen the footpaths on lower Chancery St in return? Can’t we corral the beast a little here?

Here is Parkopedia [who knew!] showing a middle of a weekday lavish parking amenity in central AK.

Parkopedia

Come on AC and AT you are going to have stop thinking like your last century forebears who participated in the total Fukushima-ing of this part of town, you more than owe all Auckland to change the default settings on how you think about quality of place versus ease of vehicle movement everywhere in the wider city, but especially in pedestrian and retail rich habitats like this.

In general I prefer the vitality of shared spaces to total pedestrianisation of streets, spaces which for some reason seem to struggle to resist twee additions and a general faux feeling. Perhaps they have by nature something of the castrati about them, you know, once were tough enough to take vehicles but now it’s only rubbish bins and over-designed street furniture….? But in this case it seems likely that to get the drivers to take the slightly counterintuitive turn up Chancery St the streetscape will have to be forceful. And the narrow width and fantastic buildings of this stretch of O’Connell I’m sure can man-up to a softer environment there. As well the adjacent Vulcan Lane has long been Auckland’s most successful carless street. Either way I think it is essential that there is no curb and chanelling here, it would be just too bossy and limiting, give the space the much more flexible single grade. I am still amazed at how the very proportions of Elliot St seem to have altered simply by this intervention. What a great location O’Connell St could be then for a fashion show, for example.

Here is the earlier post on this issue, complete with the arguments of the professionals working on it repeated in the comments. What do you think?

 

57 comments to A Further Look at O’Connell St: High St Hinterland

  • James L

    Agree. Just one detail though: the parking stump is on the corner of Chancery St & Bacons Ln. Melba was a block closer to High St, on the corner of lanes Chancery and Courthouse. The Parking Stump replaced another bunker building, but one that housed one of AK’s first serious attempts at a Fr restaurant. Was it – surely, no, can’t be – Cliches?

    • Yes I know, but the stump, which extends its love under Chancery Lane, was only possible because the entire block was flattened and all the streets ‘rationalised’. I can just remember the restaurant, where I had my first ever Steak au poivre, pretty glam I recall, but haven’t found any photos further into the block than Melba.

      When I say glam, i mean for the times of course, be hilarious to see now, Melba too, all faux palms, IIRC.

  • Ingolfson

    Hi Patrick – thanks, you have convinced me to give a submission in support of shared space…

  • Granted

    Wow. Auckland is one ugly city. Looks like it was bombed during a war or some such. How does it rate so highly on liveability stakes?

    • Ingolfson

      Pretty volcanoes, sweeping coasts, beautiful wooden villas in the ‘burbs. Once you get away from the big motorways and oversized arterial roads (admittedly not getting any easier), it can be very beautiful.

      And of course, this website concentrates on issues at hand, and less often about things that are already (or still) nice.

    • Ha! That’s the purpose of this blog; to unfuck Auckland. And it so can be done. Especially as we change the shabby way we have been treating place with out transport priorities.

      Onward!

    • Problem with lobbying for improvement is that you need to make a case for why things as they are or as planned aren’t good enough, so blogs like this one can tend towards the negative. I am, in fact, very excited and optimistic about Auckland, if more than a little impatient about the obvious changes that we should be getting on with immediately [CRL, did I hear you say?]. I’m sure my fellow bloggers feel the same too.

      Anyway I have a big celebratory post about Auckland coming up that I’ve been planning for a while, I’ve just got to find the time to make the images, and not get so distracted by urgent issues like this one…. then’s there’s the day job, Uni, and family…..

  • Danoct

    Was about to mention that, the road layout is completely different in both pictures. That stump does look horrendous, but what was actually there before?

  • Dan

    So can anyone post the contents of their submission on this? Would be good to have a template to work from.

  • It’s good to hear property developers in Chch raving about bringing back the lanes and breaking up the grid street layout. I’m not sure that closing off Lichfield St to make space for a faux gothic-revival covered stadium is quite the way to go about it but at least there’s some originality in the idea.
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/7591667/Gothic-stadium-would-unite-sport-with-art

    • Talking of Noddyland…. my god that is poor. Would be made out of polystyrene so that it wouldn’t risk fallen on St Richie…. so bad as to be beyond pastiche, almost, I’m sure Mr Disney could help…..

      Gothick revival revival… poor Christchurch doesn’t deserve another another disaster.

    • There’s a natural convergence that happens in this district. Even with all the disurban experimentation the real estate land values are some of the highest in the cbd. Small blocks, fine grain, and a range of movement options – need to leverage this value. (and of course parking does not add value here.)

