Over the last few years there’s been a lot of teeth gnashing over what to do with High St. The success of Britomart, the shared spaces and the emergence of Wynyard have started to drain it’s prestige (and high profile retailers). Hopefully work on turning O’Connell St into a shared space will start soon (although I’m not hopeful based on what I’m hearing). One of the problems with High St seems to be that there are a few noisy retailers that are so afraid of change – even change that will benefit them – that they oppose it.
Yesterday Metro has published an article that was in the magazine in November 2012 on exactly this issue and it really underlines some of the immense stupidity that some of those noisy retailers have. It starts off by highlighting some of the problems that High St has.
Here’s what happens in High St. First thing every weekday morning, service vans enter the street and fill up half the parks. They’re not delivery vehicles, they belong to tradespeople working in nearby shops and offices. They have council-issued permits to park there all day.
From mid-morning, a steady stream of shoppers drives into High St, which is one-way heading south, looking for a park. They turn left into Freyberg Place, left again into O’Connell St, which is one way north, then down Shortland St, turn once more into High, and on it goes. Many of them go round and round; a few get lucky, more don’t, and they give up and drive away.
High St is the heart of what is supposed to be Auckland’s premier shopping precinct, and it’s got problems. Parking, sure. And a whole lot more. Three high-profile fashion retailers moved out a few months ago and set up new shops in Britomart. Others, on High St and in the Chancery complex, have followed them out of the precinct and several shops remain empty. Earthquake strengthening is due for many buildings, which impacts on tenancy security and rentals, and the heritage status of some is also uncertain. The fast-growing student precinct nearby has changed the makeup of the local population.
It goes on. The recessed strip of shops and cafes under Metropolis and the council carpark at the Victoria St end is dark, dreary and under-patronised. The whole south end of the street is ugly and uninviting. The stonework in Freyberg Square (the square is the public space; Freyberg Place is the street running through it) is wearing away and needs to be replaced. O’Connell St, despite being home to several cool little boutiques and good restaurants, is bleak.
I would add to that list that the footpaths are too narrow and if you’re with someone it almost certainly means walking single file killing any chance of conversation or enjoying the area. I’d much rather stroll down a shared space that walk along High St and I’m guessing a lot of other people feel that way too.
The article contains a lot of are a lot of theories and finger pointing from retailers on what’s affecting High St from the economy to online shopping to that perennial boogie man of the large suburban malls like St Lukes. It’s even suggested that the fact Britomart (the development not the station) has valet parking is contributing to the issues (why can’t the High St retailers fund a valet service using the Victoria St carpark).
But what can be done to improve the area. The council is meant to be turning O’Connell into a shared space and upgrading Freyberg Square, the response:
Chris Cherry is not happy. “Fort St and Elliott St were dogburgers,” he says. “But High St isn’t broken and turning O’Connell St into shared space is the thin end of the wedge. O’Connell St is worthy of preservation as it is. It’s a point of difference.”
John Courtney disagrees with Cherry on this. “O’Connell St is a dark carpark. You still need to drive through, but let’s move some of the cars out.” He’s looking forward to the shared space and says the four restaurants there now, including his own, Kitchen in Hotel DeBrett, are all keen to create an Imperial Lane-style experience.
How anyone can suggest that O’Connell St is worth preserving as it is now is just crazy. Like High St it’s lined by cars but with even worse footpaths and it actively turns people and therefore shoppers away.
Any chance of a pedestrian mall, with service vehicles limited to early morning? Apparently not. Retailers, even after nearly 50 years of the successful experience of Vulcan Lane, are dead against them. Chris Cherry is so vehement, he says that if the vehicles-free zone of Vulcan Lane turned the corner into High St — that’s the corner his shop is on — he’d be “out of there tomorrow”.
Cherry, like most of the other retailers I spoke to, doesn’t like shared spaces either. “Show me a city anywhere in the world where they work,” he says.
To which, DeBrett’s Michelle Deery, who does like them, responds: “Covent Garden.”
Cherry says Covent Garden is “different because of its scale — it’s got a whacking great Tube station right in the middle of it. And it’s got all those attractions.”
When I told Campbell-Reid about this, he kind of stiffened and looked away. “If you create shared spaces you can put in the attractions. Where do shared spaces work? Only everywhere.”
Including here. A just-released analysis of Fort St by the council shows pedestrian numbers up by 50 per cent, with consumer spending up by 65 per cent overall and 400 per cent in the hospitality sector.
Fort St has been an outstanding success but the other shared spaces have been successful too. As is pointed out in the article, perhaps part of the problem is actually the retailers themselves not being open at the right times. It’s the next part that really made me go wow.
To Chris Cherry, the biggest problem is those service vehicles clogging up the parking. And it’s an easy fix: all they need to do is give the tradespeople permits to use the council parking building.
Cherry, Murray Crane and Heather Gerbic share a strategic goal which is diametrically opposed to Ludo Campbell-Reid’s: they want to make the street more attractive for cars.
Elliott St, says Cherry, can have its shared space — it was “a dog” anyway. “High St’s not a dog. It needs protecting. People coming into High St are coming past Ponsonby and past Newmarket. They’re coming for that special old-fashioned experience.”
What he means is the ability to drive right into the street, park there and shop. Crane even told me High St should be a “thoroughfare”.
To be honest I can’t even see how you could make it even more attractive to cars. Also just what is the “special old-fashioned experience”? Even if you could get more people driving and parking in High St, it’s unlikely to actually have an impact on the businesses. This is because the figures from the councils study into O’Connell St – which I assume would produce similar results to High St – showed that most people shopping in the street got there by some other method than driving and parking in the street. Even more interesting was that of those that did park in the street, most were going somewhere other than O’Connell St.
I do agree that tradespeople can be an issue but they also need to be accommodated in the city and many have/need vans that simply can’t fit in carparking buildings (not that it means they need to be on High St)
As for the disagreement with the council’s plans:
Cameron Brewer relishes this. He clearly doesn’t see eye to eye with Campbell-Reid on the role of cars in the inner city and says he would “hate to see High St become a shared space. Part of its attraction is its European flavour. It’s busy with cars. Drivers have to play Russian roulette. It’s quite gritty like that.”
Really? We want a street for Russian roulette? Brewer reflects on this. “Perhaps it should be a kind of shared space. If you took away the kerbs but still allowed people to park there, that wouldn’t be so bad.”
Perhaps someone should have told Brewer that shared spaces came from Europe. The only people playing Russian roulette are the pedestrians who want to cross the road, even at the crossings, especially if a driver happens to spot a free carpark up ahead.
It’s not mentioned too much in this article but some people love to compare the plight of not just High St but the CBD and town centres to success of the suburban malls. They point out the masses of parking outside them and assume that to be successful that they have to have parking outside their shops too. What I find both comical and sad about it is that one of the things that makes mall so successful isn’t that people can drive to them but that people can’t drive through them. Ultimately malls are just the equivalent of pedestrian only streets. I suspect that in many ways malls were simply a response to us having turned so much of our CBD and town centres over to the movement and storage of cars.
Sadly despite this article being over a year old, I have heard that many of the views mentioned haven’t changed and the retailers are still fighting any change to High St as well as O’Connell St. If they get their way then High St will likely be a lost cause for some time to come because at the end of the day people buy stuff, not cars.