Reinventing South Auckland

By Joanna Mathers

Long seen as poor and crime-ridden, South Auckland is reinventing itself as a vibrant business centre. To the alarm of some in Central Auckland, Manukau is even being spoken of as a second CBD. Joanna Mathers takes a look around

Louise Sly enjoys playing with her kids at Mangere Bridge, which was a backwater 10 years ago, but has rocketed in popularity. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Louise Sly enjoys playing with her kids at Mangere Bridge, which was a backwater 10 years ago, but has rocketed in popularity. Photo / Jason Oxenham

At 9.40am on Thursday, a masked man holding a sawn-off shotgun walked into the Manurewa branch of pawn broker and second-hand trader Dollar Dealers. He fired at a display cabinet, shattering the glass, then removed a few items before running outside where an accomplice was waiting at the wheel of a stolen silver Nissan. The car sped from the scene and was dumped a few streets away. The pair fled on foot.

It sounds a familiar story of South Auckland, which is often seen as the city's badlands. Frequent reports of baby-bashing, drug busts and violent crime have given parts of the former Manukau City an unenviable reputation for poverty and deprivation.

But there are cheering signs that times are changing. Soaring Auckland property prices have made the area popular with first-home buyers and people keen to escape the isthmus; office space is keenly sought after; chic cafes are sprouting among the sandwich bars and Asian restaurants; the arts scene is booming.

One contestant for the mayoralty in next month's local body election is touting Manukau as Auckland's second CBD. And, without wishing to put the mockers on next weekend's defence, the local rugby team has successfully defended the Ranfurly Shield, which has proved rather difficult this season. The old South Auckland stereotypes are looking more threadbare with every passing week.


Louise and Robert Sly certainly don't fit any South Auckland stereotype. The Mangere Bridge couple run a fashion and accessories business and Robert is also a landscape designer. They moved to Mangere Bridge 10 years ago, after renting in Kingsland, and bought a small, do-up apartment for just $200,000. "We were looking to buy in either Onehunga or Mangere Bridge, and it was much cheaper here," says Louise.

The mother of two says that the area was a backwater when they arrived, but things have changed. "I remember going to a local cafe when my daughter Edna (now 3½) was born and it used to be really quiet. Now the local cafes are packed with young mums and their children."

The southern suburb is proving popular with young families and first-home buyers, looking for more affordable real estate, though prices are being driven up as a result: Louise says their apartment has more than doubled in value since they bought it.

She loves the cultural diversity and vibrancy of their home. "It's great to live in a community with so many different ethnicities."

A city council artist's impression of the future for Manukau's Putney Way.
A city council artist's impression of the future for Manukau's Putney Way.

The announcement that the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa would establish its northern outpost in Manukau was met with surprise by some Aucklanders, who had assumed that the waterfront was the natural place to site Te Papa North.

Now, the important collection of art and artifacts will be on show as part of the Hayman Park development, which is being touted as a key site in the rejuvenation of Manukau.

Award-winning figurative painter Belinda Griffiths, who calls South Auckland home, is enthusiastic about the boom of the creative industries down south. "Papakura Art Gallery, in particular, is doing good things by bringing community art events, exhibitions and artist talks to the area that might not otherwise be experienced locally."

She didn't move to the area for the art scene, but she feels that Te Papa North will do much to raise the cultural cachet of South Auckland.

"It will be huge for the area. I imagine it being an enriching resource that will be easily accessible and enjoyed by a wide variety of groups and individuals."

The married mother of two had been living in Mt Wellington but she and husband Scott chose to buy a Homestead have all helped nurture and support Maori and Pacific local artists," he says.

The Southside Arts Festival next month will also promote the creative voices of Maori and Pacific youth.

Pinker says that this festival aligns well with the Auckland Plan's Southern Initiative, a 30-year programme that focuses on developing opportunities for southern Aucklanders in conjunction with government, organisations and community groups.


It's not just the creative industries that are thriving in South Auckland. The Hayman Park development will also be home to a $95-million expansion of the Manukau Institute of Technology campus, which will be integrated with a new transport hub (the first of Auckland's new electric trains will be launched in South Auckland early next year). AUT University's Manukau campus is also expanding.

Business is booming, too. The chairman of the Manukau Central Business Association, Stewart Heine, says Manukau has few empty premises, which is a good indication of business confidence.

"The Property Group, for example, just bought a large retail complex on the corner of Cavendish Drive and Great South Rd," he says.

"They have been very happy with the results; most of the stores have been leased already."

