Food, fashion and foot traffic

By Joanna Mathers

New restaurant and retail precincts are changing the way New Zealanders live in their biggest city — but for every silver-lined designer frock, there’s a cloud. Once-trendy shopping centres like High St and Victoria Park Market are struggling as the diners and shoppers move on. Joanna Mathers investigates.

Chef Sean Connolly at his restaurant, The Grill. Photo / Michael Craig
Chef Sean Connolly at his restaurant, The Grill. Photo / Michael Craig

It's 5.30pm on Friday and workers are spilling from the Ernst and Young building. Dressed in expensive suits and designer frocks, they make a beeline for Britomart bars like Tyler Street Garage and 1885.

At the other end of the block, competition for tables at Mexico is fierce. A beautiful but slightly harried waitress with a flower in her hair takes down the name of a well-coiffed kid. "The table will free in about half an hour," she explains; the kid mumbles thanks, and heads down the road with a posse of immaculately- dressed mates. Welcome to Auckland's waterfront, 2014.

It hasn't always been this way. Go back a decade and downtown Auckland was almost unrecognisable from today's urban chic-it was the preserve of drug addicts and drunks, the buildings semi-abandoned and left to crumble.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup changed all of that. With a possible audience of millions set to cast their critical eyes over our city, the powers that be were spurred into action.

The waterfront,which had started to become the focus for rich property developers and canny restaurateurs during the 2003 America's Cup challenge, became a hive of activity.

The public and private sector worked together to create a world class city centre. Heritage buildings were transformed into models of contemporary good taste; wharves given extreme makeovers and opened up as restaurants, bars and public spaces. The Rugby World Cup has come and gone, but the new inner-city precincts remain a focal point for foodies and fashionistas. More than 100,000 people visited the Wynyard Quarter precinct over the week ending January 31 - a week that included a concert by Lorde and Anniversary Day Regatta festivities.

As the numbers of shopping and dining options increase, so do the numbers of people who want to trade the quarter acre dream for a downtown apartment. Ray White real estate agent Daniel Horrobin says the past 18 months has seen a jump in sales. "First home buyers especially are being drawn to the area."

So why are some city precincts succeeding, while other have become empty, echoing concrete canyons with boarded-up doors and windows?

Success occurs when there is an alignment of forces: fashion, taste, location and infrastructure all need to come together to make a new spacework. This week, the Herald on Sunday spent time with some of the people involved in our most popular new precincts to understand the art and science ofmaking a city buzz.

Any discussion on Auckland's inner city renaissance must reference Britomart. The development of a world-class transport hub alongside private development of the area's heritage buildings, has seen the space between Commerce and Quay Streets emerge as one of Auckland's hottest spots. When development of the Britomart area was put up for tender in 2002, the contract was won by international private investment company, Cooper and Company. Founded by New Zealander Peter Cooper, the company oversaw the development of a town centre in Texas called Southlake Town Square. This experience, according to chief executive Matthew Cockram, meant Cooper and Co was uniquely positioned to help develop a precinct from the ground up.

There is no single ingredient to the precinct's success. "First of all, the location is amazing," he says. "Britomart has its face to the sun. The natural orientation of the area is very appealing. Plus, the proximity to the water is a huge drawcard."

The existing heritage buildings provided the ideal bones to work with; there was also the opportunity to create a "town square" in the centre of the precinct that would create a welcoming communal space.

The company's designers visited successful urban environments in Portland, San Francisco and New York to gain inspiration. But though the judicious development of the buildings, roads and infrastructure was important for the precinct, the tenants who chose to make the area home were always going tomake or break the Britomart project.

Simon Curran is managing director and founding partner at advertising agency Shine. He is also one of the brains behind Tyler Street Garage, Ebisu, Fukoku, and the recently opened Ostro (the menu for which was created by Josh Emett).

The agency had opened an office in Britomart early on. Curran says Shine had worked alongside Lion Nathan for some time, facilitating fit outs for their hospo ventures, and that there had always been an intention to branch out into this industry.

