A critic's view Tauranga broadcasting identity Pat Spellman says the project is a failure.
"It's time we conceded defeat," he told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend. "There shouldn't be any more time, money, resources invested into a failure."
Mr Spellman was privy to plans for the project through his job at Moana Radio, which is based on Wharf St, and later organised live music for a series of lunchtime events during the precinct's launch.
"At the very beginning, I think it was quite an exciting thing - there was a buzz, a hum in the air - [but] it was unfortunate that it was compared to successful projects like Eat Streat over in Rotorua, because it wasn't. It was a half-pie attempt at trying to create al fresco dining and it never took off."
Mr Spellman blames poor promotion and a lack of buy-in from local businesses as key reasons for its "lacklustre" performance. "And also, when was the last time you sat at your dining table and someone drove their car through it? ... That's probably the biggest reason why Wharf St didn't work. You can't drive up and down Eat Streat. You shouldn't be able to drive up and down Wharf St."
As a concept, he argues there is nothing to differentiate the precinct from the Strand and he called on Tauranga City Council to restore the road to its former state.
"The place has turned into a royal rumble in terms of parking down there. It's embarrassing."
THE PROJECT LEADER Mainstreet Tauranga says any criticism of the precinct is premature.
"We've always said all along it is a new environment and with any new environment you have to keep modifying it as you go, as people start using the street and live on the street, so that you get a best-use model over time," says spokeswoman Sally Cooke.
Ms Cooke says the project is only in Stage One and there are no plans to abandon the trial.
"There are businesses on the street who think it's the best thing that's happened on the street. We're not in the business of setting things up and then walking away when things get a little bit challenging or otherwise."
So what do the future stages look like? "It now needs to be a collaborative process looking forward to what's in the best interests of the city, the businesses on the street and every other party involved," says Ms Cooke.
Ms Cooke says foot traffic on Wharf St has increased markedly since the precinct launch. Data collected from an electronic monitor shows monthly pedestrian growth from October to January of 30 per cent.
As part of the launch, Mainstreet Tauranga hung rows of imported lanterns across the street but they were removed shortly afterwards amid safety concerns when a string crashed to the ground.
Ms Cooke says the organisation is eager to get the lanterns back up and is awaiting expert reports. She could not give a timeframe.
"We're very much in the hands of our structural engineer in terms of making sure that everything is done as it should be."
A MIXED VIEW Dry Dock Cafe co-owner Sandra Johnson has mixed feelings about the project. She is happy with the courtyard-type feeling achieved after her business had planter boxes made, but frustrated the lanterns have yet to be reinstated.
"It would be good to know what the timeline is," she says.
She believes completely closing the street to vehicles may be the key to the project's long-term success, and she thinks it is something the parties involved should be working towards.
"If we want to have a dining precinct, we need to act like one," she says. More importantly at this stage, though, is attracting more cafes and restaurants to the precinct.
"It's still the same places here. We've got empty places [too]."
She points to Rotorua's Eat Streat and Auckland's Federal St, in particular, as locations where there is a great variety of restaurants side by side.
"It's fantastic. You can choose whatever you like to eat. You know it's going to be good. It creates that atmosphere."
A SUPPORTER Rye American Kitchen & Spirits opened on Wharf St 15 months ago, and owner Josh Fitzgerald says the precinct has helped his business.
"We've got a lot more exposure with eating out the front and having the area out the front. We've been growing every month," he says.
Mr Fitzgerald also runs Flying Burrito Brothers on Grey St and Barrio Brothers at the Mount, and would like to see more businesses on Wharf St embrace the precinct concept. "Everyone harks on about the CBD being dead, and this and that, but unless people are willing to do positive movements in the right direction, you can't really complain."
Like Mainstreet Tauranga, he says the trial is only the beginning and "not the grand plan", adding that it has taken six months to get people to learn they cannot park anywhere they choose.
"We're happy with it and we're backing it 100 per cent," he says.
"We reckon Tauranga will really benefit from it in the next few years."
THE POLITICIAN Tauranga city councillor Matt Cowley raised the subject of the precinct at a recent meeting and said there was a misconception it was a council project, when in fact it was driven by local businesses.
He told theBay of Plenty Times Weekend that Mainstreet Tauranga "did a good job relative to the small number of businesses on the street who paid for it" and the council was not averse to further investment.
"If the community wants to see these ideas flourish in the future, the council may need to consider co-funding, as is the case with Eat Street in Rotorua."
He says the precinct trial has allowed the concept to be tested without going through the "very bureaucratic" public road closure consultation process.
"We just wanted to get rid of the barrier and allow Mainstreet to at least try something without too much fuss."
But what of those who argue the success of the project hinges on completely closing the road to vehicles? "That's the catch-22, really," Mr Cowley says. "We're kind of damned if we do, damned if we don't. If we close the road and for whatever reason businesses stopped investing or it didn't work, it'll be deemed a failure."
Mr Cowley supports the concept of bringing life to the streets. "If this isn't the right project, well, let's try and find another one that does [that]."
THE ROAD OWNER Even to formally make Wharf St a shared space, Tauranga City Council says its design would need to be changed. "Research into the success of shared spaces shows that the physical layout of the area is absolutely critical to the success of the space," says transportation manager Martin Parkes.
"Success is not only measured by the amount of activity in the space but by how easy it is for people to understand how to use it, and therefore how safe they perceive it to be."
THE BOARD MEMBER Mainstreet Tauranga vice-chairwoman Anne Pankhurst said the organisation wanted to get the ball rolling and trial the concept.
"It wasn't ever off-the-blocks going to be perfect," she says.
She says Rotorua's Eat Streat really took off when local government got involved, but for now it was great to see more businesses laying claim to the Wharf Street Dining Precinct.
"I'm sure in a relatively short space of time, we'll be going, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.'"