    • James B

      OMG when you set Faux Gothic. I thought it would be an interpretation of Gothic but brought into the twenty first century. I didn’t think it would be that literal.

  • I have yet to draft mine, but the gist of it will be:

    The upgrade of O’Connell St is a great opportunity to make a high quality pedestrian environment in keeping with the pedestrian scaled nature of the heritage precinct. It is an opportunity to further develop an ‘old town’ pedestrian precinct. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered on an inferior upgrade that maintains functional and design priority for vehicular traffic. If it cannot be done properly, it is better to wait until it can.

    The removal of car parking from the street is a very good idea, and it should be total removal. Leaving four parking spaces is a waste of time that would compromise the design and result in increase traffic from motorists circulating through looking for parking.

    The street does not and should not serve and arterial road function, and due to the lack of any driveways or loading docks there are no properties that rely on O’Connell for vehicular access. Without car parking, the sole reason for vehicular access to O’Connell Street is for service and loading functions. The proposed design of a fully kerbed and demarcated road lane with footpaths either side is excessive and inappropriate for the limited role of providing service access to a small number of buildings on a short street. Furthermore, maintaining a full road lane in conjunction with the removal of parking will result in high speed traffic in the street, as drivers will have both a dedicated traffic lane and no obstacles or constraints to their driving. This is an unacceptable outcome for this street.

    There are only two appropriate options for this upgrade:

    1) A full shared space designed for pedestrian priority, without kerbs or a physically demarcated road lane, where loading and service functions are conducted from the shared space (as per the existing design of Elliot St, Darby St, Fort St and Fort Lane)

    2) A completely pedestrianized street without vehicle access, where loading and service functions are conducted from either end adjacent to Shortland St and Chancery St (as per the existing design of Vulcan Lane and Durham St East). The very short length of O’Connell St makes this a perfectly adequate solution to service access, while the closure of the intersections with Shortland and Chancery St respectively would provide the space required to add new loading bays on either street without affecting existing parking or loading areas.

    It is anticipated that full pedestrianisation would be the best outcome. It would be the cheapest option to construct due to the lack of kerbing or the need for load bearing pavement treatment. It would provide the greatest pedestrian outcomes and be safest for marginal users (e.g. partially sighted, deaf, wheelchair users). It would have the greatest urban amenity value due to the full exclusion of motorised vehicles, and would allow the street to be greater utilised for public seating, café tables, greenery and other public realm improvements. It would also allow a net increase in loading zones for the precinct, providing the greatest service and delivery access to O’Connell St.

    Ok, looks like I just drafted it there.

  • Sacha

    “arial bombardment”

    helvetica on earth

    • Haha… nicely spotted Sacha. Yes Helvetica always. And I need an editor… equal pay to what I get for doing this, promise….

      • Ingolfson

        The more I look at it, the more it DOES seem like some sort of World War III bunker / fallout shelter… maybe we need some zombies or downtrodden nuclear apocalypse survivors shambling around it to complete the picture 😉

        Okay, enough video games for me now.

  • Makes you just want to up and slap an 80’s urban planner/traffic engineer. How could NZ ever have thought this was creating a better city or country. It really beggars belief, even more that there are people out there still fighting the moves to fix it.

    An English guy told me he often asked people where their favourite place in the world was. He claimed not once has a person referred to a place built between 1950 and 1990. I have to say I struggle to think of anywhere nice I have been in the world that was designed/built in that period. It was like the Cold War compelled us to build the ugliest buildings and public spaces we possibly could, though of course auto dependency is the real culprit.

    Can anyone name a place from that period?

    For those of us who are unfamiliar with the process of making a submission, could someone post a link to the right place? Keen to submit Nick’s suggested post above.

  • BTW the design of the Gothic Chch stadium just repeats a lesson that architects never seem to learn.

    Never, never design a building while on really strong acid.

    Surely even Hunter S Thompson would have agreed with that. Well, maybe not.

  • obi

    Best post for a while! I always like ones with photos or diagrams… its a picture worth 1000 words scenario.

    What’s the effect on the council’s finances if we removed a lot of on street parking and built wider footpaths? My impression is that most of the reason that councils go to so much trouble to preserve a few carparks in any street redevelopment is financial.

    • Yes, they do frame the removal of a parking space as a net loss. Of course this is simple financial math not including any economic benefit. There are plenty of studies that equate the removal of on-street parking with additional retail commerce [despite the opinions of shopkeepers], like Jan Gehl’s study claiming x cafe tables added per car park removed.

