Ongoing heavy construction and the lingering effects of lockdowns have given Auckland's once-vibrant city centre a slightly apocalyptic feel. Chris Schulz pays a visit to find out what's being done about it.
"It's shocking," says a Tāmaki Makaurau business owner who has just opened a flagship eatery in a prominent location.
"We hear yelling and altercations coming from the streets pretty much every night," says an apartment dweller who rarely goes out after dark.
"It's a slum … it's just f***ing horrible," says the owner of an iconic bistro who closed his doors for good after nearly two decades of healthy business.
"Homelessness and crime in the city is going to get worse," says a long-term restaurant owner struggling to keep her doors open.
Even Auckland Council has been forced to admit that its central city – home to 40,000 residents and responsible for generating $23 billion in annual GDP – has seen far better days.
Eateries sit empty, "For Lease" signs are up in shops, and closed streets, dead zones and dirty footpaths are everywhere you look. Much of that is thanks to all the construction going on, including City Rail Link upgrades that block traffic access to Queen St.
Since the first lockdown in 2020, Auckland's CBD has also seen an increase in crime compared to pre-Covid. Most recently, three people were injured in a shooting, and ram raids targeted the flagship stores of Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
The area was once a thriving hub, home to the biggest brands and best restaurants. Now it's become a disgrace.
What happened? And more importantly, what's being done to fix it?
In 2003, Rolly Doyle got to work. He laid native timber on the floors, built new toilets and a kitchen out the back, then put out chairs and barrels for diners to soak up the sun on the sidewalk.
In a historic building on Durham St, the Bluestone Room opened for business.
Built in 1861, and tucked down the end of Durham Lane, it's a building full of volcanic rock and exposed kauri beams that was once the location of Auckland's first well. Doyle added craft beers and bistro food like curly fries and sliders to tempt employees working in nearby corporate offices.
Able to fit 350 people, the Bluestone Room became one of the largest function venues in town. "It exudes ambience," says Doyle. Corporate staff used it as a lunch venue during the day, and stuck around for a cheeky beer or two across a lazy afternoon. At night, it was a destination for pub quiz nights and special occasions like St Patrick's Day.
But the celebrations didn't last. "It started to change about a year … into the City Rail operation," says Doyle. "Many corporates were leaving the area, the decline in foot traffic started." He pivoted to provide function facilities, which proved to be lucrative.
Then the pandemic arrived, and everyone in the city started working from home. In 2020, Doyle shut up shop.
Ask him why, and he doesn't hold back. "The city's … lost all the elements of a vibrant city," he says. "The amount of shops that are closed, never have you seen that, ever. It's phenomenal … you've got a cancer in there at the moment … you've got to cut it and get it out of there."
What is that cancer? Doyle believes it's Auckland Council's decision to get rid of parking and close off streets to build the City Rail Link. For him, it was the killer blow. "You start taking away traffic, you take away the reason for people to come into the city, you take away foot traffic," he says. "People can't park on Queen Street now. You can't nip into the jewellers, pick up this, pick up that."
Would he consider returning? "Forget it. Not interested. I will never come back to the city, not in my lifetime."
Piper Cross rarely leaves her apartment at night. The University of Auckland student is flatting in central Auckland with four friends, and enjoys her easy 10-minute commutes to class during the day.
At night, it's a different story. "We hear yelling and altercations coming from the streets pretty much every night," she says. "The amount of shops and places that have closed down due to Covid is also noticeable." It's given the city an apocalyptic vibe.
An increase in homelessness is visible on every street. "When no one was around during the last lockdown, people were covering the footpaths sleeping on them," she says. "Now it just feels there are new people every week … there seem to be people that are struggling on every corner."
She enjoys the diversity of the city centre, and being close to bars and restaurants. But, when gun violence hit the news, it made Cross think twice about leaving her apartment on her own at night. "It's safe, if you mind your own business," she cautions.
When her course is over, will she stay? "I probably will move on to somewhere else," she says.
Yael Shochat sighs. Behind her red-framed glasses, her eyes look tired. Sitting outside her Fort Street restaurant Ima, she stares into the distance, thinking over the past two years.
"It's been hard. People I used to see three times a week, I haven't seen for a year," she says. "The other day I saw a customer I haven't seen in more than a year. They used to be regulars."
Lockdowns, alert levels and working from home have taken their toll on her celebrated Israeli eatery. Now that lockdowns are over, Ima, which Shochat has been operating in various guises since the mid-2000s, needs a healthy central city, full of people and live events, to survive.
She says she's only just hanging in there. "I've got debt, I've got a mortgage on the business," she says. "My debt to the IRD is so large that I'll be just working and not making money for a very long time."
