Queen St businesses just hanging on

By James Ihaka, Bernard Orsman

Zan Stoev is hurting from the bombsite that is Queen St. But the owner of Delissimo Delicatessen in Queen's Arcade would like nothing more than to move to Queen St once the disruptive $41 million upgrade is over.

"I want to see a European-style atmosphere on Queen St with vibrancy and interaction on the footpath," says the deli owner, who said "Queen St was the ugliest street for me in the world" when he arrived from Macedonia 10 years ago.

Right now, Queen St is a sea of orange barriers, stretching on both sides from Smith & Caughey's to Customs St.

Pedestrians are jammed down a narrow channel, plywood and polystyrene noise barriers doing little to dampen the noise. Construction on the new Bank of New Zealand headquarters adds more noise and dust.

Like many retailers, Mr Stoev understands the need to upgrade the Golden Mile. He just cannot understand the rationale for "demolishing" the whole street in virtually one go. Surely, doing it in small sections would have reduced the impact on his business, which is down 20 per cent, he said.

The upside of this widespread disruption is that the 50 workers are weeks ahead of schedule and the public is getting a sense of the new Queen St from dozens of fully grown nikau palms saluting the office towers.

The busy block from Wellesley St to Victoria St, with a new mat of bluestone footpaths and kerbs, street furniture and multi-function poles, is due for completion by the end of next month.

The last stretch, from Victoria St to Customs St, will carry on until the build-up to Christmas when work will stop. After Christmas, work will begin again and by March, Auckland will have a shiny new Queen St with wider footpaths, mid-block crossings and, hopefully, less traffic.

In the meantime, it is tough going for retailers.

Says Mike Aholelei, manager of Gloria Jean's Coffee: "People walk into the shop, hear the diggers and basically walk out again."

Peter Pavlic, who owns Mrs Higgins Cookies, has taken to wearing ear muffs because of the noise.

Jeweller Daniel Robinson said the incessant noise was "starting to get on my nerves. Anywhere else in the world it would have been finished by now," said The Diamond Shop retailer.

Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney said it was goingto be a long winter in Queen St, "spelled l-o-o-o-ng".

But he is confident the finished product, coupled with a new retail and events strategy, will be worth the wait.

"We saw the passion that Queen St ignited in people over the trees 18 months ago. The response to this will be something that people will be proud of and show a truly international, Pacific-style flavour."

Mr Stoev said: "I just want the people back."

Smith & Caughey director Terry Cornelius said that although construction barriers had been removed from outside the store on the Wellesley St and Queen St corner, business was still down. "The problem is thatthe council is still telling everyoneto stay out of the city."

He said there would definitely be a major improvement to Queen St once the project was finished, and believed the council owed it to disrupted businesses to publicise and celebrate the completion of the Wellesley-Victoria block at the end of next month.

Mr Cornelius confirmed that he had persuaded the council to ease up on the number of radio notifications to motorists to stay out of Queen St.

He did not want to disclose the extent of his businesses losses but a Smith & Caughey's tenant, the Yellow Camera Shop, estimates it is down by 40 per cent from last year.

"We have lost all our internet business - people would send us photos [by email] and zip in and pick up the prints," shop owner Valerie Smith said.

They were no longer able to use loading zones to do that, so she was considering closing at weekends and cutting staff.

She questioned the point of the upgrade.

"They are not changing anything. They say they want to turn it into a boulevard but they won't let people have tables on the pavement."

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