Monday, December 20, 2010

Remaking the CBD

What can we do for Auckland’s Central Business District?
In my last posting I suggested that promoting employment by investing in CBD-focused rail wouldn’t save the Auckland CBD.  Long-term structural change in the economy continues to change the CBD’s role.  I can’t see how this dynamic will change simply if we invest in an underground rail and a few stations.
But there is a widespread expectation that the CBD can be remade to spearhead Auckland’s economic revival.  If new railway stations and office buildings won’t do it, what will?
Placemaking and the CBD
The CBD is a fashionable target for “place making”.  Through this the policy, planning and design world aims to create distinctive and attractive localities using the professional tools at hand. 
The CBD is also where public and private investments intersect in a big way.  The public sector does the planning and design.  It retrofits infrastructure, creates amenities, maintains public space.  The private sector constructs and reconstructs the private spaces – offices, shops, hotels, and housing. 
There is also an expectation that the public sector will fund the loss leaders: stadiums, convention centres, arenas, and the like.  In today’s version of place-making, the public sector may also fund public transport in the hope of lifting office and retail activity in the CBD.  It carries the losses for new public amenities in the hope that they will be more than offset by private sector gains.  [1]
As part of CBD place-making, regulators sometimes try to limit competition by impeding investment elsewhere, in offices and retailing for example.  Whether this works or not, or is even worth trying, is a matter for a later debate.
Big ideas for the CBD
The CBD has evolved from the region’s trading centre, to a centre of commerce, through retailing, to entertainment, and education.  Remnants of previous eras add character, but what distinguishes the CBD today is different from what distinguished it yesterday.  As the regional economy shifts, so shifts the CBD.  So what will make it hum tomorrow?
Right now there are plenty of big ideas on the table.  Big investment in rail – electrification, undergrounding, new stations.  Big sports stadia.  Big events, big conventions, big concerts, big parties – and big venues.  Big cruise ships boats and big terminals. 
Underlying all this is the view that big stuff will make Auckland into New Zealand’s global face:  the place where head offices come, where international business is transacted, where New Zealand meets the world. 
But none of the big ideas out there are new or distinctive.  We want to play with the big boys.  But will these things do the trick?  Will they encourage the big boys to play with us?  What sort of a place will they make? 
International evidence calls for caution.  In particular, our current fiscal hole suggests that we should go easy on any big spending without the strong prospect of a positive return.
To be fair
There are some good ideas out there, some great initiatives, and success stories.  The Viaduct Basin stands out, despite being surrounded by a fortress of grey stone buildings.  The maritime museum highlights Auckland’s character.  The ferry terminal and building buzz.  Building the transport terminal into the Chief Post Office was inspired, and done well.  A cultural precinct between Albert Park and Aotea Centre has real potential.  Chancery, High Street, and even St Patricks Square are pleasant oases.  On the fringes, Ponsonby and Parnell are places of character.
Do you see anything in common with these winners?  
They blend the old and the new.  By and large, they operate at a human scale and cater for us – ordinary, local people.  Apart from the Britomart Station there is no super sizing among them.  Their character comes from a range of medium or small investments put in place by a variety of parties.
The CBD as a collage
So here’s an idea.  Perhaps we go forward not with a big bang, but one place at a time.  Focus our energies on the evolution of the small spaces, the gems, or potential gems, and the different ways they might be assembled.  In that way, the big picture will look after itself. 
We don’t need to remake the CBD with super projects, or go for a blanket make-over.  Instead, let's treat it as a collage or perhaps a mosaic, punctuated with local highlights and high points.  The spaces between can be left to sort themselves out – and they will.  Look at how Willis, Wakefield, and Manners streets in Wellington have evolved as the busy byways between the Lambton Quay retail precinct, quirky Cuba Mall, the Civic Centre, and the social heart of the city, Courtney Place.  Let local landlords, investors, businesses, and citizens add their colours to the canvas in a similar way around just a few strategic civic design initiatives in Auckland.
By strategic I mean initiatives that leverage existing local character, that encourage others to come to the party, and do not lock ratepayers into over-the-top commitments.
The beauty of this approach is that the CBD can continue to evolve, some parts renewing, others reverting, and others asserting a quite different character. 
This is what makes central cities enticing for visitors the world over – the capacity to move among precincts or quarters that define distinctly local character, to interact with local people, to sample local customs, art, tastes, and even pastimes, to experience the quirky, the colourful, to come across the unexpected, and not simply to parade through the planned and bland. 
Walkways or street life?
For those who know it, compare the sterility of the Vancouver waterfront and its high rises, its hotels, massive convention centre, yacht club and barricaded moorings, with the hustle, bustle and intimacy of Granville Island, just a short bus ride away.  The former is just another privatised harbour-side where a concrete walkway and a few statues make a token concession to the passing public.  The latter, with its workshops, galleries, shops, and cafes is a place for people to go and enjoy, a place to pass the time, an experience for the visitor to remember.  
If the CBD is to be a place of creativity – and I don’t think that by itself is the answer to Auckland’s need for innovation and invention – then we need our own Granville Islands.  These are places where local people, crafts, and culture thrive and in doing so provide the character that make them work for residents and visitors.  Just think what could happen down at the Beaumont Quarter in Auckland if street-level entrepreneurship were allowed to blossom, reshape, rework, and reinvent the energies, craft, and creativity of a former industrial age.
Where are the gems and how do we polish them?
There have got to be other gems in Auckland.  Where might they be?  And what’s holding them back?  
There must be plenty of ideas out there, local prospects that will enrich the mosaic that makes up our CBD.  Let’s identify them so that our city planners can do what needs to be done to release them, rather than restricting them with top-down plans, rules, and regulations. 
Finding and polishing a few small gems rather than hoping to find the next Star of Africa might be what we really need to make Auckland’s CBD sparkle.

[1]     The perils of this form of “monumentalism” have been documented; e.g., Sanders H T (2002) “Convention Myths and Markets: A Critical Review of Convention Center Feasibility Studies” Economic Development Quarterly 16 and Chapin T S (2004) “Sports Facilities as Urban Redevelopment Catalysts” Journal of the American Planning Association, 26, 2

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