The Whangārei District Council's plans to revitalise its city centre have been acclaimed by the New Zealand Planning Institute – yet there are challenging times ahead for the council.
They not only have to deal with a vacated city centre but also mitigate the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown.
"With Covid-19 hitting our local businesses hard, investing in programmes that ensure our central city is a fantastic place to shop, work, eat and play is a major focus of council recovery plans," Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said.
The council's City Core Precinct Plan won the Best Practice Award for a District/Regional Plan out of about a dozen submissions at the NZ Planning Institute annual awards.
"The plan sets out council's strategic vision for the central city and receiving this award shows we are on the right track with what we have planned. This is the kind of thinking and work that will help to move us back into a positive situation as we restart after Covid-19," Mai said.
WDC first revealed their City Core Precinct Plan in 2017. It outlines the council's strategy for beautifying the CBD and making it more accessible and attractive for shoppers.
Measures would include improving core city streets for pedestrians and cyclists, enhancing public transport, revamping Rose St and the town basin bus hubs, rezoning the CBD to encourage more inner-city living and enabling mixed zoning, and connecting isolated commercial areas including Tarewa Centre, Okara Park, Forum North and the CBD with the Town Basin.
This strategy, scheduled for the next 10 to 20 years-plus, is designed to provide the framework that could see more business and foot traffic in the CBD and beyond.
Merv Williams, manager of the Strand Mall, is concerned that the plan is merely an overview of what could happen.
"The biggest problem with the plan is that it is too broad. The standards for business development are also too restrictive."
He said, with council maintaining rights for these strict permissions, the up-front cost for developers were too high.
"Another part of the problem is that the area the council is looking at is too large. And what scares me is that council wants to encourage more restaurants and cafés. The restaurants that exist are already under pressure."
Williams also mentions parking issues and ever-rising rates that would stall business development.
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For the Northland Chamber of Commerce, revamping the city core is only the first step in revitalising the CBD – the next step would be to draw activity into the streets and empty shops.
Northchamber chief executive Steve Smith and his team have been working with other organisations on projects such as Joblab enabling new business opportunities and activating vacant places in the CBD.
He said the chamber was mapping areas around Whangārei that needed more activity and they hope to take more action soon.
"Another big project is the tertiary precinct. Before the lockdown, we were working together with the council to nominate a geographic area for a new tertiary precinct."
Smith said students would bring the right kind of traffic into town.