Internal Metropolis Strain: Auckland CBD’s quest to seek out its post-lockdown mojo

Covid-19 has wrought big change in Auckland’s city center. With international students and foreign workers now there to be seen, concerns are mounting that it’s becoming a crime-ridden ghost town. But amid the darkness are glimmers of hope. The Stuff series Inner City Pressure explores the future of downtown Auckland.

The idea was to close nearly 200 meters of road through Auckland’s funky heartland Karangahape Rd for an extended festival or regular events.

Businesses were keen when Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick went door-knocking, but informal feedback from the city’s transport agency was not.

It’s an outcome Swarbrick said needs to change if Auckland’s Covid-19-hit city center is to reinvent itself for a future more focused on climate change.

“We are going to have to step out of our comfort zones, and we are going to have to try things and be far more nimble,” the Green Party’s economic development spokeswoman told Stuff.

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Auckland’s city center, pre-Covid, accounted for seven per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, with 38,000 residents and in 2020 hosted nearly 143,000 jobs. In short, it’s Aotearoa’s commercial capital.

The exodus in 2020 of tourists on working visas and foreign students contributed to the first decline in 25 years of people estimated to be living in the city center.

Pedestrian counts for downtown business promoter Heart of the City reveal the scale of the hit.

In early December 2019, 1.36 million people passed the counters. A year later under Covid-19 alert level 2, that fell to 1 million. By December 2021 under the red light restriction, the figure was 600,000.

And at the depth of the Alert Level 4 lockdown in 2021, it was just 105,000.

Auckland’s city center will emerge from many restrictions in 2022, a different place.

Auckland's Queen Street has recovered from this scene at the depth of the September 2021 Alert Level 4 lockdown.

David White / Stuff

Auckland’s Queen Street has recovered from this scene at the depth of the September 2021 Alert Level 4 lockdown.

Shops on the so-called “golden mile” will still be empty, hotels will start finding their way back from being Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities to hosting visitors again and offices may not be as full as they were two years ago.

LOOSENING THE RULES TO LIVEN THINGS UP

There is almost unanimous confidence that the CBD will bounce back. But what is less certain are the levers which need to be pulled to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Global urban design and planning consultancy ARUP is involved in several cities’ explorations of change. They see more flexible rules and planning regulations as a key area.

“Our office in London is in the West End and just up the road 50 meters, as you would expect, is a pub on the corner. Above the pub is a titanium knee joint manufacturing floor, ”said Malcolm Smith, Australasian head of cities.

Malcolm Smith, ARUP's Australasia region head of cities and urban planning

Arup / Supplied

Malcolm Smith, ARUP’s Australasia region head of cities and urban planning

Rules that allow different and temporary uses of the same space in a city are another idea.

“One of the places that we made at Liverpool Street in London Broadgate – this beautiful, flexible arena of space – has one day a launch of a new company or a start-up, next day it’s a festival of food,” Smith said.

A catalog of future city center ideas will be unveiled early in 2022 in Sydney, where ARUP and urban policy think tank, Committee for Sydney, have been running a commission on responding to change.

AUCKLAND’S CITY CENTER THINK TANKS

Auckland doesn’t have anything on the scale of the Commission into the Future of the Sydney’s Central Business District, but since mid-2021 council has formed five mini think tanks looking at trends which will change the city center, and how to help.

An impression of an upgraded section of Queen St will look by September 2022.

Auckland Council / Supplied

An impression of an upgraded section of Queen St will look by September 2022.

“There’ll be a shift towards people wanting to come to the city center, rather than having to come to the city center,” said Jenny Larking, head of city center programs.

Twenty unnamed “leading thinkers in city center development” are on groups examining mobility, the environment, culture and identity, economic development, and the intangibly titled theme of “place.”

A trawl of international research has begun and a discussion paper by mid-2022 will launch a more public debate about what may need to change.

ONE CITY PLAN TO RULE THEM ALL

In another move, council has given its development agency, Eke Panuku, the job of delivering the transformational projects in the City Center master plan which was first created in 2012.

Auckland Council's 2012 City Center master plan envisaged lower Hobson Street without its on-ramp.

Auckland Council / Supplied

Auckland Council’s 2012 City Center master plan envisaged lower Hobson Street without its on-ramp.

“The reality is that plan has driven some great developments over the last decade and really built on the foundations of what a lot of overseas cities are thinking about,” said Viv Beck, chief executive of the downtown business promotion agency Heart of the City.

Beck said while a few months ago she would have called for change in leadership over the future of the city center, she is now feeling more optimistic, expecting it will be a different place in 12 months.

“I hope by that stage we will see students back, that we will have some tourists back, it’s hard to know how that’s going to play out, and certainly we will be seeing workers,” she said.