"When we heard Cooper and Company's master plan for Britomart, we knew it was time to launch our first hospitality venture."

Tyler Street Garage (located in what was a car park) was the first outing, followed by another three eateries. Curran says one of the reasons for the success of the precinct is its high-density, urban location. "All the world's best hospo areas are based in high-density areas - SoHo in New York for example.

"These precincts have a proven history of success."

Kathryn Wilson, shoe designer, was one of the first retailers tomove into Britomart. Photo / Michael Craig
Kathryn Wilson, shoe designer, was one of the first retailers tomove into Britomart. Photo / Michael Craig

Britomart has also gained a reputation as a fashion epicentre, moving the focus from High St and O'Connell St to the water's edge. One of the first designers to realise the potential of the precinct was New Zealand shoe entrepreneur Kathryn Wilson. Wilson's first outing in the precinct was somewhat unconventional - a shoebox-shaped structure in Britomart's then car parking area that doubled as a store.

"I had the idea around the time of the Rugby World Cup," she said. "I knew this would be a focal point for tourists, and thought it would be a great location."

The "shoebox" worked well, and when the Britomart managers announced the Pavilions (a series of temporary structures that would house eateries and fashion houses), Wilsonwas one of the first to sign on. "I eat, breathe and sleep my work, and I feel the management of Britomart does the same."

More established brands, such as Karen Walker, Zambesi, Kate Sylvester and World now call Britomart home. Cooper and Company have responsibility for parking, security, and other infrastructure, and this can mean a lot to retailers used to having to deal with a raft of disparate organisations and landlords.

Neville Findlay of Zambesi says the Britomart management offered a different experience to what they had in their previous location.

"They have a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve. They have invested in the appropriate infrastructure, tenant mix, promotion and management to ensure success of the precinct.

"They provide security, great restaurants and hospitality venues, valet parking, and the comfort of knowing that the retail brand mix is monitored and optimised."

The presence of so many fashion houses, plus the range of food and wine offerings, has drawn people who would have previously spent money in High St and its surrounds. The fact that there are fully occupied commercial premises - Ernst and Young and Westpac both have bases here-also ensures the precinct has a captive audience of affluent consumers

The waterfront is booming. But it has come at the expense of once-trendy precincts like High St, formerly the first destination for any well-heeled frock-shopper.

High St, and neighbouring Vulcan Lane, O'Connell St and Chancery, were once the centre for fashion and food in the city. Now the biggest designers. the ones that drew the most foot traffic, have all moved out.

Rakinos has closed; boutiques have moved out. Photo / Michael Craig
Rakinos has closed; boutiques have moved out. Photo / Michael Craig

One of High St's best-loved residents, Rakinos cafe and lounge bar, has just shut its doors for the last time.

Rakinos ran from 1991 until late last year. A hip-hop venue that doubled as an eatery, it was popular with punters for most of its 23-year history. But the promotion of Britomart as an entertainment precinct, and the changing tastes of a younger generation, saw attendance at club nights decline.

Andy Lo is a DJ and former shareholder at Rakinos. He feels the council's promotion of Britomart has had an adverse affect on the High St precinct. "Council spent so much money promoting this precinct that the others have been left to suffer. They have been one-dimensional in their thinking; they should have supported other precincts."

Rakinos' Facebook users expressed their dismay en masse. Emma Wilkinson's post typified the shared sentiment: "Oh gutted. One of the only few places left that was consistent." Across in Victoria Park Market, shop-owners hired a lawyer last year in a fiery dispute with centre managers, after construction and slow leasing meant many were struggling for customers.

One old-school retail and dining mecca - Ponsonby - is fighting the drift towards the waterfront. Figures from the Ponsonby Business Association reveal the retail spend in Ponsonby was up by 5.4 per cent in the last quarter of 2013 as compared to the same period in 2012; the number of transactions was up by 7.2 per cent. In other words, people were spending more, but on lower-cost items. It seems retailers were forced to discount to keep the tills ringing.

