Like a lot of Aucklanders, I've been worrying about the central city. Queen St is in a death spiral created by Auckland Council and Covid, in the name of progress.
Simon Wilson's target="_blank">piece in Wednesday's Herald blamed the Queen St landlords for lacking imagination and entrepreneurship in leaving, by his count, 38 stores vacant from Wellesley St down.
He's right, CBD retail vacancy is over four times that of other shopping centres in Auckland.
But before we start pointing fingers at the people who own the real estate, with a vested interest in stores not just being leased but thriving, we must get real about the problem. It's a simple marketing problem — if you make something hard for people, they don't bother.
Queen St has maybe not been the thriving retail hub that it was in the 50s and 60s, but nevertheless when we've got world-class retailers such as Sephora, Prada, H&M, Gucci, Top Shop, Footlocker, Lush and Coach wanting to open their doors there, there's clearly something in the value of being on Queen St. It's iconic.
But the reality is that we have a council which, short of dropping a bomb on the central city, couldn't be doing more to crush businesses and deter shoppers from wanting to be in the city.
Roadworks everywhere, ever-changing and blocking major city routes, make car access a challenge to all but the most brave.
As if this wasn't enough damage, Auckland Transport has doubled down, with bizarre detours and road rearrangements around Queen St, meaning cars can no longer easily drive through or across, adjacent, up and down. This includes not being able to turn right onto Queen St from Shortland St.
Parking isn't easy — street parks around the central city have been ripped out. You can't stop, dash in and leave. Private car parks are expensive. Public car parks are not geared up for short-trip shoppers.
Expecting public transport to be the unicorn is simply still a pipe dream until infrastructure is significantly better. For retail, this is a disaster. Car access, easy short stays, are crucial to vibrancy.
While some suggest demonising the car makes for a better pedestrian experience, it also makes it so hard for people to get near Queen St that they clearly don't bother and instead head for easier to reach places such as Sylvia Park, Westfield Newmarket or online.
Which is why those places are thriving — they are clean, easy to park at and reach, safe. Central Auckland is messy, dirty and unattractive.
Covid hasn't helped, and no one planned for that. Fewer people in the city, whether they are students, commuters, workers, tourists. People avoiding public transport, due to health worries.
Covid restrictions and ongoing required mask wearing in retail, diminishing casual shopping desire.
Into the vacuum comes an apparent rise in crime and personal risk, an unfortunate increase in the number of homeless populating benches, doorways and pavements.
As a society, we need to be better about looking after these people; it's terrible and confronting, and whether or not the numbers are actually rising, the central city has an image problem as a consequence.
Perhaps our new mayor will show better leadership in resolving this one. Meantime, shoppers can vote with their feet and go where they feel more comfortable and safe. You can't blame the property owners for this problem, either.
Auckland Council's partner in crime, Auckland Transport, is now setting out to do the same to our major suburban thoroughfares, ripping out easy on-street parking in the name of progress. Suburban strip vacancy rates are halfway between the CBD and shopping malls — and they will be worse if Auckland Transport get its way.
Yes, Auckland Council has a long-term vision, but it's not worth much if it kills Queen St on the journey, extinguishes desire to head to the city and cripples retailers.
The City Rail Link may be a great thing, but Government and council seem to care little for the businesses destroyed due to it.
They might model themselves on overseas developments such as in Sydney, but the extent of disruption and elimination of easy parking seem much more tone-deaf than I experienced visiting Sydney in that period.
If we want a thriving city with a rich, exciting retail offering, we need people — it must be as easy as possible for people to access, and we must make it as wonderful as possible.
I don't disagree with Simon Wilson that Queen St property owners could invest more and create imaginative, experiential streetscapes — but why do that when Auckland Council drives away the people who bring it to life?
Retail success can be a beautifully simple model — but Queen St and central Auckland just have too many problems, and it's not property owners' or retailers' fault. Sort it out, Auckland Council.
- Ben Goodale is CEO of strategic marketing agency Quantum Jump, and describes himself as a cheerleader for retail and a passionate Aucklander.