Guest Post: The Small Steps, Giant Leap Campaign – Sylvia Park Station

This is a guest post by Harriet.

Image 1 - SP Station

We often talk about the big projects, networks, as well as game changing best practice regulations. For a while I have wanted to create a small campaign about the small things, low hanging fruit where for cheaply i.e. not for hundred of millions of dollars, we can achieve with a “Small Step” a “Great Leap” for the people the project and area it effects. I have often spoken to people of the weakness at Sylvia Park, that because it only has access to the shopping centre side, this greatly limits the stations potential. I thought it fitting then that the first project then should be this. Now onto the facts.

The catchment of Sylvia Park train station is currently severely limited. This is because there is no viable access to the east of the NIMT (Eastern Line), this limits catchment to the shopping centre, and as a result the station fails to serve important industrial/commercial areas east of the station on Carbine Road, and the surrounding streets. In this area are many homes, as well as businesses such as Bunnings, and educational campuses, and the NZMA Sylvia Park Campus.

Image 2 - Sat Image

By providing a link to east of the station to the Carbine Road area, the reach of the station will increase significantly, connecting people to an important educational area, to current/future homes, as well as commercial/industrial jobs all right next to, but currently not accessible to an RTN. The Unitary Plan has the area as a mix of mainly Light Industrial, Mixed Use and THAB.

Image 3 - UP Zoning

Unitary Plan Zoning, Orange = THAB, Light Purple = Light Industrial, Dark Purple = Heavy Industrial, Pink = Mixed Use

As it stands for people to use public transport, this realistically requires a transfer onto a bus at Panmure, this is not as frequent (every 30 mins), as the train (every 10 mins) and is an unnecessary transfer. While the introduction of Integrated Fares has removed the transfer penalty, the time penalties, as well as the inconvenience of transferring means that many who would catch the train, instead may potentially drive or not access the area reducing opportunities. The New Central Bus Network has zero bus routes moving through the upper half of the area. The 323 in the New Network from Sylvia Park brings you over the Eastern Line, but will only have a maximum frequency of  30 minutes, so no real time advantage is gained.

Image 4 - Current Bus Route Map

Current routes

Image 5 - Current Bus Timetable

Current Timetable

Image 6 - New Network Bus Map

New Network Routes

Map prepared for AT by MRCagney shows the realistic walking catchment of the station (Highlighted Area, 1km, 10-15min) which shows the catchment east of the NIMT is very low. The current overpass shows the difficult accessibility of the route.

Image 7 - Overbridge (1)


sylvia park

Sylvia Park Station Catchment


GI Station Catchment


Panmure Station Catchment

As a result this puts Sylvia Park station in an interesting situation, where for relatively low one off CAPEX cost, the reach of Eastern Line RTN can be extended. A Low Hanging Fruit Opportunity presents itself to maximise our RTN’s.

Possible Solutions

1. Access to the Station is provided from the South-Eastern Highway Flyover. The Highway sits relatively close to the station and has footpaths in place. A signalised intersection is at Carbine road which allows relatively safe crossing.

Image 11 - View from Flyover

Image 12 - View of Flyover from SP

2. Access to Carbine Rd via the use of the carpark currently east of the NIMT. The footpath would use a very small amount of land, however private property would be affected which would require the loss of some car parks.

Image 13 - Sat of Carbine Road Access

Land East of NIMT towards Carbine

3. Elevated walkway access to Carbine Rd. This would use a similar route to #2. However, it would not affect the car parks to the same degree. This option may have higher costs.

Image 14 - Mt E Example

Mt Eden Station Elevated Walkway

4. Underpass access to Carbine Road. This option would use a similar route to #2/3 but would be an underpass. Above ground property would therefore be unaffected. This however, may be extremely expensive and pedestrians don’t tend to rate underpasses highly due to safety concerns.

Image 15 Ellerslie Map

Red Arrows indicate on Map Location

Image 16 - Ellerslie Underpass

Ellerslie Train Station Underpass

In conclusion providing better access east of the NIMT will drastically increase the reach of the Eastern Line RTN, connecting people better to jobs in the Carbine Rd area, enabling the higher density residential development of the area in the Mixed Use and THAB zones, as well as significantly improving access to people studying at NZMA. Lastly it will allow better access to people in the area who wish to cross the Eastern Line, reducing severance.

Sylvia Park growth plans

Sylvia Park is already Auckland’s largest shopping centre, but it’s likely to get even bigger in the next few years. Kiwi Property, who own the centre, have plans to expand the retail offering, as well as adding office buildings. In the long term, even things like apartments or hotels could be added, although those aren’t part of the current plans.

A recent Kiwi Property presentation shows what’s planned for the ground floor of the centre:

Sylvia Park 1

On the ground floor, H&M and Zara are already under construction, but there are plans for a major new office building of 11,200 square metres (about half the size of ASB North Wharf, or a little smaller than the new Fonterra building). The building will be next to the “dining lane” area which will also be given a makeover – perhaps something like the new Brickworks precinct at Lynnmall, also owned by Kiwi Property.

