Downtown future up in the air

By Andre Hueber


Downtown shopping centre tenants are living in limbo as they contemplate the lure of a bigger and better complex, but face the uncertainty over what impact those developments will have on their businesses.

The centre's owner, Westfield, says the mall could be sold to Auckland Council before being sold back again, allowing plans for a 41-storey tower to proceed.

The company received resource consent for the tower in 2008, despite revelations a central rail tunnel would go directly underneath. Talks began with KiwiRail and the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) but nothing concrete was decided.

Westfield director Justin Lynch says the "bullish" economy stifled the building plans, although they could yet go ahead. Included are two levels of upmarket shops and a foodcourt more in tune with the area's high-end feel.

Mr Lynch says the rail loop concept has now moved from mere discussion to implementation.

"Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have the political will. They've announced they want to go ahead with the first stage of land acquisition and they're talking real money."

He says Westfield passed on a letter from Auckland Transport to retailers earlier this month advising them their shops were on land required for the central rail loop, but wouldn't be required until 2015.

"No agreements have been reached and, as far as we're concerned, it's business as usual," says Mr Lynch. He says the most likely scenario is that the council will purchase the site under the Public Works Act, and that could be the end of Westfield's involvement. But if the council bought the mall, built the tunnel and sold it back, "we'd look to dust off our plans".

The Public Works Act provides Westfield an option to "buy back".

If that was to happen, Mr Lynch envisages the tower including "city" retail stores rather than department stores or supermarkets. "There could be a food court but we'd potentially replicate it at a higher level - more of a restaurant bistro. Cafes developing in that region are more at the upper end than what's currently on site."

However, he's still waiting to hear from Auckland Council and predicts the tower won't be built any time soon.

"We're not actively pursuing it, but that might change if a tenant wanted to look at it and was keen. It's sitting there almost ready to go."

He says if the shopping centre makes way for the rail loop, it will be a short-term, temporary loss.

"What's rebuilt could be a regeneration of the area."

Roger Brookbanks runs the Masco Wools story in Downtown.Roger Brookbanks' store Masco Wools has been a tenant in the mall since 1986. Mr Brookbanks is re-evaluating his future after being told the shop may be in the way.

He says he'd be reluctant to leave as the shopping centre is close to the transport hub and his customers are familiar with it.

"It'll create hardship amongst retailers and the buying public. But that's the price you have to pay to get this thing through."

Masco's lease runs out this September and Mr Brookbanks is hoping for a two-year renewal. He says any leases renewed after 2015 will include a clause that enables them to be terminated if the tunnel goes ahead. "It could be another 10 years before anything happens. Getting Christchurch rebuilt will be a more important priority than putting in a rail link."

HISTORY OF DOWNTOWN

- Downtown Shopping Centre, one of Auckland's first shopping malls, was built in 1975 and has witnessed several changes over the years.

- Westfield purchased the mall from the St Lukes Group in 1999. The food court was extended that year and again in 2005 when the whole mall was revamped.

- The Warehouse added foot traffic when it moved in in 2000 - before that the upstairs space was used as a showroom for building companies.

- Downtown was valued at $80.6 million in 2010 and has annual sales of more than $68 million.

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- The Aucklander

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