Work in progress: The transformation of downtown Auckland

By Rebecca Kamm

Back from a stint across the Tasman, Rebecca Kamm gets reacquainted with her hometown and likes what she sees.

Aotea Square has been spruced up and includes well-landscaped gardens, plus Aotea centre now houses a cafe and bar. Photo / Michael Bradley
Aotea Square has been spruced up and includes well-landscaped gardens, plus Aotea centre now houses a cafe and bar. Photo / Michael Bradley

The power of urban landscapes to affect our mood is well-documented. So environmental psychologists won't be surprised to hear that when I moved to Melbourne almost two years ago, I had to pinch myself. The laneways, the plazas, the bumbling old trams shunting through wide, boutique-lined shops; paved pavilions, quirky sculptures, dynamic, tasteful gallery buildings and events centres. Wherever I turned, I was in my element.

But the splendour of this (admittedly, much larger) city, is also why - when I returned to Auckland recently - I couldn't help but wonder if my hometown would measure up. Because sure, Auckland is unique and beautiful and the gateway to incredible beaches unlike any other in the world, but boy did its CBD need an overhaul. Would it ever happen?

Apparently, yes. Because it seems that while my back was turned, Auckland was, er, kicked into action by the impending 2011 Rugby World Cup. And entire quarters of the city have either been made over already, or are well on their way.

The waterfront has fancy new structures I've never seen before, and men in hard hats are all over the show, making way for trams and restaurant strips and park areas. Not to mention the transformation of regular old streets into pedestrian-friendly spaces, many unrecognisable. Who knew?

Not me. So I'm right on board when Heart of the City's Alex Swney offers to pop me on the back of his scooter for a re-acquaintance. Alex, bursting with dogged enthusiasm for the creation of a welcoming Auckland CBD, is the perfect guide for this particular outing. His unwavering vision is underpinned by an admiration of overseas success stories such as Chicago's award-winning Millennium Park, a 10ha civic centre filled with natural and cultural amenities. The idea, he says, or hollers into the wind as we zoom along, is to develop spaces for people, rather than let transport infrastructure dictate the look of the city.

Our first stop is Wynyard Quarter, the 35ha block of land I've only ever known as a desolate and somewhat mysterious expanse of port activity, between the Viaduct Harbour and Westhaven Marina. In fact, it's a bit startling to find it's now a series of interconnected public spaces I'm genuinely excited to spend time in. Like Jellicoe St, home to the Auckland Seafood Market and formerly a semi-industrial road. No more: in just over two months, it'll be a cobblestoned and native tree-lined boulevard and a foodies' dream, with markets lining its fancy edges. And just to make that proposition even better, two lovely old 1920s trams will operate a 15-minute and 1.5km clockwise circuit along Jellicoe, Halsey, Gaunt and Daldy streets. Touchingly, that first ride will mark the first time in more than 50 years trams will have run on Auckland streets. Even the muddy, virgin tracks have an air of anticipation.

On the seaward side of Jellicoe Street is North Wharf Promenade, promising to further foodies' joy, with 10 seafood restaurants to open by August. And a good stretch of promenade along which to stagger, full-tummied, afterwards.

You might also want to cart your full tummy to Silo Park, an expanse of green on the western edge of Jellicoe St, named after the large silos that will remain, in recognition of the land's industrial history. Ready by August, it will host an outdoor cinema on summer evenings.

Incidentally, when those summer evenings arrive and you're darting about the waterfront marvelling at all the novelty, you'll be grateful for Wynyard Crossing, a new opening bridge that will link up the Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Quarter.

Another jewel in Wynyard Quarter's crown is Gateway Plaza, on the corner of Halsey and Jellicoe streets. With all the feature seating, public art and lovely wide steps that slope downwards to touch the water's edge, you'll probably want to make it a fairly regular stomping ground from around late July.

Scooting along to the Viaduct, we hit the rather elegant Viaduct Events Centre, on the Halsey St extension wharf. It's still surrounded by the mud and mess of construction, but I get the idea, and I like it. Large and looming (it'll seat 1400 people), it also possesses a certain lightness, with its large glass panes and roof of static, undulating waves. The perfect host for New Zealand's next Fashion Week.

Next up: The Cloud, a temporary tent-like structure on Queens Wharf, purpose-built to act as a World Cup "fanzone" during matches and host concerts and festival events. At almost 180m long, it looks remarkably like a luminous caterpillar with an arch in its back (some people, I'm told, unkindly call it "the slug" but it's smarter than that). It is an odd, yet endearing, companion for the adjacent Shed 10, the permanent cruise ship terminal that will also host RWC 2011 fanzone activities.

But it's not just the waterfront that's changed. As we head away from the water, I catch glimpses of Auckland's new series of "shared spaces", an urban landscaping practice also used in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. Interestingly, merging the footpath with the road to put people first and create more vibrant city sectors actually makes roads safer, too. Which means Elliot, Darby, Lorne, O'Connell and Fort streets now have it made.

As does Aotea Square. Last time I looked, it was a slightly shabby square shared by bored-looking workers ( including me) and pigeons. Suddenly, it's a smooth, paved expanse flanked by well-landscaped gardens. What's more, the Aotea Centre's been polished, with a cafe and bar - Box - on its terrace.

On our return, Alex takes me past the refurbished Auckland Art Gallery building on Kitchener St, which will open September 3. Its kauri roof panels and understated beauty are perfect, and its pedestrian link between Kitchener St and Albert Park an opening-up of this little pocket of the city.

Of course, these aren't the only changes. There's Britomart's numerous new bars and restaurants. And smaller, subtler tweaks all over the city that continue to catch my eye. But the ones I've seen today have worked their charm. Climbing off the scooter, I thank Alex for showing me my new old city, and really mean it.

There's a time and a place - and it's now and it's Auckland. I'm very happy to be here.

All you need to know

Keep your finger on the pulse of all the new developments in town

* Heart of Auckland City's website.

* A guide to events at the Aotea Centre, The Civic, Auckland Town Hall and Aotea Square.

* Auckland City Council's website includes information about individual developments and a Rugby World Cup section.

* Illustrations, photos and bite-sized info on all the waterfront's new developments.

* http://aucklandartgallery.blogspot.com Track Auckland Art Gallery's renovation progress and get sneak peeks behind the scenes on their staff blog.

* Home of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development Ltd. Great for overseas visitors, it has a RWC 2011 section.

* A comprehensive guide to what's hot and happening down Britomart way.

* Official website of the RWC 2011, including Things to Do, Events and Dining sections.

* An interesting blog-type site on Auckland's happenings, including developments like Jellicoe St.

* An online community for sharing information, news and media on city developments. Click on Auckland for local projects.

* Have we missed some of your favourite makeover projects around Auckland?

Email us on life@nzherald.co.nz and tell us the new pieces of urban design you're looking forward to.

- NZ Herald

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