It's a $15 million renovation, an award-winning heritage vision and a blueprint for urban renewal in downtown Auckland. And judging from the all-day crowds, it's still the place to be seen drinking coffee.
Sweeping changes to the Imperial Buildings between Queen St and Fort Lane have turned what was a drab service lane into one of the city's new hipster zones, drawing some of the top businesses to its edgy upper levels, now fitted out to showcase an unusual history.
Seating and plants have sprouted on the lane, running between Customs St East and Fort St, as diners and clubbers embrace the intimate gathering point. The restoration project is also starting to pay off commercially and artistically for owners Terry Gould and brothers Ken and Ross Healy of heritage real estate investor Phillimore Properties and their designers Tim Hay and Jeff Fearon of Fearon Hay Architects.
Last night the development won a NZ Property Council heritage excellence award and last month Fearon Hay picked up the New Zealand Institute of Architects' medal, the top prize.
The architects were praised for basking in the opportunity to show off original materials while enhancing the structure, which Phillimore bought from AMP and which was once home to Queen St's two oldest picture theatres, Queen's and Everybody's. The site later became a Woolworths and then a Deka store.
"The Imperial Buildings succeeds on as many levels as the complex structure seems to possess," said the judges. "It is a building restoration project which has had an urban revitalisation effect, a commercially driven scheme which enhances the civic realm, a hermetic world which provides a public path through a city block."
For the public, the most dramatic feature is probably the Imperial Cafe's sloping floor, which originally went in the opposite direction, highest at Fort Lane angling down towards Queen St. That was reversed to take account of the drop from Queen St to the lane and it create the steady movement from the building's interior and to give flow between the streets.
The slope offers an edgy, slightly unsettling off-balance stage-like runway effect, enhanced by the dark tones and mood lighting.
Well, they're architects, they like drama. Plus they say they wanted to avoid a bland, featureless tunnel.
"We had to get people moving between Queen St and Fort Lane," explains Fearon, adding that stairs or lifts wouldn't work. So they took their queue from the outdoor landscape and reckoned nature knew best.
Ross Healy just wonders what all the floor fuss is about - "we've been in Vulcan Lane drinking coffee and it's less steep and it works there".
The judges agreed with him. "The architects have not merely respected the heritage fabric of the buildings, they have revelled in the opportunity to reveal original materials and celebrate historic structure while introducing light and air into a wonderful array of working and hospitality spaces," said the NZIA citation.
But to get to that level of sophistication created almost unimaginable challenges. The scale of the deconstruction inside was such that Canam Construction even produced a book of photographs showing bulldozers ripping into floors and diggers buzzing about, as brick walls were exposed and huge structural timber beams and ornate plaster ceilings became uncovered.
"Fundamentally, the design brief was to open up a thoroughfare between two streets, improve circulation and use light in a central atrium," Healy says.
"'It was like a labyrinth and you had to work out how to get from one space to another. It was very deep and dark in the middle. It was disorienting. Our concept was to bring light, movement and air," he explains.
"But the building was incredible so you had to be careful what you removed," Hay says.
Healy tells of confusing signage and a series of alterations over many years which meant the building was commercially a failure. Walls had been plastered to look like a seamless white backdrop but these are being uncovered to show the character red bricks beneath. Where a choice had to be made about what to leave and what to remove, Hay says they always erred on the more challenging side.
"There was a state of decay when we were doing the demolition and we said 'leave that, it's OK'. It's this layering that makes it beautiful," he says pointing to an old windowsill and a partially plastered brick wall. "You keep that detail."
Design and consent took one-and-a-half years and construction the same. Even some of the new mechanical services - including a lift - were thrown out, unable to be altered to fit massive changes, and opening the wrong way. Out, too, went metres of carpet and underlay and sheets of gib board and in went massive steel beams for a $4 million seismic upgrade. An entire floor was even removed, lowered slightly because it was deemed too close to a ceiling.
The surprising internal courtyard was formed in an area where once an old lightwell stood, the toilets with their frosted glass backing on to it. And it is that glass the architects picked up on when they created new dramatic light shafts punched entirely though the centre of the building, lantern-like, to bring light into the sloping-floor cafe below.
Healy admits that gave him less floor space to lease but fulfilled the original design brief to bring the natural elements into the structure.
The building is now almost fully leased, achieving net rents of around $450/sq m, only slightly below Auckland's top office prices. It's the new home to ad agency JWT, economists Covec, recruitment specialists absoluteIT, Salt Funds Management, jewellers Naveya & Sloane and Phillimore.
In the next few weeks, a Chinese restaurant will open alongside the Fort Lane entrance to the cafe, opposite the Angus Steak House entranceway, further enlivening this Melbourne-like laneway off the shared space joy that is Fort St.
The team are now turning their attention to a previously hidden subterranean building level, working on a scheme for the basement and talking about the possibility of more hospitality areas. They are also discussing "destination retailing" that shoppers will make a special trip for - significant, considering Phillimore also owns the Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Michael Hill premises in what is arguably the luxury end of our city's Golden Mile.
Reviving the lane
Foot traffic up 50 per cent, vehicle speeds down 25 per cent and hospitality spends up 400 per cent - that's the magic that's been worked around the Fort precinct after its big street upgrade.
"It was a dump," recalls Auckland Council environment strategy and policy manager Ludo Campbell-Reid, "full of spit, a back alley with rubbish bins and cars."
Two years ago, the shared space project was created so parking was banned, footpaths dug up, pavers laid and an intimate area created to remove the traditional distinction between footpath and road. The council and Imperial Building landlord Phillimore worked collaboratively to create the link between Queen St and Fort Lane and Campbell-Reid says new shared spaces have opened on Darby St, Lorne St outside the Auckland Library, Fort St, Jean Batten Pl, Fort Lane and Totara Avenue West in New Lynn.
Now, he hopes the owners of the Queen's Arcade and CitiBank Building might consider opening on to the revived laneway.