Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Resurrecting the Sixties: Can We Restore High Street?

Can we regulate a return to the past?
The Chairman of Auckland Council's Business Advisory Panel, Cameron Brewer, is concerned about the impact of “shoebox shops” on the quality of Auckland’s Queen Street.  Queen St is considered the traditional heart of the city’s CBD.  Mr Brewer criticises the transformation of retailing going on there, and suggests mandating minimum shop sizes to counter it.
Waitemata Local Board member, Christopher Dempsey suggests that the city plan should provide for small, medium and large shops.  Ludo Campbell-Reid, the council urban design champion, is “determined to see the revival of the high street occur in Auckland”.
A revival may well be possible for Queen St, but it’s unlikely to see a return to the halcyon days of central city retailing.  Nostalgia is a slight foundation for planning the city centre’s much touted transformation.
Wanting it both ways
Anyway, it may just be that our planning has actually accentuated the changes we are seeing in land use on Queen Street.  And it’s hard to see how we can regulate to reverse that effect. 
The proliferation of small apartments on the western ridge of the CBD, the promotion of student accommodation to the east, big dollars spent on developing Queen Street’s footpaths have all helped create strip shopping to meet the needs and wants of the young and the restless.
And the rehabilitation of the harbour-side is playing its part.  New offices lining Fanshawe Street and the relocation of the ASB headquarters to the Wynyard precinct are signs of things to come. 
Take a lift in those older Queen Street buildings. The proliferation of shoebox offices is part of the changes to Queen Street as well. As the large corporates move out, or downsize (or otherwise disappear) subdivision of office space follows.  Don’t expect this to help retain the street level activity of the past.
The reality
The Queen Street canyon has had its day as a centre of employment and retailing even as the council promotes CBD fringe development (including transit-oriented developments planned to prop up an inter city rail loop).
Mind you, on the logic that new transport centres will reinvigorate areas Queen Street should have been given a boost by the redevelopment of the old Post Office site as a major inter-modal transport hub.  Yet even this major civic development has done little obvious to boost the fortunes of the Street, to lift its retail presence or increase employment. 
Catering for the Café culture
The irony is that the new Queen Street reflects the inner city café and restaurant culture so extolled by those who promote central city revitalisation: Queen Street from Mayoral Drive north looks and smells a bit like a glorified food court, a strip of fast food joints, where inner city residents and visitors can wander up and down and grow fat. 
This is simply a stand up variant of the more upmarket bars, cafes and restaurants found increasingly harbour-side, or on the Ponsonby and Parnell ridges.
Point of no return
These changes – progress --all act against a return to the high street of yesteryear.  So do more generic changes in retailing and consumption.  The productivity advantages of locating retailing closer to the consumer, in malls, neighbourhood centres, and reborn suburban strips; advances in production and logistics that underpin bulk retailing and now support direct sales through web-based channels; changes in what households consume; the greater frequency of shopping and eating out; and the declining share of employment in central cities – these all contribute to an increasingly diverse and dispersed retail milieu. 
And it is interesting that the greatest growth in eating out is happening in the suburbs, again covering the full range from take-outs through to fine dining.  (Some 82% of employment growth in  the food and beverage sector took place outside the CBD between 2001 and 2011).
It’s a long time since Queen Street was the Golden Mile of Auckland retailing (or eating).  The department and variety stores – with one notable exception – are long-gone. The record and book stores are yielding to web-based consumption, displaced by tourist trinkets and the increasingly ubiquitous 7/11.  In fact, over half the retail employment growth in the CBD as a whole was in food stores between 2001 and 2011. Reversing that tide would seem to be contrary to the idea that more people should live in the CBD. 
Shoebox retailing – a sign of the times?
No longer a retail destination, Queen Street is today a thoroughfare, a place where some people work, some shop, and most pass through.  It is no longer a shopping destination: the best the retailer can do is grab some small change from passers-by.  The most economic option under these circumstances may be shoebox retailing – that works in most cities with large inner city populations.  Quality retailing is almost invariably off-centre. 
So intensively subdividing ground floor retail space on Queen Street makes economic sense.  Requiring landlords to do otherwise by rules in plans doesn’t; and risks creating a central city wasteland of empty premises.
Playing to strengths
What should  prop up property values in the CBD generally will be ensuring that those places that are attractive continue to be so.  If that happens, a healthy CBD will spill over into Queen Street.
The best prospect for Auckland’s CBD may lie in the strategic re-orientation taking place east-west alongside the harbour rather than promoting outmoded views of the Queen Street canyon.  It means highlighting a few public spaces; and creating one or two quite exceptional precincts.  We gave had a go at the Ferry Terminal and Princess Wharf; at the Viaduct Basin; and now the Wynyard Quarter.  The Chancery Quarter – incidentally an incipient up-market fashion centre of international standing – and High Street also provide quality and quirky spaces of respite and character.
Realism rules
But we can overdo it.  Auckland is a city of just 1.5 million, and the vast majority of those people live much closer to suburban and sub-regional shopping centres than the CBD.  They can get to them easily, and combine trip purposes to save time and money.  The CBD is about entertainment, recreation and perhaps accessing specialist services: within the CBD Queen St is just a means of getting from A to B.  
Perhaps there’s not a lot that Mr Brewer, Mr Dempsey, Mr Ludo Campbell or even the Mayor can do to reverse current trends, especially as they already reflect city objectives and plans.  There’s no realistic way that we can regulate quality back into Queen Street. And we should not risk shifting scarce resources and limited expertise from those places that are working to try to redevelop those that we think aren’t. 
If we can lift just a few key parts of the CBD well beyond the ordinary, then we can expect Queen Street to prosper in its own way.  But don’t expect to go tripping down the High Street of the past.


Matt P said...

Mr Brewer's vision of a traditional high street is all very quaint, but as you eloquently argue Phil its unrealistically nostalgic and twee.
I'm sure we would all agree we would love to see Queen Street lined with quality bookstores, music shops, fashion etc. But except in pockets, its just not going to happen.
Sure, some of the "Shoebox shops" are a bit tacky, but collectively they do provide a certain energy. I would compare this issue to the issue of "shoe box apartments". The proliferation of small apartments was not necessarily an aesthetic triumph, however in a functional sense it has brought a lot more energy into the CBD via vastly increased population. I would argue such vibrancy benefits ultimately outweigh the aesthetic costs.

Mark said...

We're seeing the waterfront drift (rush). driven by modern office sizes and traditional CBD firms that have to have quality for their image. They can't share a building with 4 floors of language schools!
CBD employment won't grow much, but just shift around. I'm not sure I agree with Matt's vibrancy comment - at the moment it feels like a foreign student hostel. That is fine as a proportion, but it has taken over too much. It's a 1.2bn industry, so we can't say no - we just adapt. Which is what the corporates have done. My view is we'll see 2 CBD's - waterfront and the hinterland, and they won't mix. Aotea/town Hall library are now a bit out of place.

The nail in the coffin was High street all moving to Britomart......and no council can really turn that around