      Another thought occurred to me while I was watching cars zoom down Kitchener St and into the Valhala of the Stump; lobbying for the removal of on-street parking is of course lobbying to make the parking business even more lucrative through slightly increasing scarcity. Outcomes?; will probably push the prices up which should in turn increase the appeal of leaving the car at home as well as make places like the Stump even more valuable as they are and further decreasing the chances of their removal….?

      • Dan

        The problem with the increased economic activity argument in Auckland is that the council barely gets a sniff of it. Their revenue sources are so narrow that (I’m guessing) parking probably plays a significant role.

        • Ingolfson

          Worse, they have a major stake in several car park buildings.

          Still, compared to rates, their parking revenues must be peanuts. Not saying that losing revenue is something they will like, in tight times, but they need to keep it in perspective.

        • Not so Dan, rates are directly tied to property values. Rates are the councils main source of funds so it is in the council’s interest to increase property values.

          As for parking, they don’t make that much off it. About $10 million a year in revenue across the region, at a cost of about $1 million for collection and enforcement (not sure if that is just street parking or street + buildings. You’d hope it were a bit more if it included the buildings!). The parking revenue off a dozen parks in O’Connell St would get lost in the weekly rounding.

          • Dan

            That’s true but it is a pretty slow and round-about way of collecting more revenue. The balance between central/local govt revenues are far too skewed to the central in NZ.

            But I agree that that few parks discussed here count for nothing (and I’m sure a few parking wardens policing the shared spaces could make up for any lost revenue…)

          • But isn’t the real point that Council, like government, is not a business. Yes it is important that it is ‘business like’ in the sense that that means being efficient and financially prudent, but that it does not exist simply to make a profit for its owners but rather it has a far wider set of outcomes that it is pursuing many of which will never make an appearance on a balance sheet. Including the general improvement and vitality of city businesses whether or not this leads to an increase in rateable value.

  • Time to give councils a share of gst?

  • Here’s an idea. Like Patrick has noted if O’Connell St is to be closed then the lower part of Chancery St has to be made one way eastbound, otherwise westbound traffic has no where to go. But if it is made one way westbound, you only need a one lane street. That frees up considerable width for other uses, I imagine you could widen the footpaths on Chancery St and still have enough room to put angle parking right down one side. The two or three at the O’Connell St end could be loading zones. So more loading zones and a lesser reduction in street parking to keep the roadies happy, not to mention the parking would be a lot easier to get in and out of that cramming down O’Connell!

    Only problem is it ties in the cost of rebuilding Chancery St to the O’Connell project, so maybe it’s best to just leave it the way it is but paint a couple of one way arrows and string up some signs.

    • Nick don’t follow why you want it westbound? Surely eastbound is best otherwise you need to flip the other one way too…?

      Anyway on your last point I’m all for cheap interventions to improve streetscape. Lovely though those new shared spaces are we needn’t let a lack of big budgets stop improvements. A lick of paint and a few tables and chairs will do for proof of concept till the budge comes round!

      • Kent Lundberg

        Parking Day is next Friday. 🙂

      • Sorry Patrick, just a little case of geographic dyslexia. I said Chancery St should be one way eastbound in one sentence, and westbound in the next. I do mean eastbound of course given that’s the way Courthouse Lane already runs. But thinking about it flopping them both the other way wouldn’t be too hard either, if there were some good reason to do so.

  • Owen Thompson

    Where did the wonderful old photos and map come from?

  • I’d also like to propose we change the name of half of Chancery St to Warspite Lane. That was probably the most awesome street name in Auckland and deserves to be re established.

  • DF

    The new part of Fort St between Commerce St and Gore St is a good example of the problem of a new narrow, no parking street. Instead of making this a shared space, we now have a clear demarcation between the road and the footpath, and without parking to form a barrier and to slow the cars down, cars now race through this street. That’s exactly what’s proposed for O’Connell St (except one way rather than two).

    • Will there be no parking once it is finished, or just now during construction? I think the solution down Fort St was a good one, the Gore and Commerce st loop for service access allows the rest of Fort St and it’s lanes to be devehicularified. That’s really what Patrick is suggesting for the Chancery area, one proper access road and the rest for pedestrians. I’d always assumed there would be short stay parking and loading zones on the ‘proper road’ bit though.

  • DF

    There is parking on Commerce and Gore Sts, but not on Fort St itself between Commerce and Gore (the bottom of the loop). I agree with leaving Commerce and Gore Sts as regular streets. However, keeping a vehicular loop at the bottom between both streets seems unnecessary (cars can go back up Commerce or Gore St, or else drive through a shared space to connect between the two streets). And not only is the bottom of the loop unnecessary, but it has no parking on it and has become a highspeed laneway for cars to speed through.