The most recent survey by international property consultancy firm Colliers also reflects this confidence. Vacant office space in Manukau last year was 6.6 per cent against 9.9 per cent in the CBD and an average 11 per cent in suburban Auckland.


Consumer spending figures suggest a local economy in good heart. The most recent analysis on spending by data collection company MarketView revealed that over $500 million was spent in South Auckland last year.

Urban Soul Cafe is one of the businesses on the receiving end of that spending. Located on the corner of Te Irirangi Drive and Great South Rd, this vibrant space is the brainchild of former Robert Harris operations manager Tracey Bartlett, who was looking for a new project after tiring of the corporate world.

"When I was looking around for a place to have a cafe, I soon realised that there was nothing upmarket in the area.

"There was a real demand for a high-quality cafe here."

Urban Soul proved a hit from the outset, meeting its three-year target in just three months.

Bartlett says that the cafe is extremely popular with business people in the area.

"There are a lot of lawyers, accountants and other business people who work near the cafe. People meet here for business meetings and lunches during the week; in the weekends it's very popular with families."

The decision to set up a cafe in south Auckland was met with a bit of surprise with some of Bartlett's friends, but she says the success has proved her detractors wrong.

It has been so overwhelming that she is considering setting up another cafe in the south of the city.


The significance of South Auckland is not lost on the contenders in Auckland's mayoral race. Incumbent Len Brown and hopefuls John Palino and Uesifili Unasa are all focusing their energies on winning the hearts and minds of South Aucklanders.

Palino, known as the host of the television show The Kitchen Job, has big plans for South Auckland, claiming Manukau has the potential to become Auckland's second CBD.

"Its location makes it ideal," he says. "The population growth here is amazing. We have a great opportunity to develop a new, modern city; one that embraces green architecture and has a strong emphasis on technology."

John Palino. Photo / Natalie Slade
John Palino. Photo / Natalie Slade

Investing here will create jobs and give residents a place to be proud of, he says. "It will have a Polynesian/Maori flair, and embrace new technology. The street lights will be powered by solar energy," he says.

He also proposes cleaning up the Manukau Harbour and creating better residential areas around its shores.

Palino's somewhat utopian vision may sound compelling, but his mayoral rival Uesifili Unasa, the University of Auckland chaplain, feels creating a second CBD will disenfranchise the Maori and Polynesian people of Manukau further and create a "them and us" dichotomy.

"Why do we need a second CBD when we have an excellent one already? It will be a second-class option when there is a first-class option already in place in the city centre."

Unasa wants the focus to be on making the current CBD more accessible. "Better transport from South Auckland, along with better access to the waterfront in Central Auckland, would enable people in South Auckland to readily access the city centre."

Len Brown was brought up in South Auckland. He was Mayor of Manukau from 2007 to 2010, and is realistic about the issues that are still facing its residents. "There is higheconomic growth in the south,but there are still major issues to be dealt with," he says. "There is a huge amount of youth unemployment and issues around poverty and health."

Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey

He feels Te Papa will help to raise the profile and the area. "Te Papa sees the huge potential of Manukau for cultural outreach in the area. It will enable South Auckland to have a place that has a Pacific focus, and be an invaluable resource for the area's schools."

He is also excited about the opportunities the new MIT development and the expanded AUT campus will offer the community.


Ultimately, the success of South Auckland will depend on its people. Growing up in a poor part of town can be hard, but according to Deloitte private partner and Maori business-sector leader Leon Wijohn, success is still possible.

Wijohn was born and raised in Mangere. The high-profile accountant and consultant has since moved from the south but maintains strong connections with family who still live in the area.

He says he was always looking "10 years ahead" when he was at school, and attributes some of his success to great mentors. "I went to De La Salle College and I was always seeking out people who could help me achieve my goals," he says.

Leon Wijohn was raised in Mangere - now he's a top accountant. Photo / Doug Sherring
Leon Wijohn was raised in Mangere - now he's a top accountant. Photo / Doug Sherring

He advises young South Aucklanders to have a goal, be focused and try to find mentors who have achieved great things.

Successful MIT graduate Saarah Gul is happy to still call it home. The 23-year-old TVNZ digital producer lives with her parents in Papakura. "When my family moved from Bombay to Papakura in 2004, there wasn't really much of a community feel to the place. But now there are amazing cultural opportunities and the community is very involved with these."

Gul says she is excited about the future. "I feel optimistic about what Te Papa will bring. When it opens there will be an influx of visitors and this will be a huge boost to our reputation."

Gul intends to travel in the next few years, but says she is committed to her community. "Even if I go away for a little while, I will definitely return. I love South Auckland and it will always be home."

- Herald on Sunday

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