The return of normally office-based downtown workers from their homes is one of 2022’s unknowns.

Viv Beck is the chief executive of the business promotion agency Heart of the City.

Jason Dorday / Stuff

Viv Beck is the chief executive of the business promotion agency Heart of the City.

However, commercial property agent CBRE said views on workers staying at home longer-term have faded, with some employers reconsidering earlier plans to shrink their spaces.

“I interviewed a number of organizations on the importance of office space for cultural reasons and being a central point of contact – training and collaboration-based work,” said Zoltan Moricz, CBRE’s executive director.

“Flexibility and a hybrid style are going to be the new norm – the impact on office space is not going to be as substantial as some negative commentary.”

CHANGING THE MIX INSIDE THE BRICKS AND MORTAR

Major investment along Auckland’s waterfront, the $ 4.5 billion City Rail Link and a decade or more of planned projects, such as a cross-town linear park, are a solid foundation for reinvention.

An impression of the exit from CRL's underground Aotea Station onto Victoria St.

CRLL / Supplied

An impression of the exit from CRL’s underground Aotea Station onto Victoria St.

But on the city streets, what goes on inside buildings will change.

Dean Humphries, the hotels national director at property firm Colliers, believes the pipeline of nearly 2000 additional rooms, commissioned in the pre-Covid-19 boom, will feed the “re-purposing” of buildings, perhaps into residential apartments.

“A lot of the hotels in Auckland are quite old, built in the 1960s and 1970s, and are getting towards the end of their economic cycle and need to be either totally retrofitted or repurposed,” he said.

Next year would see some hotels end their time as MIQ facilities and undergo major refurbishment before re-entering the market, but the return of international tourism would be critical.

Some Auckland hotels being used as MIQ facilities may return to visitor business during 2022.

Ricky Wilson / Stuff

Some Auckland hotels being used as MIQ facilities may return to visitor business during 2022.

“We are not going to see international tourism until at least May, which means we’ve missed the peak season 2021/22 season, and they will be vital for the city, next summer 2022/23,” he said.

IT WON’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT, BUT IT WILL HAPPEN

The biggest commercial landlord and developer along Auckland’s downtown waterfront is listed company Precinct Properties, which owns retail complex and office tower Commercial Bay, among other high-rises.

Precinct’s chief executive Scott Pritchard is confident of a steady revival.

“Last year [after lockdown] between April to Christmas it took six months for levels of visits to recover, ”he said.

Scott Pritchard the CEO of Precinct Properties in the Commercial Bay retail center.

Jason Dorday / Stuff

Scott Pritchard the CEO of Precinct Properties in the Commercial Bay retail center.

“I think it’ll take at least that long [in 2022] – people who still remain cautious and who need to get comfortable they can visit the city and not put themselves at risk, it’ll take a while, but I have a huge amount of faith it will return. “

Pritchard believes in events to boost downtown, both local ones like Diwali and global giants like the America’s Cup, which in 2021 was a rare highlight for the waterfront – though that looks set to move overseas with Team New Zealand seeking a more lucrative hosting deal.

“Nothing frustrates me more than the inability to keep the America’s Cup here for another round, because it is such an obvious event that captures a large part of our global audience that will come here and really stimulate the economy,” he said.

“It won’t surprise me if we get to 2024 and we are kicking ourselves that we should have made more of an effort to keep it.”

Team New Zealand is likely to take the 37th defense of the America's Cup to an overseas city.

RICKY WILSON / Stuff

Team New Zealand is likely to take the 37th defense of the America’s Cup to an overseas city.

But despite the short-term boosts to publicly-funded entertainment and activity in the city center, and the program of longer-term research, one senior councillor doesn’t believe the opportunity of Covid-19, to accelerate change, has been seized.

“The city center has always been the biggest economic zone, we need to understand that, but we haven’t done the work,” said Chris Darby, chairman of council’s planning committee.

Darby said an example was the future of the cruise ship industry, which was likely to return in some form.

“Why not choose how it comes back, rather than just inherit it,” he said.

The future of visits by giant cruise ships like Ovation of the Seas to Auckland remains unknown.

Ricky Wilson / Stuff

The future of visits by giant cruise ships like Ovation of the Seas to Auckland remains unknown.

Experts consider Covid-19 to have accelerated trends, such as online shopping and working remotely.

“ARUP thinks it accelerated digital transformation by about three years – what we achieved in 12 months, we would have expected to do in three years,” said Malcolm Smith.

But Auckland mayor Phil Goff said it was still “too early to know to what sort of impact Covid-19 and working from home might have long-term on city centers.”

“The council is investing significantly to create the infrastructure needed to support a vibrant CBD,” Goff said.