This is 254 Ponsonby Rd.
A low rise and rather miserable example of provincial modernity currently home to a large car park and drive-through, the food retailer Nosh, and a Liquor King.
Just another piece of dross-scape left over from the great auto-age. But what is important about this piece of commercial property is that we own it. We the people that is. The Council bought the site in 2006 for, I believe, around 7.5mil, with the idea that it is a good place for some kind of public space.
A small group of very local residents are determined that it must be a public park in its entirety and are running a media campaign to this end which is being reported like this: Battle for Suburb’s Future.
And I kind of agree, this is a bit of a test case about Ponsonby Rd’s future. If this site is deactivated down to simply grass and trees making what would surely be Auckland’s most expensive park per square metre then the idea of Ponsonby Rd being any kind of centre of urban vitality and intensity will have suffered another blow. And the opportunity to patch a gap in the continuity of the streetscape will be missed.
The main argument for this being gardened at public expense is a rough calculation that Ponsonby has proportionately less parkland than other areas. Is this a valid metric for land use decisions?, looks like a crazy bit of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo to me. Areas are different, I would hope and expect to see more parkland in outer suburbs and more intensive urban land use in inner city areas. Doesn’t Ponsonby self-describe as a funky inner city area quite unlike most or even all of the rest of Auckland? Do we really want to level it out so that it’s the same as everywhere else? Street culture can only develop from intensity of activity; for Ponsonby to retain its vitality it needs to build up not water down its land use to suburban levels.
Most would agree that city open space is great and hip inner city retail and dinning areas need it too, but living in the area I already enjoy Western Park, Grey Lynn Park, Cox’s Bay Park, Victoria Park and the nearby Tole Reserve [part of which is shown above], but I certainly didn’t come to here all those decades ago because of its supply of open space. Quite the reverse, what is unique and valuable about the area is its built intensity as described in this previous post. We have raised three kids in the area and never once experienced a lack of parks or swings and slides. Vermont St has a park, so does Brown…
But even if we agree that the main problem faced by Ponsonby Rd is a lack of open space [which certainly isn’t clear], then we have to ask if this is the best place for it? To answer that we need to ask what sort of open space is ideal for urban centres like Ponsonby Rd? And what is the best use of public money to meet these ends. I agree that Ponsonby Rd’s physical qualities are poor and need investment but this looks awfully like all our eggs in one very expensive basket and with a very questionable result. How about improving the quality of the entire streetscape of this strip? The street, surely that is locus of the public realm in urban places. More trees along the the length of the street [those that are already there are great], raised pedestrian tables on side streets, fine grained and activated ‘laneway’ types of public space, narrowing the tops of streets like Mackelvie St, these sorts of things strike me as much more valuable than one bland plot of inactivity.
Because it is on one of Auckland’s premier shopping streets the land is valuable and potentially generates a healthy rate income for the city. The latest figures we can find is a capital value of 7.5million and the current rundown building pays 57,800 in rates pa. So there is a tremendous opportunity here to fund a whole lot of public realm improvements in the area as well as getting much better use of this site by redeveloping it rather than just making and maintaining a park on this site.
In considering what should happen here it’s important to note that the site has two distinct qualities in terms of its adjacent properties: commercial neighbours up at the Ponsonby Rd end and residential ones down at its western end. Furthermore its Ponsonby Rd face has real public realm responsibilities that the current building certainly completely ignores. So even if it was to be developed to its maximum extent the scale of structures at the bottom end of the site would be governed by those residential neighbours and the top end by its. Especially in terms of massing, height, and proximity to boundaries.
So it’s impossible to put a tower block on it even if that were desirable, but it does give us the opportunity to fix one the many ‘broken teeth’ in the line of commercial buildings on the strip. I, for one, would really like to see a structure at the Ponsonby Rd end of this site at least of a comparable volume to the adjacent Edwardian shops, right up to the footpath to repair the continuity of the built edge. Preferably separated from that building with a narrow laneway down to another running between O’Neill and Tole Sts and a properly urban courtyard towards the middle of the site connecting to all three streets . The western end is ideal for residential at a similar density as its neighbours [and how hypocritical would the neighbours be to complain of that?]. So the protected centre of the site would be public space with connections to existing streets and opportunities for sophisticated paved courtyards and planted, all served by retail.
This would enable commercial activity to continue on the site, it would create a more fine grained public realm, continue the built wall edge to the Ponsonby Rd footpath, with cover from the elements and for pedestrians and the bus stop, remove the awful vehicle crossing currently at the top of the site, and of course release to the city a whole lot of capital and future rating income to make improvements all along Ponsonby Rd’s length or perhaps to concentrate that effort somewhere better nearby.
And I think there is a somewhere else that would make for a much cleverer use of these public funds, including some really much better open space. And it’s just across the road: St Johns:
Built in 1882 this timber ‘carpenter’s gothic’ Gothic Revival methodist church is desperately in need of love. Its spire makes it the tallest building on Ponsonby Rd yet somehow it is easy to overlook. It has a Category 2 listing with Historic Places, yet I seriously doubt that the church, no matter how much they love this building, have the resources to maintain it. Maybe it is still used richly by the church but if so this happens very subtly, and certainly doesn’t happen in any public way involving the local community. It seems like it needs a new use in order to justify maintenance let alone restoration. It is fenced off from Ponsonby Rd and has a bunch of very unfortunate additions on its sides and rear and sits in a sea of tarmac on a fantastic site gently tipping towards the city, offering fabulous views, especially at dusk. Instead of a formless park on the 254 site we could have this restored and repurposed Victorian building sitting in an urban space like the new one surrounding St Patricks in the city.
Its latest valuation is 3.94mil and pays just 207.80 in rates [presumably just for the carparks occupied by local businesses]. I have no idea if the church would be happy to sell, or if there is a way it could still serve them along with new uses but I do know that Ponsonby Rd lacks any theatrical venue [despite its artistic reputation] or other kinds of performance or public meeting space. By taking this on we could get not only a historic building of extremely high value, but also the funds to at least begin to restore it, reconnect it to both the street and the community, a new venue for all sorts of activities, and new open space of value [especially if the additions are removed]. Furthermore this is on the northern and more residential side of the street, so the open space ca be added without causing a break in the activation of the streetscape on the commercial side of the strip.
This idea looks like a huge win/win to me. Financially, certainly, but also in terms of built heritage, public amenity, and it means open space without de-intensifying this urban centre.
I have no idea if the St Johns idea is possible, so it certainly isn’t a case of the Nosh site or St Johns but I do think we need to be creative with opportunities like this. It is, after all very easy to be in favour of preserving our built heritage but it is much more powerful to come up with a means to actually do so. Which essentially means finding vibrant new uses for valuable old buildings.
I understand the concern the direct neighbours will have about any change to the 254 site, especially because it is in public ownership, but having people in houses just like them next door and a whole lot of retail options at the main street end of the site is almost certainly a better outcome than a vapid and windswept public park with all the informal nighttime recreational activities that this will attract, and clearly is better than the car park they currently have now. But also they are not the only ones affected by what happens on this site. The Ponsonby Rd frontage in particular is something owned by us all.
There are a lot of pressures on the whole Ponsonby area, a lot of competing claims and different points of view. And fair enough, but the number of sites for development has already been shrunk to a narrow strip along the ridge so to reduce this further is to undermine the very source of Ponsonby’s identity and success; it’s intensity.