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Downtown: Little Queen St

This is a quick post on the Downtown site. Precinct Properties, the owner of the Mall and the two existing towers [Zurich Hse + HSBC Building] between Lower Queen St and Lower Albert St, are expected to lodge a resource consent in a couple of months for a total rebuild of this site. We expect this proposal to include:

  • a 36 story tower on the south west corner, opposite the Customs Hse
  • 3 story retail precinct in between the three towers
  • an unknown quantity or location of carparking
  • the reinstatement of streets, or ‘street-like’ ground level public realm through the site instead of QE II Square.

Other significant and related issues:

  • Construction is expected to begin next year [2015] and will include the tunnels for the City Rail Link through the site, regardless of the government’s position on this project. Council funding is secured for this.
  • Buses will be removed from Lower Queen St and moved at least in part to Lower Albert St. Lower Queen will become a vehicle free pedestrian space at least for the length in front of Britomart Station.

We are told to expect both a new east/west street connecting the Piazza in front of Britomart to the buses on Lower Albert and a north/south street between Quay and Customs. The later is a reinstatement of a previously existing street called Little Queen, and is what I am focussing on in this post.

In 1966 10 highly detail topographical maps were produced from arial photographs of Auckland City, now in the Auckland Libraries Collection [where the black and white images in this post are also from]. These maps are a fantastic source of detailed information on 1960s Auckland; here is a close-up of the Downtown site before the current 1970s mall was built there, the CPO turned Britomart Station is bottom centre between Calway [sic; should be Galway] and Tyler:

Little Queen St 1966

So running between the Ferry Building and the Customs House was Little Queen St. The Harbour Board owned all the reclaimed land in the vicinity of the port and, like POAL today, it was focused on making more of it, either out of the sea, or in this case, it contrived to invent real estate out of a public road in order to ‘rationalise’ that resource. Presumably the trade off then with the city and the citizens was how we came to get the most dreary public space in the city: QE II square, proving for ever that not all open space is equal, especially urban open space.

Little Queen St 1973

The east side looking towards the sea and Ferry Building [and one person].

Little Queen St Esat 1070-75

The same side from a higher angle with a couple of humans and more than 10 buses. The street is pretty wide, wider it seems than its Melbourne namesakes; Little Collins and Little Bourke. Or perhaps just emptier?

Quay and Little Queen 1965

Quay St from the Ferry Building looking towards Lower Queen [The still extant Endeans building on the left and the Cupola of Britomart poking above], Little Queen on the right. 1965. Plenty of tarmac.

The history of this site is fascinating* as it is a clear example of the failures of mid twentieth century modernist urban master planning. But the outcome we are familiar with now isn’t simply a matter of design fashion but also the demographic, social, and commercial landscape of the period; the spirit of the times.

montgomery ward huntington beach ca 1966 pleasantfamilyshopping

The 1960s and 70s were at the height of the ‘flight from the centre’ period, a time of anti-urban idealisation of the new decentralised suburban life. A then sexy new Californian dream of a car centred complete life away from the tired old city centre: Living, shopping, and working without bothering with the old fashioned, degraded city. Clean, convenient, new. Supported and subsidised by Central and Local government policy in a myriad of ways, especially in transport spending in Auckland once Robbie’s Rail was killed. This lack of confidence in the city and disregard for the existing urban built environment was the dominant theme of the time so I guess it is of no surprise that the outcome of that Downtown redevelopment is suboptimal.

There was vocal opposition to the design we now have when it was proposed, in particular the shading of the new Square by the now HSBC building was, correctly, predicted to be severely limiting, and for years it struggled commercially [although more recently I believe it was one of  previous owner Westfield's better performers, and their only property without onsite and free parking], the site now clearly offers its new owners a huge opportunity but only if completely redesigned and rebuilt. And that opportunity is simply people. The return of people in concentrations to a now more exciting and busy city environment that only good public transport and dense land habitation can provide.

In this regard then, it is essential that the quality of the new work; both the architectural form of the new buildings and the relations between these buildings; the negative space between, these new streets, are of the highest standard, and provide real public spaces, unlike the faux public space of the suburban mall, or the formlessness and inauthenticity of the current QE II square. And in this the challenge is greater than at Britomart as there are no pre-sprawl era buildings to revive to give structure, scale, and continuity, and still the blocking mass of the HSBC building [which covers the northern end of the old Little Queen St] as well as a new tower to accommodate. Precinct and their architects have a great deal to balance but they know if they get it right all else will follow: The people.

A critical difference now is that these new projects are not for and by people that see little value in the city, a place only fit for escape. In that sense they are building for a new age, and one that offers the chance at least of the return of those powerful but difficult to summon qualities of great cities and great city places: Enchantment, mystery, possibility.

No pressure then.