The office building could get underway as early as late 2016, wrapping up in 2018.

From the same presentation, showing the upper floor:

Sylvia Park 2

This is a major retail expansion, with 20,000 square metres – adding another 25% to the existing mall. Next to it, there are plans for a multi-deck carpark, adding another 500 parks to the current 3,900. Multi-level retail has had a pretty mixed history in New Zealand, and there aren’t that many examples where it’s been successful (St Lukes is one). Kiwi Property will be hoping that they can support the new upstairs shops by connecting them to the new carparks, and I’d expect that those two developments would happen at the same time.

Although the total number of carparks is increasing, Kiwi Property is adding many fewer parking spaces than would have been required under the old Auckland isthmus plan. The mall expansion will add one new carpark for every additional 40 square metres of retail space.

By contrast, Section 12 of the old Auckland isthmus district plan, which dealt with parking requirements, required one parking space for every 17 square metres of retail space:

Auckland isthmus district plan MPR for retail

Before the Unitary Plan, which will remove MPRs from major retail centres like Sylvia Park (assuming the hearings panel approves the change), Sylvia Park basically hewed to those ratios. At present, it’s got one parking space per 18.5 square metres of retail space.

The Unitary Plan seems to have changed that – Kiwi Property is planning to expand retail space while providing less than half as much parking as would have been required under the previous district plan. This isn’t a case of maximum parking rules restraining development, either. The proposed Unitary Plan sets a maximum parking rate of one carpark per 20 square metres – a lot more parking than Kiwi Property is planning on building.

The irony is that Kiwi Property was among the major retailers arguing against the removal of MPRs from retail centres in Unitary Plan hearings. In their corporate submission and in their planning evidence, they argued that removal of MPRs would make it difficult for retailers to invest in centres:

Kiwi Property Group planning submission PAUP 1

Consequently, they proposed a minimum requirement of one carpark per 30 square metres of retail space – i.e. a higher ratio than what they’re now planning to build, although the centre as a whole will still fall within these ratios:

Kiwi Property Group planning submission PAUP 2

Now, it looks as though Kiwi Property – and their customers – stand to be among the first big beneficiaries of a policy change that they opposed. But while that’s ironic, this is an excellent development. It’s a perfect illustration of the benefits of a more light-handed approach to parking policies – and of the benefits of providing good transport choices to retail centres.

Sylvia Park is lucky enough to have a train station right next door, and bus links which are likely to get a boost in the next few years. As the centre keeps growing and public transport keeps improving, Sylvia Park will increasingly rely on its transit links to support its growth. Other retail centres are likely to follow the same pattern as Auckland rolls out its new bus network and continues integrating rapid transit into the city fabric.

Is the shopping mall dying?

The indoor shopping mall turns 60 this year, but an Atlantic Cities article questions whether it’s dying:

At the mall’s peak popularity, in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006, for reasons that go beyond the recession.

Not a single new mall in the whole of the USA opened since 2006. That’s quite amazing. And by the sounds of it many of the existing malls are struggling to survive too:

By Dunham-Jones’ count, today about a third of our existing malls are “dead” or dying. That’s not to say they’re mostly vacant. But they have dreadful sales per square foot. High-end dress stores have moved out, and tattoo parlors have replaced them – “things,” Dunham-Jones says, “that would normally be considered way too déclassé for a mall.”

About a third of our malls are still thriving, and those are the biggest, newest ones. But America is no longer building many new highways, which means we’ve stopped creating prime new locations for mall development. Some of the earliest amenities of the enclosed mall – air-conditioning! – no longer impress us. And the demographics of suburbia have changed dramatically. Malls draw the largest share of their customers from teenagers, and the baby boomers who largely populate suburbia no longer have teenagers at home.

So what’s replacing these malls? Well, often it seems that we’re seeing something of a return to traditional style “main street” shopping, but within more mixed-use developments known as “lifestyle centres”. The article goes on:

… the suburban mall of Gruen’s plan appears to be victim of more than just the recession. Dunham-Jones, who has tracked this trend in her book Retrofitting Suburbia, estimates that more than 40 malls nationwide have been targeted for significant redevelopment. And she can count 29 that have already been repurposed, or that have construction underway.

In 2010, Columbus, Ohio, tore down the dead mall in its downtown for a park. Voorhees, New Jersey, demolished half of its dead mall, built a new main street and relocated its city hall into the remaining building. In Denver, eight of the area’s 13 regional malls now have plans for redevelopment. One of them, in suburban Lakewood, was converted from a 100-acre super block into 22 walkable blocks with retail and residences.

“It’s the downtown that Lakewood never had before,” Dunham-Jones says. Ironically, this is what Gruen had been aiming for. “Except that now it’s open-air.”

