An elderly, banjo-playing couple used to be a fixture on Queen St. The man would sing Christian songs, breaking off occasionally to preach salvation to passers-by. I would pass them on my daily walk between my home and office, both on Queen St.
Then Covid came and, until recently, it escaped my notice that they were missing from their usual spot.
A great deal else has disappeared from Queen St over the past 18 months. Auckland's
once-premier shopping strip now presents a fractured image, with many stores shuttered.
The newly widened pedestrian areas are largely empty, and the street is littered with plastic barriers, concrete bollards and temporary improvements that would better suit a car park or war zone.
The road is packed with mostly unoccupied buses. Parking bays, zones where cars can pass large vehicles, have been removed; one street, almost the last that Auckland Transport hasn't closed or littered with traffic cones, is barely passable.
Chronically clogged traffic means getting in or out of my work car park can take the best part of an hour.
We need a solution. Within the framework of what is possible and practical, what does this look like?
Establish a Queen St-focused civic direction. Has there ever been a vision, clearly stated and with community, residents' and business input, that says how downtown Auckland will grow over the next five, 10, 30 years?
With a vision we can keep promoting the growth we have seen – Britomart, Wynyard Quarter.
A plan, agreed upon with timelines and a dedicated budget, becomes a reason for a sense of pride in the street once more.
All unproductive high-value land around Queen St should be taxed with increasing property rates so owners can no longer hold them in trusts and sit on the capital growth.
The same applies to the areas around the City Rail Link. We are investing $4.5 billion in a rail network, let's have more collaboration to ensure all high-value land is converted to its best use.
Unify and protect the arts and theatre district. Excellent work has developed and renovated the Aotea Centre, the Civic, the Q Theatre, the Auckland Central Library and Auckland Art Gallery. However, the St James remains a blot, with refurbishment seemingly stalled after a 2015 fire and funding failure. We have few surviving heritage buildings that mean something to Aucklanders, and the city needs this restoration programme to work.
Meanwhile, the ASB Waterfront Theatre has been a terrific addition – but is separated from the rest of the uptown theatre district. A plan for the arts district must include dedicated transport options to bring a sense of unity (and sheer practicality).
It seems the council and Auckland Transport are trying to have it both ways with Queen St as semi-pedestrianised while still allowing two-way traffic movement (with some vehicle-type restrictions) in certain blocks.
I think it is clear to all that this have-our-cake approach is falling short.
Most people still travel to the central city and surrounds to work, and the layout of the city and lack of transport infrastructure makes cars still the only viable, reliable option.
Bikes work until it's wet and windy and there's an important meeting to attend.
Lack of free-flowing traffic also precludes the use of ride-shares or buses, and I doubt anyone wants to relive our pre-Covid scooter experiment.
Around 40 shops on Queen St are empty, and much of Albert St is a dead zone with zero foot traffic because of CRL works.
There is a prime opportunity for Auckland Council to step in and help restore the commercial and social fabric of Queen St by forgiving commercial rates and offering other allowances.
In this scenario, a landlord would pay no rates, while making their premises available on a pop-up basis to an Albert St business that can no longer trade there; and as long as this arrangement lasts – potentially until the CRL Aotea Station opens – rates will be forgiven.
The Albert St tenant would pay no rent on the Queen St pop-up and, ideally, the council would offer some compensation to the landlord. Even if the landlord is not receiving full rent from the pop-up, the property will benefit from more foot traffic and activity in Queen St.
Sadly, in the absence of a serious Queen St revival programme, the changes in how work is structured – home working, reduced hours, other flexi options – mean the problem will soon evolve from moving people through the city centre to getting them here at all.
As the city hosts fewer workers, the streetscape and shopping options of Queen St will deteriorate further and citizens will shop, dine and work elsewhere.
People have a way of finding their own solutions, though. The other day I was threading through the crowds on Wellington's Lambton Quay – past busy shops on a normal-sized footpath.
I heard the distinctive twang of a banjo, and there was the Christian couple sitting on the footpath, singing and bringing the Lord's word to Wellington. It is ironic that even the
God-fearing buskers recognise Queen St may be beyond salvation.
• Andrew Barnes is a former chairman of Regional Facilities Auckland, the innovator behind the 4 Day Week and founder of a number of entities in the financial services and technology sectors.