A few years back there was a plan to put thousands more shoppers into High St and take out a whole lot of low-value visitors. The people who don't spend much and yet somehow take up a lot of room.
The plan never went anywhere. Turned out the shopkeepers didn't want it.
Not all of them. But a bunch of the most vocal, who insisted they were doing just fine the way they were. Some of them, like Workshop, have moved out anyway.
What was the plan? To turn High St into a shared space, where vehicles share the roadway with pedestrians, like Elliott St on the other side of Queen St, like O'Connell St just one block up from High St.
Like the little Fort St precinct at the harbour end of High St, where shared spaces led to a 54 per cent rise in the number of pedestrians and a 47 per cent rise in the amount of money they spent. Making the city better for pedestrians is good for business.
A shared space in High St would take out most of the on-street car parks. Hardly a problem, you might think, given there's a big parking building at the south end. Given that most of the vehicles on High St are cars looking for a park, going pointlessly round and round the block. And most of the rest belong to tradies who get in early and clog the parking spaces, and should have to use the parking building anyway.
There are now so many pedestrians on High St in the busy times, the footpaths are utterly jammed. Here's an idea: why don't we all just start walking in the middle of the road?
High St still has $14.2 million set aside for development, but work isn't scheduled until 2023-2025 so nobody's talking to anybody yet about what that work might actually be.
Shared spaces are not ideal. When Fort St was converted vehicle numbers fell, but only by 25 per cent. About half the cars there are hire cars cruising for a job – that is, they don't need to be there. Many of the private vehicles enter Fort St only to avoid the lights at
Queen St and Commerce St. They're rat running and they don't need to be there either.
Sit outdoors at one of O'Connell St's growing lineup of bars and eateries ands you'll know it's the same there too. Almost no cars enter the street with business there: they're just passing through and should be using the backstreets on that hill that are better suited to the purpose. From, say, 11am, why don't they just block O'Connell St off?
Pedestrians are the lifeblood of any inner-city street. In 2016, Darren Davis at the council's design office commissioned a report on pedestrian activity from the urban planning consultancy MRCagney. He asked them a revolutionary question: what happens if we count the cost of delays to pedestrians the way we do vehicle congestion?
Part of the study involved the intersection of Queen St and Victoria St, where they observed the average pedestrian wait time was 27 seconds. The cost of that to the economy, they calculated, was $2.2 million a year.
Extrapolated to the other three big intersections on Queen St (Wellesley, Customs and Quay Sts), that cost added up to $11 million.
The MRCagney study produced some other provocative results. One of them is around opening hours. Surveying in February, one of the lightest months of the year, they found that Queen St/Victoria St pedestrian numbers shot up to 35,000 per hour at 8am and reached 70,000 per hour at midday, where they remained until 6pm. But at 7pm there were still 35,000 people walking through that intersection, and even at 8pm there were close to 30,000.
Those numbers suggest shops that don't open till 9am or 10am and close by 6pm are missing out.
Davis' own report to council noted a few other statistics: 7700 people walked through that intersection per hour, and 1200 cars drove through it. There are four times as many pedestrians on Queen St as vehicles.
So why have High St retailers been so wary of making their street better for pedestrians? It's because they believe the loss of parking will mean a loss of shoppers, although the numbers don't really support that. There are already 13 times as many pedestrians as cars on High St.
It's perhaps also, in part, because they have trust issues with council. There's good reason for it. They know the rubbish isn't always cleared when it should be. They don't believe the council does enough about rough sleepers in their doorways. They watched in dismay as Albert St got dug up for the City Rail Link, with catastrophic results for almost all the affected shops.
Not that the council is sitting still. Barb Holloway, the city centre activations manager, now leads a team that works with retailers, offering help and advice on how to cope with redevelopment work. It includes free social media training.
With luck, that team will soon be busy in High St, because the 2023-2025 development timetable doesn't make any sense. Well before then, the diggers will be on Queen St for light rail and they'll be back on Albert St for the CRL, and down on Quay St for the new bus terminal, and on the waterfront for the America's Cup. All of it will impact the High St retailers, in an entirely good way if they're smart, because it will drive a whole lot more foot traffic their way.
Seriously, let's walk on the roadway now and maybe the council could try a few pop-up closures, just to get things moving. Migrate some of those disruptive Shortland St spots. Hold some events. Build on whist works and discard what doesn't. Spend nothing, or almost nothing.
High St has so many lovely buildings, terrific pedestrian-sized scale, a great plaza in the middle and many great shops. No street in Auckland has greater potential, or a bigger gap between the potential and the ridiculous reality.
Meanwhile, a block away, the very beautiful O'Connell St now has a brilliant new piece of public art: a suspended 2.4 metre mirror by Catherine Griffiths. How incredible that some of the building owners didn't want it there.