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air “lifestyle centers,” with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

“You’ve got to get a mix of uses, but the connectivity is probably even more important,” Dunham-Jones says. “The uses will come and go over time, but if you can establish a walkable network of streets, that’s when you’re really going to establish a ripple effect in changing suburban patterns.”

Of course the City Rail Link project means that Westfield’s downtown shopping mall will need to be demolished. This is great as the mall is a pretty hideous building on one of Auckland’s best pieces of land. But elsewhere in Auckland it doesn’t really seem as though we’re following the USA’s trend. Within the land few years we’ve seen Sylvia Park and Albany malls open, two of Auckland’s biggest, while big redevelopments of both 277 Newmarket and St Lukes are on the cards to occur in the next couple of years.

I suppose this begs the question of whether Auckland’s fundamental retail environment differs from the USA, or whether they’re just a little ahead of us in the trend and it’s an inevitability that we’ll start to see a “post mall” retail environment. I certainly hope so, as long as it’s something better than the “mega centres” we often see sprouting up around shopping malls (yes I’m looking at you Wagener Place, St Lukes!)

Sylvia Park: PT success or missed opportunity?

When I think of the Sylvia Park shopping centre in Auckland, from a transport perspective, it seems to tick a lot more boxes than many other shopping centres around Auckland (particularly St Lukes). The primary reason for this is that Sylvia Park has a train station right next to it – a station that seems fairly popular, especially on weekends. An interesting research piece into the integration of land-use and transport at Sylvia Park delves a bit deeper into analysing the effectiveness of the various transport modes accessing the mall. A lot of the research article focuses on things like parking policies – pointing out the absolutely giant cost of building carparks – but it also provides some useful figures for further analysis when it comes to malls.

Starting off by looking at the mode-split for people accessing Sylvia Park, the figures for public transport are actually surprisingly low: What really stands out here is how low the mode share for buses is. From memory St Lukes – hardly a model of a public transport friendly mall – attracts between 5 and 10% of its visitors by bus.

I’ve often had debates with people over whether we really should be focusing on improving PT modeshare to shopping centres or not. The argument that is most often presented against focusing too much on shopping centres is that they seem particularly difficult ‘nuts to crack’. In fact, the decision on the St Lukes plan change made particular reference to the difficulty of attracting people to shopping centres via public transport:

While the reference to Sylvia Park is interesting, given the context of this post, what I think is most revealing is the “second” reason traffic issues were a major consideration – the assumption of the commissioners that public transport by nature is unlikely to be attractive to shoppers.

Strange how the same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Australian malls – particularly a series of shopping centres in Brisbane that the Sylvia Park study examined: The article explains that the Brisbane shopping centres tend to act as sub-regional hubs for the bus network – much in the same way as happens around New Lynn (and it would be interesting to see a modeshare for Lynn Mall shoppers). It seems to me that while Sylvia Park is doing reasonably well in terms of having a train station next to it, a lot of that good work has been completely undone by having it so poorly served by buses.

To make matters worse, the layout of Sylvia Park means that it’s pretty difficult to serve the centre well with buses. There’s an obvious north-south corridor serving the centre along Mt Wellington Highway – so why is the mall set back hugely from the highway creating a barren pedestrian wasteland between the bus route and the shopping centre (which forces buses to waste huge amounts of time by diving into the carpark). In terms of serving east-west flows, why doesn’t the road-bridge from Carbine Road connect all the way through to Mt Wellington Highway? This would allow east-west bus flows and could potentially create a fairly nice street for shops to line (general traffic may have to be excluded from through-movements to ensure it’s not a massive rat-run, but that’s easy enough).

What we really needed is shown in the map below (in terms of the two obvious bus routes to pass through the area):

Interestingly, a table in the research article shows that improving buses would be one of the most cost-efficient ways of the mall attracting more customers, largely because its capital costs and operating costs are pretty damn low compared to other modes . It’s pretty incredible that over $136 million was spent on  spending related to getting cars in and out of the mall. If we compare the costs with the revenue generated per user, we find that buses actually have a vastly higher “revenue cost ratio” than any other mode: So if I’m to go back to the original question of whether Sylvia Park is a public transport success story or a missed opportunity I would probably lean towards the latter: simply because its bus services are so terrible and its design makes improving bus services pretty damn difficult. While the train station is certainly good (and really every shopping mall should have to be within 400m of a rapid transit station, it’s just logical) it can distract us from how poorly served the mall is in other ways.

Interestingly though, it seems that the biggest loser out of this has been Sylvia Park itself. Because it’s so poorly served by bus-based public transport and because it was designed in such a way as to make it almost impossible for buses to serve the place well, the developers of the shopping centre had to spend an incredibly huge amount of money on making it easy for cars to get in and out of the place – most obviously through providing an insanely massive number of parking spaces. I guess this is why I can never understand shopping centres not being huge fans of efforts to improve public transport infrastructure to encourage more of their shoppers to arrive on the bus, rather than to have to build them an incredibly expensive parking space. Overseas cities get it, why don’t we?