If Shochat gives up, customers would miss her excellent hot cross buns, piped with vanilla custard crosses and loaded with fruit. They'd crave her mezze plates, charcoal skewers, and apple tarte tatin with homemade ice cream. If you know of better soul food than Ima's plate of pan-fried halloumi, please let me know.
Shochat doesn't want all that to end. Yet quitting has been on her mind lately. It's not a simple decision. "It's very hard to give up," she says. "You have long leases, personal guarantees."
Besides, she's just taken on more debt to renovate, adding a new bar and private dining space, with lightbulbs covered by her own hand-knitted shades.
Despite the stress, and the fights happening outside her restaurant making headlines, she remains optimistic. "I built myself here. I'd rather wait for it to get better than move."
What will help? "There needs to be something to do in the city."
It seems to be happening. Last week, I received an email from Auckland Council. "Auckland city centre beats the blues", read the subject line. A new cultural festival called City of Colour is kicking off, with performances and art installations popping up across the inner city for the next three weeks.
It's an invitation for Aucklanders to return to town. Big promises are being made. Streets and meeting areas are being deep cleaned. Planter boxes are being spruced up. Graffiti is being scrubbed away, and the council is "working with safety partners to ensure people feel safe and welcome when they return to the city centre".
On a Tuesday morning, I took a stroll to see if any of this was true. Fake turf had been laid out on Fort St, where a busker performed for a lone mum playing chequers with her child. Further up, a cleaner armed with several kinds of disinfectant and a Stanley knife scraped stickers from bus stops. In several empty shops, art installations had been installed.
"Kia Ora!" one cheerily proclaimed next to an entrance absolutely smothered in graffiti. White goo of unknown origin dripped down the glass and onto the sidewalk.
Isn't all this just papering over the cracks?
"We're not in a holding pattern," responds Chris Darby. Despite the doom and gloom coming from the residents and business owners I spoke to, the city councillor exudes confidence about Queen Street's future. He quotes overseas research that suggests city centres are bouncing back after Covid.
A year-long council plan to revitalise the city centre is underway. "It's the anchor of the Auckland economy … it's time to launch into building it back and bringing people back," says Darby. In just the past two weeks, students and workers have begun returning to the city, he says.
A council publicist sent me this video, which shows exactly what's happening …
Darby agrees the city centre's issues are complex and varied. Every time I raise one of those issues, he responds with a plan.
When I mention the empty shops, he cites several major international brands which have signed leases and will announce their arrival soon. When I explain how dirty Queen St feels now, he speaks about "having eyes on the ground" so any mess that occurs is cleaned up quickly and quietly before anyone notices it.
Homelessness, Darby admits, is one of the biggest issues facing the CBD at the moment, but he says many different agencies are working together to help people off the streets.
For businesses like Ima, his message is to hang in there. "We have a responsibility … to reinvigorate and re-enliven the city centre," Darby says.
He warns, though, that Queen St will never be the same as it was. That's because Covid has hastened a change in shopping habits, with many more people heading online. "I would suggest that there is a huge opportunity before us to re-imagine the city centre," he says. "If we grab that opportunity, we can set ourselves up for the next 10-15 years."
Will any of these plans work? Only time will tell.
One person betting big on Queen St's revival is Paul Steiner. As national operations manager for restaurant chain Lone Star, he's just opened his 26th location in the new Mercure hotel at the top end of Queen St. "It actually came about really quickly," he says. The offer came through later last year. "We said, 'Well, why not?'" It opened in February.
He's based in Christchurch at Lone Star's head office, but spent time in Auckland helping out with the launch, staying at the recently renovated Mercure. His daughter calls it "bougie" but he prefers the term "boutique".
While there, he strolled around Queen St regularly. It had changed since the last time he saw it. "It's pretty tough out there," he says. "It's … yeah … shocking."
But the central city's recovery needs someone to bet big and take that first plunge, and Steiner says he's doing that with Lone Star. His restaurant launched in February, when omicron was first starting to spread, and patronage at the recently refurbished hotel was low.
Over the past two weeks, Steiner says things have been bouncing back. Lone Star has a full restaurant fit out, but staff also cater to hotel guests who can order menu staples like "Redneck ribs" and "Dixie chicken" directly to their rooms. They're dishes Lone Star is known for. "The chicken is always just so unbelievably moist," he says.
With Queen St's struggles, opening a brand new restaurant seems like a strange decision. But to Steiner, it can't fail. "Everyone would call us mad as hell, but we're not. We're stayers. We're stickers," he says.
"We've lit up a star at the top end of Queen Street and we hope that will invigorate other people down the street."
- The Spinoff