Auckland's centre of gravity has shifted north to the waterfront. Where the city once looked inland and south, the view is now the Waitematā Harbour. The 2km stretch from Silo Park to Britomart buzzes with activity.

For now, hospitality is the focus. Restaurants, bars and cafes line the route. There's retail at the Britomart end and running back from the waterfront up Queen St.

Britomart and the bottom of Queen St already house showcase stores. That's where you'll find the international luxury brands and the iconic local ones. When Commercial Bay opens next year, it will add another 100 high end retailers. The development will also add seating and food for another 1000 diners.

Auckland urban design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid says the move to the waterfront is natural. He says: "It's Auckland's engine room and premier business address. Everyone loves a view of the water or wants to be beside it. Wynyard has transformed to a humming waterfront promenade and Britomart from a desolate bus garage, a railway cul-de-sac and soulless space to a vibrant mixed used heritage precinct".

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Campbell-Reid also nods at the laneways established in the area. That's something Commercial Bay will pick up. An lane runs through the site and it will remain open around the clock. There will also be retailers open to the street on the Queen St side of the site.

The move towards the north is part of Auckland's transformation from a sleepy, closed-at-weekends regional centre to a world class city. Britomart, Viaduct Harbour and North Wharf attract foot traffic well into the evening hours. Commercial Bay plans to do the same. Precinct Properties chief executive Scott Pritchard says retail hours will stretch into the evening. The dining hall will also stay open late.

One of the trends driving this transformation is the growing number of people living in the central city. Campbell-Reid says the population has doubled in the past five years to 52,000. Some estimates suggest it will hit 100,000 by 2030 or so.

Another trend driving the change is transport. The Britomart railway station delivers thousands of commuters to the city each day. At the weekend it brings shoppers.

At the moment it's a terminus, but when the City Rail Link starts operation in 2024, that number will climb. The ferry terminal to the north also brings a growing number of passengers into the city. People are more likely to leave their cars at home. The Silo Park to Britomart route is as popular with cyclists as it is with pedestrians.

Auckland's centre of gravity has shifted north to the waterfront. Picture / Paul Estcourt
Auckland's centre of gravity has shifted north to the waterfront. Picture / Paul Estcourt

Viv Beck, chief executive of Heart of the City, the business organisation aiming to boost the central city economy, describes the Commercial Bay site as a "key nexus". She says it joins three areas — the waterfront, Britomart and Queen St. "It will also change the skyline", she says. Beck says the design of the site is all about easy flow of foot traffic, which is important. Yet at the same time, she points to the design including places for people to relax and meet friends.

While you can see Auckland's transformation and change of geographic focus in the context of a worldwide trend towards greater urban intensification, there's another trend reshaping the city's retail sector.

The rise of online shopping has changed the structure of bricks and mortar retail. In the past, a retail brand might have had a central city presence with a string of stores in suburban malls and shopping strips. In effect, the shopping experience would be much the same in each location.

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Precinct Properties' Pritchard says the trend now is for the big retail brands to run larger, prestigious showcase stores in the city centre. At the same time, they often reduce the number of suburban outlets, taking the opportunity to consolidate.

Everyone loves a view of the water or wants to be beside it

He say they use city centre stores as flagships, carry a wider range of products and use the premises to hold special customer focused events. In some cases they would act as showcases, allowing people to see products before buying them online. These stores may be open for longer hours than in the suburbs. They are less about buying, and more about the experience and marketing.

Pritchard says the big brands struggle to find the right location for a flagship in any city. In Auckland, it has been much more of a challenge. Until now there's been no obvious place. Big prestigious stores may compete, but they love to flock together. Pritchard says Auckland has never seen the concentration of stores in a single spot before.

That concentration should be an attraction in its own right. Pritchard says people also like to be around other people, so the development's dining hall will be part of the experience.

He says to expect something more like Ponsonby Central than a traditional city centre food court.