In terms of important yardsticks, the upgrade of Queen St completed three years ago has been a success. The number of pedestrians has increased, retail takings appear to be up and several shops selling top brands have moved in. A point of difference with Auckland's suburban shopping malls has been established. That reconstruction, therefore, offers important pointers to what should be adopted from a 20-year city-centre masterplan that will be made public by the Auckland Council next month.
The changes to Queen St between 2006 and 2008 were relatively subtle. Footpaths were widened in places, more generous pedestrian crossings were provided, different trees were planted and new seating was installed. The overall thrust was to make the street more inviting to pedestrians and less so to traffic. The changes proposed in the new masterplan display the same tendency but to a more dramatic degree. They include turning all or part of Queen St into a pedestrian mall, creating a downtown Chinatown and providing playgrounds for children.
There is no shortage of people wanting Queen St to be a pedestrian mall. They point to the likes of Melbourne, New York, Barcelona and Copenhagen, which have created welcoming city centres by reclaiming streets for pedestrians in the belief that people and public spaces are the lifeblood of a city. The success of the tentative steps on Queen St adds further ammunition to their cause. One way forward has been suggested by the council's transport committee chairman, Mike Lee, who wants to test a pedestrian-only area of Queen St from Customs St to Victoria St at weekends.
Another would be to site two malls on Queen St, one between Customs St and Shortland St as an adjunct to the Britomart precinct, and the other abutting Aotea Square. The malls would effectively prevent access to the top and bottom of the heart of Queen St. Except for delivery vans, most traffic would surely prefer to use neighbouring streets. If buses dropped their passengers in streets adjoining Queen St, thereby removing them from the picture, an even more pedestrian-friendly realm would ensue. The added foot traffic would then attract a stronger array of high-quality shops to Queen St, as happened after the most recent upgrade.
There are some jarring elements in the masterplan, none more so than the plan to create a Chinatown. Such areas have generally developed of their volition without orchestration by city planners. If this has not happened in downtown Auckland, it should not be faked. Further, Chinatowns are a dime a dozen around the world. The presence of one here would endow no particular cachet.
The reaction of the mayor, Len Brown, to the masterplan has also been curious. He regards the boulevarding of Quay St as a priority ahead of the plan for Queen St, which he wants widened for pedestrians but not turned into a mall. But such a development on Quay St would run counter to the desirability of opening the bottom of Queen St to the harbour. A Paris-style boulevard on Quay St would represent a physical and mental obstacle. If anything, the emphasis should be on diminishing Quay St and Customs St as major thoroughfares.
The controversy over the most recent upgrade of Queen St indicates there will be no shortage of debate over the masterplan. But one thing seems clear. Experience with Queen St, and with the vast majority of the world's most liveable city centres, dictates that people, not cars, must be the focus. How far the country's premier retailing strip goes in its quest to be pedestrian-friendly is the issue.