Alex Swney: Queen St revamp sign of city growing up

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Why all this fascination with Queen St? Why indeed, when for the past two generations Queen St has played second fiddle as we fully embraced the Americanised malling of our suburbs.

In the 1950s the De Leuw Cather report was touted as Auckland's prescription for a modern city. In an era of huge postwar enthusiasm we fully embraced the notion of cars and tarmac leading to our homes built on quarter-acre plots and neighbourhood malls.

We threw out our trams, rejected Robbie's notion of a metro system as mad and rushed headlong into the arms of Detroit, then of Nagoya and latterly of any other city that manufactured cars. Move over Los Angeles - today Auckland has more cars than we have licensed drivers. The mantra seemed to be "don't save it - pave it".

So where, only three years ago, did the uproar come from when the council planned more paving and no saving of Queen St trees. This was followed by a fashionistas' revolt to save the pavers of Vulcan Lane and then the "Grande Dames" gathered to save the tile works at Khartoum Place.

All of this of course was linked by a chain of flouro orange barricades the length of Queen St as the CBD upgrade snaked from the Aotea Centre to Custom St. Queen St was getting a long overdue facelift.

Any thoughts that it might slip through this generation-long apathy towards our golden mile without a ripple were clearly way off the mark. Where did all this latent love and sense of ownership of Queen St come from?

Were we remembering, somewhat belatedly, that Queen St was after all the cradle of Auckland ... . and perhaps of the nation. In 1840, 1214ha of Tamaki Herenga Waka - the destination of Voyagers - was gifted by Ngati Whatua leader Te Kawau to Governor Hobson.

The first group of European settlers and government officials travelled from Russell to Auckland and, recognising Auckland's strategic position, chose it as our capital. Commercial Bay at the base of Queen St was, surprise surprise, the commercial centre of Auckland. A year later the Surveyor General completed plans for Auckland based along the Waihorotiu Stream that formed the Queen St valley. Our population was 2000 but within 30 years this had grown to 33,000.

Its strategic location on a secure harbour with expanding port facilities and supporting industry cemented Queen St's place as the financial hub of the nation. It was a place where one put on one's suit to visit, where we farewelled soldiers off to war or celebrated returning heroes.

Perhaps we had forgotten that Queen St was one of the more important cornerstones in the evolution of modern Auckland ... and New Zealand.

Perhaps, also, we were slightly embarrassed about the way that we had neglected Queen St in favour of those rather brash malls of the 70s and 80s.

So, as the last of the construction barriers come down we see a boulevard of mixed native and exotic trees, an extra 2ha of paved footpaths, high speed fibre optic cabling offering broadband speed 500 times faster than before ... and public art works that remind us of where we have come, a world-class transport hub based on the site of our original railway station at Britomart.

Heritage buildings are being lit, CCTV cameras support a safe and much cleaner city. Although providing an important roading link, speed is restricted to 30km/h as pedestrians are favoured with more street crossings and longer phased crossings.

The Vector Arena is working overtime as it plays host to international acts and the new five-star Westin hotel is about to be followed by at least another two international operators.

It is still home to some of New Zealand's retailing icons - Smith & Caugheys celebrated its 125th anniversary last year while just across the road John Leech Gallery was also celebrating 150 candles on its cake.

Whitcoulls still trades on the corner of Victoria St and in an unusual quirk the grand daddy of all Santas, the Farmers Santa, now signals the arrival of Christmas in Auckland on this building. In another sign of the times, the Farmers free bus has been replaced by free hybrid electric buses - the City Circuit - and Farmers is still the major sponsor of the Santa Parade that this year will celebrate being Auckland's longest running event - happy 75th birthday.

All of this has created renewed interest from some major international brands - Louis Vuitton doubles in size when it moves across the road in May to the heritage Imperial Building beside a newcomer to Auckland, a Gucci concept store.

Talk to any realtor and they will tell you of the heightened level of interest from major international brands to secure Queen St space as it boasts pedestrian counts up to 10 times higher than any other high street in the country, underpinned by 80,000 workers, 70,000 students and 20,000 residents.

Queen St is on the road back and its importance will only grow as we realise that our reputation as world champion of urban sprawl is nothing to be proud of. We all recognise the need for meaningful progress on public transport implementation and in doing so this will only cement the strategic importance of Queen St as it is anchored by the transport hub at Britomart.

It is a long journey back for Queen Street but perhaps it says something about us, how we are maturing as a city.

How it is here that we have to first embrace a modern urban shape and form quite different to any challenge that any other part of any other city in New Zealand has to face. It is important also that we do it remembering where we have come from and knowing where we want to go.

It is difficult to imagine a time when we will ever neglect or take her for granted as we have for the past 40 years. It is difficult also to imagine a time when Queen St will never be vital to the success of Auckland ... and New Zealand!

* Alex Swney is chief executive of Heart of the City in downtown Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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