 

* There is a totally absorbing history of the lead up to the downtown development in the Architecture New Zealand 2. 21013 by architect Dennis Smith. Highly recommended. Shows various schemes, perfectly of their time, and all completely dominated by car parking.

UPDATE: The kind folks at Architecture Now have put Dennis’ great article online now: http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/a-short-history-of-the-sixties-downtown/

 

59 comments to Downtown: Little Queen St

  • Propertyman

    Great post. As I understood it the re-instatement of Little Queen St and also the funding for the tunnels 2015/16 were still up in the air? or have these both been confirmed?

  • Gerald

    Great article Patrick, really interesting. It reminds us how the past so often shapes the future.

  • Max

    I must say these photos show how far we had given over streets to cars by then already. Skinny little footpaths, very wide lanes. When I heard about “Little Queen Street”, I thought it had been this quaint little laneway. Nah.

    I am not even sure turning that over for QEII square WAS a bad bargain. Of course those (QEII or a car-dominated street) aren’t the only two choices.

    • Neil

      Great post. My Grandfather had the lease on No10 Queen Street. The footpath was narrow because no one walked up Little Queen Street as it had no retail presence. It had the “back doors” of the Queen Street shops, with small windows of the store room that was behind the back door.

    • mfwic

      Auckland streets have never been quaint. It has always been a working city and often a bit grim. The wide streets were as much about avoiding the ‘Great Fire of Auckland’ as they were about access.

  • Rharris

    Interesting can see the logic but what stops this new little street from becoming an unpleasant wind tunnel like the one in britomart at the westpac/ey building? I guess it could be enclosed but just function like a street.

    I also did expect the lower floors to have some larger anchor format retail stores like a zara or h&m. Will be interesting how they fit in to the “street”. I guess these may now go further up queen st by top shop as the lower end of queen st is targeted for more high end retail.

    • Yes that is the challenge, but I would argue that if ‘inside’ then it isn’t a street; not public realm; mall. Fort Lane v East Building mall-like wind tunnel.

      A couple of the Melbourne Laneways are dog-legs which, added to their narrowness, gives them a more intriguing aspect; they entice you into them to see whats around the corner… Just replacing the street and especially at that width is definitely not the only option.

    • bbc

      That’s the beauty of the outside street, some days it’s windy, some days it’s rainy and wet, some days it’s sunny and hot, some days it’s all of these things. If someone wants a sterile, wind free, same temp and brightness every day and night of the year then a mall is a the answer. Personally I enjoy the contrasts of being outside.

    • Gary Young

      “as the lower end of queen st is targeted for more high end retail”

      Oh, please. Let it be so. There is no part of Queen Street I dislike more than the abundance of tacky souvenir shops selling cheap tourist trash. Could visitors approaching from cruise ships have a more dismal introduction to our (supposedly) premier shopping street?

      • Rharris

        The retail mix to me is one of the more interesting things that will happen in the area. This must be one of the key attractions to the city over the same-same suburbian malls.

        • Kent Lundberg

          The retail will evolve and instead of being an “attraction” will become a response to the tens of thousands of people moving freely around civil streets (as well as residing in the city). It’s not a competition with suburban malls anymore.

      • conan

        “Could visitors approaching from cruise ships have a more dismal introduction to our (supposedly) premier shopping street?”

        You mean Gucci and Louis Vuitton?

        • Kent Lundberg

          Our famous $2 shops that Queen St is famous for!

          • Rharris

            I can’t remember seeing any $2 stores? I know of one maybe in the mall. Hardly prominent.

            Things will evolve but discussions and planning with key anchor stores is essential. Surburban malls have their place but the city should offer a retail point of difference to attract people. The city scape can evolve in tandem to be more people friendly.

          • Kent Lundberg

            Sorry Rharris. That’s an inside joke. We often get comments about how Queen St is so terrible with $2 shops and the like. Apparently many people haven’t been downtown in the last year.

          • The last $2 shop was converted to a Bulgari boutique some time ago now. If that doesn’t describe the renaissance of the CBD I don’t know what does.

          • Gary Young

            “Apparently many people haven’t been downtown in the last year.” But I’ve been downtown in the last week and I stand by my opinion.

            “You mean Gucci and Louis Vuitton?” It’s a start but still well outnumbered by tourist tat.

          • Glen

            AFAIK the only ‘dollar stores’ left on Queen St. are the two Japanese hundred yen (plus shipping costs and 15% GST) $3.50 shops… and the design-ey stuff they have far surpasses any local $2 shop… call them part of the new colour of the CBD :)

        • But Gary, I’m all for glamour, but certainly not ONLY top end zillion dollar handbag stores. The best cities offer everything from dive bars to diamond rings: Anything but the monotonal tidiness of the suburban mall or the equally monotonal but perhaps more colourful untidiness of decline and failure. Some of the more boring parts of big cities are the posh end of town. Bit of everything, I reckon, including the homeless, as they sure help keep it real.