  • Feijoa

    How popular would you say Vulcan Lane is to Aucklanders – I suspect it is unanimously popular with residents and visitors alike. Now let’s consider progress council has made to emulating its success since – zero, or negative since they’ve put roads through QE2 square? Given its success, why the utter fear or reluctance to replicate this model on streets like O’Connell?

    Love your posts Patrick – entertaining and informative.

  • James B

    Found an interesting problem created by the phase change at the end of High Street yesterday. What is now happening is when everyone leaves the Victoria Street carpark after work the phasing of the lights at the end of High Street is causing the cars to back up all through the carpark sometimes to the 7th floor. Not only does this cause massive problems for people leaving but because of the one way system it creates problems for people entering the park. Needless to say things got very messy. They even had to get a parking warden in to take tickets as it would take you so long to leave the building the time allocation on your exit would expire.

    • Hmmmm… they could just go back into special parking building slip lane and back into the building up to the top and back down again; round and round for ever….

      These are the entirely predictable problems of trying to order a city of even modest scale entirely by the car; it won’t even work for drivers.

      Time to change horses alright. And we are.

      I look forward to seeing a reduction in innercity parking supply…. hmmm? converting these buildings ain’t easy; they have very narrow floor plates, I think I feel a design studio paper coming on…..

  • Adam

    Sure that part of town is desolate, but lets look at the other side of the coin.

    High Street is already dying, plenty of vacancies, O’Connell street has plenty of vacancies, especially the little ‘through mall’ to 41 shortland street.

    Chancery has plenty of vacancies and is a lovely pedestrian friendly zone.

    There is no demand for pedestrian friendly urban environment around that corner. There is a demand for carparking, as that carpark serves a large part of the eastern side of town.

    While I understand the writers of this blog prefer pedestrian spaces to carparks, the city still needs carparks, and horrendously expensive private parking buildings are better than on-street parking.

    And yes the building is ugly as all sin, but what do you propose
    1) Council/ratepayers pay to upgrade it?
    2) Private owners be obliged to invest in the appearance of their carpark to suit your desires
    3) Something else?

    I generally agree with the sentiments on this blog, but know the area well, and think it serves its purpose well as backstreets, service lanes for shortland/chancery, and think the city needs a balance of pedestrian zones, and commercial/parking zones

    • Demand as you put it is a function of form. This place has been turned into a low value parking area by the actions of failed private adventures with the support of Council, last century.

      I’m just advocating we wind the dull poison of auto-dominance back as much as is practical. The Stump will stay, but we don’t have let O’Connell and High be car ravaged too.

      Vacancies= unrealistic landlords. An adjustment to new competition is going to have to happen, it seems.

    • ingolfson

      “High Street is already dying, plenty of vacancies, O’Connell street has plenty of vacancies, especially the little ‘through mall’ to 41 shortland street.”

      So to revitalise an area of lots of little shops and cafes, you propose to… keep a few dozen car parks? That’s like… I don’t know. A bit like proposing that chronically famished countries in Africa should really invest more into Waygu beef production instead of concentrating on more millet. Talk about inefficient ways to oh-so-slightly nibble at a problem instead of attacking it head on. The depressing thing is that quite a few shopkeepers / property owner around Auckland would still agree with you.

      • Adam

        Well ingolfson, currently the demand isnt there,

        It would seem the proposal here is to add more supply.

        Any city is going to have a finite demand for retail, commercial, parking, green and pedestrian spaces, I think the city currently has an oversupply of retail. Even if we were to revitalise the area, it would come at the expense of another part of town

        • Well I’m sure you know what has happened in this area recently, a key retail sector, fashion, has been lured to another part of town with big rent holidays. Clearly the High St landlords will need to find new tenants as they didn’t match the new offer. The new tenants may only be found at less agreeable terms than these landlords would like. So it goes.

          Price is not, however, the only driver of these decisions. Quality of place and quantity of foot traffic are also important issues and that’s at the root of my post above. Improve the quality of the shopping precinct by reversing the daft auto-privileging design policies in order to improve this area’s appeal to shoppers and retailers alike. The timing seems perfect as the whole idea of this area is undergoing a change as the fashion retailers spread out from here towards other areas.

          The only constant is change. And pedestrian numbers in downtown AK have been consistently rising as car numbers are static or falling…. losing a few car parks will only help this area; cars buy nothing, only humans not in cars can enter shops and make a purchase.

        • max

          Lower retail SHOP rents can stimulate new, rather than just relocated spaces. Also, our city is growing massively in population, so the “it will come at someone elses expense” doesn’t automatically hold. Lastly, why not displace something “adequate” with something good?

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