Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is the Property editor of the NZ Herald

Store wars loom over Broadway mega-mall

By ANNE GIBSON

By the time New Zealand's biggest shopping mall opens its doors the man who conceived it will have returned home to the Lucky Country.

Westfield New Zealand director Grant Hirst's legacy for Aucklanders will be a giant 11-storey building looming over Broadway.

But when that happens, the lawyer-turned-developer will most likely be living in Sydney's affluent eastern suburbs, enjoying scuffing down sandstone streets under the rustling eucalypts.

There, beneath those cloudless skies, he will remember us. He will be feeling proud to have saved us - to have delivered us from our "shocking climate."

That assumes he is successful in realising his present mission, which is to build a mall bigger than any other shopping centre in New Zealand, so we can have retail therapy indoors, away from Auckland's variable weather.

Mr Hirst was refusing to talk about the mall this week, saying Westfield's proposal was with the Auckland City Council and he did not want to pre-empt that process.

But his masters, the Lowy family, will be well-pleased with his efforts when he returns closer to their fold at Christmas.

Patriarch and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Frank Lowy knows what it is like to fight. To battle the elements, beat the odds, and hopefully win.

The family, overseen by Australia's second-richest man, owns a third of Westfield, which is one of the world's largest mall managers and developers.

The family's goal is to build a mall more than twice as large as their present New Zealand flagship, St Lukes.

They want it to be smack in the heart of our wealthiest areas, Newmarket, Parnell and Remuera.

Mr Hirst views Auckland as a bit of a shopping backwater. In the United States, half of all retail dollars go through mall tills. Australians spend a third of their shopping dollars in malls, but New Zealand malls take only a quarter of this country's retail spending.

Westfield intends to change all that. It reopened the Glenfield mall this week, after giving it a $100 million facelift.

Its retailing mission is to ensure that when you get in a car to drive to a mall, you will be going Westfield-way, transporting yourself from misery to a zone of happiness that is marked by the fluttering of red and white Westfield flags.

For shopaholics, Westfield's zeal is a dream come true. But it is a dream that is giving some existing Newmarket retailers sleepless nights.

They see the Newmarket strip as special, a sunny and unique shopping experience. To protect this they have mounted an ongoing campaign to slay the Westfield monster.

Their team is led by Darryl Henry, general manager of Newmarket property owner Retail Holdings and chairman of the Newmarket Business Association.

"The mall is a huge threat to Newmarket's vibrancy and vitality," he says. "It will be a fortress which has no place in our suburb.

"You can't take the standard Australian model and plonk it in Newmarket and expect to get away with it."

Kevyn Male, whose Three Bears store was a Newmarket icon in the 1980s, is another who is saddened and disgusted at Westfield's plans, and aghast at the size and scope of the mall.

"We need more retailing like a hole in the head," he told the Herald in July, citing the disappearance of 60 Newmarket shops last year alone.

The mall will be vast. It will encompass part of the main North Island railway line, fly over two streets and redirect another.

It will also include 12 cinema screens, 200-plus shops and more than 3000 carparks. It will have entry points off many streets and span a block stretching from the Remuera Rd and Broadway intersection right across to the Southern Motorway.

In a letter to the Herald in August, Mr Hirst criticised Mr Male for his opposition to the mall.

"Westfield, if it receives approval, will create a fully integrated and magnificent shopping centre to complement the existing Newmarket environment, creating many jobs and greatly increasing the carparking capacity in Newmarket," he wrote.

Since the company revealed its detailed plans three months ago, the business association has remained mum, mustered its troops and gathered information. Now it is ready to fight.

One of its main concerns is that Westfield wants the Auckland City Council to agree to change three streets to build the mall.

Not only must Westfield lease or buy the airspace above Nuffield St so that it can build over it, it also has to reroute Mahuru St and build over Nuffield Lane. Nuffield St and Nuffield Lane run parallel to Broadway and are in front of the landmark Mercury Energy building, which Westfield will demolish as part of its planned development.

Once this is done the developer then plans to build a five-level structure over the two roads. But the business association is saying that Auckland's streets are not up for grabs.

Westfield's problem is that its site is long and skinny, but the six bulk stores needed to make the mall work are square and squat. This means that it needs to change the streets to make the mall fit.

Without getting the council's say-so on the three crucial streets Westfield won't be able to build the six large-format anchor tenant stores it needs at either end of the mall.

The association is also arguing that the council should not sell the airspace over Nuffield St.

It is saying that, apart from anything else, the mall will be so big that it will block views of Rangitoto and the Waitemata from the Newmarket Viaduct.

To demonstrate how serious Westfield is about changing the streets, the association used the Official Information Act to obtain a letter from Westfield's lawyers, Russell McVeagh's Derek Nolan and Andrew Royle, which it sent it to council planning chiefs Karen Bell and John Duthie.

The letter outlines Westfield's plans to buy or lease airspace above Nuffield St and Nuffield Lane, and to reroute Mahuru St.

The council's property department manager Malcolm Peterson said this week that the application for the street changes had been received and its approval would be conditional on Westfield's getting planning consent for the entire mall.

Karen Bell says the council has yet to decide: "A provision in the Local Government Act allows council to approve or decline any street changes, above or below ground.

"Now that Westfield has asked, we have to go through that process.

"I understand the association's concerns, but to say we should talk to some parties, but tell others to go away is unreasonable."

Westfield also wants to build over a long stretch of the main North Island trunk railway line and already has initial indications of agreement from Tranz Rail and New Zealand Railways Corporation.

Westfield also needs a massive planning change to build the mall.

It wants the council to approve a private plan change. This is a big ask. The mall is just too big to be legal under present planning laws, so Westfield wants one law made specifically for its mall.

Mr Hirst sees his company's $450 million investment in Newmarket as a boost for the city's infrastructure and employment. He predicts building will start in 2002 and that the mall will complement the strip, not decimate it.

Last August he said that Westfield would start by building a scaled-down mall of just 45,000 sq m. But the association doubts this and believes Westfield is planning to build the 71,000 sq m monster in one hit.

Meanwhile, the association is backing a rival mall developer's plans for Newmarket. Chinese billionaire Denis Jen is expanding his 277 on Broadway to a 4ha surrounding block. Present zoning permits this and the association supports it, saying it will enhance Broadway with 300m of new strip shopping.

But no matter which way it turns out one thing is certain, Broadway will never be the same again.

Not that any of this will bother Mr Hirst. At Christmas, he and his family return to Sydney, where he will head Westfield's international shop leasing division. A replacement has yet to be found to continue what has become the battle of Broadway.

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