Part of that increased spend may be thanks to the opening of Ponsonby Central; the upturn in spending roughly correlates with the opening of the boutique market.

Owned and conceived by property developer Andy Davies, modelled in part on Melbourne's food markets, its distinctive, handpicked selection of food producers and retailers has proven a hit with punters.

"Andy has chosen people who are passionate about what they do," says Tara Brogan of Foxtrot Parlour and The Dairy. "There are lots of unusual offerings at Ponsonby Central."

She says social media plays a part in raising the profile of the area. "The younger people are often using Instagram to share images of what they eat here. It's become a tourist destination."

Tourist destination, you say? If there's one place they're all drawn, it's the expanse of restaurants and bars running from the Viaduct Harbour, across the pedestrian bridge to North Wharf and the 36ha Wynyard Quarter.

Peter Parkin, owner of Jack Tar Bar at North Wharf, was initially nervous. Photo / Doug Sherring
Peter Parkin, owner of Jack Tar Bar at North Wharf, was initially nervous. Photo / Doug Sherring

Jack Tar is a gastropub on North Wharf. Owner Peter Parkin says he was initially concerned about setting up in the new precinct (when he first saw the site it was a construction zone), but the opening day proved his fears were misplaced.

"We actually served 700 meals on the first day. Iwas inawe ofmystaff," he laughs.

The precinct attracts a diverse population, from Silo Park's hip young crowd to the children and families packing the playground in the holidays. "We even have busloads of people coming to the area from retirement homes. It's worked incredibly well for a wide range of people. People love to be near the water."

Errol Haarhoff is a professor of architecture at University of Auckland, specialising in urban design. He says access to a city's waterfront is very important for the public, and appropriating such former industrial sites for use by the public is an international trend that has proven very successful.

"Partnerships between the public and private sector can prove very effective when developing formerly disused spaces for public use," he says. "A good urban design out come can be judged by the public's response; and Britomart and Wynyard Quarter are well-populated; they are doing very well."

So too is the Federal St dining precinct, created by the SkyCity Casino. SkyCity is working with Auckland Council in a public/ private partnership to create a shared pedestrian space, allowing dining to spill out on to this small lane that links Victoria and Wellesley Streets. "We are currently in the process of having the cobblestones laid," says John Mortensen, general manager of SkyCity.

Mortensen says the precinct is bustling even on a Monday night, and attributes the success to the range of great chefs, the different price points, and variety of food on offer. "People walk past and see it's packed, and that draws more people in."

One of the street's first tenants, Sean Connolly of The Grill, is excited about the future of the space. He is about to launch a new restaurant (called Gusto) at the SkyCity Grand, and is planning to open a burger bar of sorts attached to The Grill."We are getting a name for our burgers, so we are planning to have a street-front service with tables outside where people can eat."

Just a block back from the waterfront, the development of the Imperial Buildings alongside the restoration of Fort St and Fort Lane also utilised the public/private model in the creation of a public walkway and dining precinct, which includes Roxy and Everybody's. Terry Gould from Phillimore Properties (who bought the building in 2009) says Auckland Council's development of the surrounding streets helped to create a good sense of continuity with the development of the heritage Imperial Buildings.

"It was great to have council support in creating shared public spaces. The walkway from Fort Lane to Queen St is paved with the same pavers as the public road space; and the transformation of the roads to shared pedestrian zones completely changed the atmosphere of this area."

The changing times have seen some areas of Auckland lose their cachet, but it seems Aucklanders are happy with the inner city changes. Alex Swney from Heart of the City explains.

"We monitor performance in the central city, and unquestionably the tide is coming in," he says. "There is high employment in the city, more families moving in; more diverse offerings. There has been huge growth in the area."

"There is a real sense of pride in being an Aucklander - an authenticity to the city that is compelling."

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