A tale of two streets

A few days ago I was walking though the city and thinking of just how different the two neighbouring streets of O’Connell and High St’s are, so I grabbed a few quick photos.

So, here’s what O’Connell St looked like.

By comparison, this is what High St looked like.

I certainly know which one I’d rather walk and shop on.

The works by the council to upgrade Freyberg Square have resulted in O’Connell St being temporarily closed to cars. The council and businesses have responded by putting out tables and chairs for some temporary activation. As this photo by Kent the other day shows, it has been popular with people.

Further, recently one of the longstanding opponents to upgrading High St has moved closed. As I said in the tweet, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the plans for High St? If we don’t, the only iconic thing that High St will be left as being known for is being stuck in the past while the rest of the city moves on

Bookstores, cities, and shared streets

For me, a new house or apartment doesn’t truly feel like home until I begin to fill it with books. Books serve as familiars and friends: re-reading an old favourite can bring me back to places, people, and feelings that I had filed away in my memory, while encountering a new book is like befriending an interesting stranger.

Books are also heavy, especially after you’ve filled a few shelves. So they are not suited for a transient lifestyle: they require a stable home (or a strong back).

Just as I associate books with home, I also associate bookstores with cities. I grew up in the low-density suburbs east of San Francisco, around the time when Amazon was undermining the retail model of big bookselling chains. To get to a really excellent bookshop, you had to go to a urban place.

Bookstores play a key role in my first memories of urban places. My dad and I would take periodic trips into Berkeley to get dinner and do a bit of shopping. We’d spend an evening browsing the big bookstores on Telegraph Avenue – the late, lamented Cody’s Books, and the four-storey Moe’s Books, which (for me at least) sets the standard for a great second-hand bookshop.

moes-books-2010-courtesy-moes-books

This was a window into a different world: strangely-drawn comic books filled with odd concepts (not superheroes!); translated versions of obscure Latin American novellists; the cast-offs from hundreds of postgraduate philosophy papers. And the place was different too: shops were open later (and catered to a more diverse range of glass vase enthusiasts); the streets were laid out on a grid; the buildings were set closer to each other. People were around in the evening.

This, too, felt like home, in a different way than the footpathless suburbs did.

Later on, after moving to a city, I discovered that books were a good fit with the two quintessential urban transport modes: walking and public transport. (Especially in the pre-smartphone age.) Having a book takes some of the pain out of an unexpected wait for a bus, and occasionally starts conversations once you’re on the bus. Reading while walking is a bit more challenging but can be done with practice – provided you stop at intersections.

walking-while-reading

Me, basically.

One of the small joys of my current job is that I work on O’Connell St, with two of Auckland’s best bookshops within thirty seconds of my office. Used bookseller Jason Books is next door on O’Connell St, while Unity Books is just down the way on High Street. I visit both on a regular basis. Sometimes I go in to look for a specific book, and find it; other times I leave with an unexpected purchase (or nothing at all).

It wouldn’t be that hard buy books online instead, and it would probably save me money. But I keep coming back because I value bookstores as places. It’s a much richer experience to browse for books laid out on shelves and tables than to search through an online catalogue. A good bookshop will draw your eye towards books that you otherwise wouldn’t have found – “hey, look over here!” They’re also places where you can run into people.

Unfortunately, the streets outside my office also present a major contrast in terms of place quality. The shared space on O’Connell St is a pleasure to walk on: even with a bit of car traffic and delivery vans parked up, it’s spacious and safe for people on foot. And, especially with summer coming on, it’s busy with people walking, talking, or sitting down for a coffee.

High Street, on the other hand, is an abysmal, congested mess. Most of the space on the street is given over to a small number of low-turnover parking spaces, while people on foot must clump together on narrow footpaths and jostle slowly past each other. As the vast majority of the people using the street are walking, this represents a major impediment to efficient transport: we are seemingly sacrificing the needs of the many on foot for a small number of people in cars. (And it makes it hard to read while walking on High Street, as I have to pay too much attention to people in close proximity!)

Due to the pedestrian congestion, I spend less time and money on High Street than I’d like to. Oddly, a lot of the businesses on High Street have apparently campaigned against a shared street, which seems like self-sabotage given the great numbers of people walking up and down the street and the tiny number of people driving or parking.

I would never, ever drive to buy books (or anything else) on High St, but I would walk out the front door and window-shop a lot more often if the environment was better for walking. A great bookshop deserves a great urban street, and vice versa. Get behind it.

Strong support for removal of Freyberg Place

Last week the council announced the outcome of consultation into the design of Freyberg Square and the Ellen Melville Hall. The proposal was for the hall to be upgraded including removing the ground floor retail and turning that into a community space. The square would be upgraded and importantly Freyberg Place would be would be pedestrianised and incorporated into the square. In to total they received 337 pieces of feedback.

 

Freyberg Square Proposed Design

The report on the consultation (1.5MB) shows there was strong support for both the upgrade of the square and the hall with only four percent saying they don’t like the design of the hall and 7 percent saying they don’t like the design of the square.

Freyberg Square-Ellen Melville Hall consultation feedback - general

As you can also see there was strong support for the removal of Freyberg Place and on it’s own it had one of the most lopsided responses. Out of the 306 responses to the idea a massive 84% supported the idea.

Freyberg Square-Ellen Melville Hall consultation feedback - road removal

The council say that those that opposed the changes were mostly local businesses, some of who have long been vocal supporters of retaining the status quo for the entire area. The quoted comments in the report mostly talk about concerns of flow of traffic and congestion from removing the street however in the report they also talk about it being very lowly used in which case removing it won’t really have an impact. Anyway if it did happen to cause congestion it might mean a few more drivers look out their window and actually see the shops and want to visit them, at least there would be a better chance of that than if they are racing through.

Unsurprisingly a similarly strong number also supported changes proposed to Courthouse Lane which included changing the direction and adding a raised table between the square and the Chancery.

Freyberg Square-Ellen Melville Hall consultation feedback - Courthouse Lane

Again most of the support seems to have come from the general public while it is retailers who are the most concerned about the changes and also again they seem overly worried about traffic flow. They also note that quite a few who disagreed with the raised table idea highlighted that they weren’t sure what a raised table was with some questioning if it meant some kind of pedestrian overbridge.

The council also asked what could be done better for the two aspects of the proposal. For the hall the biggest responses were primarily about issues such as seating and how the space was used. For the square the concern was also about seating, security and other aspects such as the security and planting choices

Freyberg Square-Ellen Melville Hall consultation feedback - areas to address

Lastly the survey also briefly asked about how to improve the wider area. The two largest responses were for a shared space or no cars at all.

Freyberg Square-Ellen Melville Hall consultation feedback - Wider area

There are of course some who oppose the idea of a shared space on High St and they are almost certainly going to be the same people who have opposed the closing of Freyberg Place. The example of O’Connell St is used with them claiming it has been a failure

Because of the feedback from the businesses the council have said that they and Heart of the City are going to work with the businesses to try and find potential solutions. Given the line in the sand approach these some of the retailers have taken in the past over issues it’s hard to see them getting a different outcome. If that comes to pass it raises the question of at what point the council push ahead with improvements knowing that the vast majority of people want a better outcome. Unfortunately there are also no time frames around when these discussions will take place or be finished by.

Is High St a lost cause?

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.

High St

Cars rule in High St

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.

O'Connell St

O’Connell St

It continues

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.

CCMP High St potential

A shared space idea from the Cty Centre Master Plan

Read the full story in metro.