Peter Curson: Charms of Downtown hidden in sands of time

Enclosing Vulcan Lane as an arcade would tempt people to linger. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Enclosing Vulcan Lane as an arcade would tempt people to linger. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Somehow the holiday season wouldn't seem the same without a pilgrimage to the homeland and recording my latest reactions to downtown Auckland.

I seem to have been doing this for a number of years and it is disappointing to note that none of the things I have highlighted as detracting from Auckland's beauty and charm have been addressed.

C'est la City Planners (or is it the "City Panners"?) I suppose.

This time I ranged wider, revisiting places I remember as a youth and student such as Piha, the Waitakeres and Mahurangi. All these places retain their unspoilt beauty and remain as I remember them 40 years ago.

In fact, they brought into sharp relief all that Auckland and New Zealand continue to offer as attractions to locals, tourists and expatriates like me.

The interplay of land and sea, the quiet tranquillity, the magnificent bush, the way the light reflects off the water, the lovely pohutukawa trees extending down to the waterside. And the profuse bird life ( a welcome renaissance, that!) and the people fishing off the rocks or wharf.

What a pity downtown Auckland offers such a contrast. Over recent years I have urged ( indeed pleaded) that High St and parts of Queen St should be returned to the people and made pedestrian malls.

Obviously my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. But who seems to care? The proliferation of small tacky shops, the awful apartment blocks and the all- pervading motor vehicle continue to rule the roost.

It is no wonder that the only people one sees regularly in the downtown area are the non-indigenous inhabitants of those ghastly blocks of apartments that fringe the Central Business District, plus the odd bemused tourist off a ship anxiously searching for a department store or somewhere decent to have a coffee and a club sandwich or asparagus roll (remember them?).

Add a few backpackers from the growing number of backpackers' hostels that now seem to dot the area and you virtually have the sum total. Downtown Auckland has become irrelevant for most Aucklanders - a place without a soul, and a place to quickly pass through en route to somewhere else.

Ugliness has become the byproduct of commercialisation and attempts to "beautify".

In such a situation most people's focus understandably remains suburbia with its grog shops, cinemas and shopping malls and easily reached beaches.

Even Smith & Caughey's, the last bastion of the elegant department store era, is looking jaded and its once renowned cafe/coffee bar on the second floor (famous for its Friday night grilled hapuka steaks in my undergraduate days), is a mere shadow of its former self.

Indeed, if you get there after 1pm you are lucky to find any food left at all.

Certainly, the palm and other trees have helped soften Queen St and the "parking bays" made it easier for the demon car to dominate through-traffic.

But in essence it remains as it was - a motley collection of ill-fitting bits and pieces masking the grand late Victorian, Edwardian and 1920s buildings and facades that once gave the area so much charm.

To be true there have been a few changes for the better - the new bank abutting Jean Batten Place and the facelift to De Brett's Hotel plus a few other cosmetic changes, but they do little to detract from the overall picture.

And what of High St and its adjacent lanes? Unfortunately they remain a jumble of parked cars and endless through-traffic. What enormous potential is lost here.

Where is the foresight. In many ways Freyberg Square sums it all up. This square and the immediate surrounding lanes should be a central gem and a historical monument to New Zealand history in the downtown area.

But what do we have? A poorly planned semi-square fringed by a hotel and a simply awful Memorial Hall, with of course the almost compulsory route for through-traffic. What a mess.

And while you are at it, why not convert Vulcan Lane and Durham St East into enclosed arcades to make them attractive places to encourage street life where people would want to go? At the moment all we have are a few ill-placed and ill-fitting tables and chairs.

The area opposite the grand old Civic Theatre is an absolute shame. Once the site of the thriving Odeon and St James Cinemas, it now resembles the shambling tattiness of the rest of Queen St.

From time to time I have also written about Karangahape Rd, urging its redevelopment and better integration within the city centre. Well, strangely enough, despite its mishmash of tiny shops with limited life expectancy, K Rd looks somewhat better than I remember.

St Kevin's Arcade at least looked alive, but what potential is lost here. A once grand arcade dating from the 1920s with an imperious sweep of stairs down to Myers Park remains largely bypassed and forgotten.

There is much discussion about the Queens Wharf area and possible plans to convert a whole stretch of the wharf area along Quay St into an area of public access. As admirable as this may be, it is Queen St and adjacent streets that need our attention, not the waterfront.

* Peter Curson, a former Aucklander, is Professor of Population and Security at the University of Sydney.

- NZ Herald

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