  • Be interesting to see what they do about Little Queen St and HSBC i.e. will they remodel HSBC to busy an east building type covered walkway through or will they run the street north to the edge and intersect it with an east west lane effectively making a T street pattern on the site

  • Stevenz

    My only concern about this is that the new building will block the view corridor to the harbour. While it’s not much of a view now there could be a development of some sort on the water which would terminate the view with an inspiring landmark. But if I had my choice I’d move the Ferry Building to the east so Queen St lines up with the tower. Is that so much to ask?

  • Ran Derson

    Worth noting the two buildings in the adjacent block (AMP and PwC) are also precinct properties. I would expect a seamless transition to these buildings over Albert Street, perhaps an expanded airbridge

    • bbc

      Heaven forbid not an enlarged air bridge, if anything council should be asking all those airbridges get demolished. Their only purpose is to destroy the pedestrian experience at street level.

      • Neil

        But they let people cross without getting wet on a day like today. Other cities have pedestrian subways. Either/or a good idea if you want to encourage people to walk

        • Neil we don’t have Toronto’s winters nor Dubai’s summers, mild Auckland doesn’t really need underground connections…. well not until there’s thousands of people turning up underground from, I dunno, a train maybe….?

          Even in a place with worse weather is there anywhere more miserable in Wellington than the BNZ building’s underground mall?

          • Neil

            I was thinking of Singapore with both overhead bridges and underground malls, often based around MRT stations. Britomart has one, but it exits in an area with no cover.

          • And the Britomart one is not great and not used much, and certainly is a barrier where it surfaces. And the coming pedestrian plaza on that part of Queen St will render it completely pointless. Perhaps it will go in the CRL tunnel works….?

  • Luke E

    So depressing to see the heritage buildings that used to be on that block/two blocks. If only we’d kept them, the whole northern side of Customs Street could have been cool heritage buildings. Oh Auckland.

    One can only hope that this new development will be architecturally inspiring.

  • My question is: will the revived Little Queen Street be public street – i.e council (publicy) owned and registered as such? Or will it still be on private land, owned by Precinct?
    This might seem like a pedantic point, but I think it is important a public street should perform as such, and allow the full gamut of civic life without fear of being ‘moved along’ by a Precinct securituy guard – people should be able to walk, sit, loiter, busk, preach, protest, breastfeed, etc….

  • mfwic

    Notice how they didn’t have pram crossings on the footpaths. People with push chairs were expected to lower them onto the road to cross and tilt them up over the kerb on the other side.

    • Kent Lundberg

      Too bad the pram ramps came with flyovers and parking lots.

      • Luke C

        there are still plenty of places missing pram ramps in Auckland CBD, never mind the suburbs. My favorite is the island in the Britomart that has one, meaning it is totally useless. More than a few like that too.

        • bbc

          As is all that parking – why does Britomart need drop off parking? If that was gone the pram ramps wouldn’t be needed and we’d suddenly have a lot of space that could be used for bike parking for instance.

  • Humpers

    Uh, so what does this mean for bus users? If “Little Queen” is blocked off to all traffic and buses moved to Albert… is this right? That would make an already messed-up inner-city bus system a complete hash.

    Amazing that the old, dilapidated Britomart of the 1990s had more utility and amenities for bus users (80-85% of PT users in Auckland) than the non-event that is the Britomart of the 21st century. But I suppose lots of shiny surfaces and big grunty trains are more sexy than a dull old bus.

    • Patrick R

      Hell yes. That bus exchange was a piss-soaked nightmare. And Little Queen St hasn’t existed since 1972. The idea is to move the buses from Lower Queen to Lower Albert, especially the services that come down Albert St. Not sure why that would make a mess, more direct really. Although for anyone transferring between those Buses and Trains yes there is a little further to walk, which will be even trickier while the whole of downtown is a building site.

      In general accommodating buses in the central city is very tricky because every building owner and business operator wants them somewhere else…. And we’ve got a long time before the CRL helps to address the growing demand for bus seats.

      However the investment in interchange stations and integrated fares is already paying off with apparently whole bus loads transferring to trains at the new Panmure station for example. And the new trains and services are not yet running there….. Onward.

    • Call me ‘old school’ but I’m a bit nervous that they’re willing to break up the current bus hub on Lower Queen St and distribute it around the CBD. I think it’s really important to bring the bus network together in a dedicated space that is highly visible, accessible, central and closely interfacing with the other PT modes.

      Hence I’d suggest expanding the current bus hub by converting traffic lanes on Quay St and Customs St into more bus stops and bus lanes. I’d also recommend investigating expansion of the bus stop area beside Ferry Building on Queens Wharf whilst planning for the light rail that we need.

  • UPDATE: The kind editors of ArchitectureNow have put Dennis Smith’s fascinating history of the plans for a Modernist Downtown online here:

    http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/a-short-history-of-the-sixties-downtown/

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