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The middle of Albany is a dustbowl. The stormwater ponds are drained and earthmoving machines are busy scraping and shaping the yellow clay to form the grandly named Albany Lakes. Scraped clay - the universal sign for subdivision hell in progress - is all around the perimeter hills of this wide area basin that marks out North Shore City's fastest-growing suburb.

But while dwellings of all sorts multiply - in gated communities, medium-density units beside the motorway, and in detached houses in subdivisions with names such as Ponderosa, the Fields and Bushlands - here in the bleak centre there is nothing. Welcome to Albania.

Wide tracks on the ground - the four-lane ring road of Don McKinnon Drive and adjoining roads - anticipate many cars to come, but for now are largely deserted.

To the north of the soon-to-be-completed lakes, and sloping down to Oteha Valley Rd and the Albany park-and-ride bus station, vast empty grasslands also await a more vibrant future.

The lakes are in the middle of what the developers call Albany City. The city council prefers Albany Centre - a sub-regional hub that by 2021 is supposed to be home to 9000 apartment-living residents and 15,000 workers.

Albany has been waiting for something to happen here for a long time. The structure of this car-friendly zone was put in place in the early 90s. So far development has been mainly of the shopping kind - the box retail stores and carparks of the Mega Centre bordering State Highway 17, a Pak'n Save supermarket, and now under construction, Westfield Albany, 45,000 square metres of retail and entertainment space costing about $200 million.

The shopping may be fine for some, but the council is not pleased about the type of development to date. It wants a town centre not just a shopping centre.

In 2002 it began looking at what could be done to fix up the mess. The feedback was not good. People said the Albany Centre was bland and boring. It had no heart. It had no soul.

The idea for a revived Albany came in September 2004 - "Proposed Plan Change 9 and Variation 67" - a scheme that would create "a town centre with a rich mixture of activities including more choice of residential, accommodation, and employment opportunities".

But nothing happens fast here. The developers promptly appealed to the Environment Court against the plan change. And that's where Albany's future now languishes, awaiting a decision in the next few weeks.

The 43ha that make up Albany Centre was a green-fields site - farm paddocks once owned by Housing Corporation.

Surely this was a golden opportunity to get it right? It could have been paradise. What on earth were the town planners thinking in the early 90s?

"I think it was quite a clearly conceived plan but it had some fundamental flaws," says North Shore City senior planner John Duguid. "It was very much a car-based model. It was 70s thinking - the more convenient it is to drive around the better."

He says that most of the residential development around the centre happened in the past 10 years and that medium-density experiments in some of the surrounding subdivisions in the mid 90s caused a backlash.

The rationale behind higher-density housing was to stop urban sprawl."Not only were the people seeing the fields change to houses - which often causes a bit of shock anyway - they were seeing, in the type of housing going in, that the council and the developers were creating slums."

While most subdivisions since then have reverted to more traditional detached housing densities, Albany has indeed become the fastest growing area in North Shore City.

In 2001 21,612 people lived in the Albany area, an increase of 55.9 per cent since 1996. By 2021 there could be 44,000 to 55,000 people living there and 35,000 to 40,000 working in the wider Albany area.

Duguid says there are fundamental problems with the centre's ring-road layout - in particular the roundabouts, which are not pedestrian friendly - that reflect the thinking of a past era about separating cars from pedestrians.

"It's a four-lane arterial ring road with roundabouts and a median strip. Basically it's the concept of firing cars through there at fairly high speeds."

In his evidence before the Environment Court Duguid explained the pedestrian problem in more detail: "Indeed, the centre is often held up as an example of how not to create a people-friendly town or city. Roundabouts are a key obstacle typically causing pedestrians to deviate from the most direct line of movement".

Then there are the large surface parking areas between streets and buildings, resulting in pedestrians having to "navigate a parking lot before getting to the place they actually intend to visit". Retaining walls and the lack of mid-block pedestrian signals further impede their progress.

With the roads already in place, making carsville into walking-town is easier said than done. Short of pulling out the roundabouts and putting in conventional intersections there's not an immediate solution.

Even the traffic planning has been botched. At the Environment Court hearing, Transit New Zealand presented evidence that the critical Greville Rd motorway interchange was already experiencing delays, and that the growth anticipated under the existing district plan would worsen this problem.

There are plans, however, to make a better pedestrian pathway extending from Massey University across State Highway 17 to the park-and-ride station at the northern end of the centre. But that would mean cutting a track through the Mega Centre and its car park, along the outside of Pak'n Save, through Westfield's mall, across the council-owned Albany Lake's park and down a new main street towards the bus station.

The council is pinning much on the new main street delivering heart and soul back into Albany.

You have to wonder why it didn't plan for this in the first place. But it's from here that the council believes it can create a utopia - "a connected, integrated, coherent, permeable town centre which is easy for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists to get around, enables less dependence on the motor vehicle, and is public transport supportive".

The overheated town planning jargon doesn't stop there. The council wants "an environment which is urban, intensive, vibrant, visually attractive, safe, has active edges to key streets, provides a high quality of building design and public space amenity, and encourages a sense of community well-being".

Duguid told the Environment Court the issue came down to the very basic differences between town centres and shopping centres.

"In physical terms, town centres are characterised by having active street frontages, with entrances and shopfronts directly abutting the street. Shopping centres are predominantly internally focused, and generally present relatively bland facades or parking areas to adjacent streets."

The idea of the main street making a comeback in terms of creating a town centre is a little ironic in Albany. That's because the original settlement of Albany Village near Lucas Creek and a little further down State Highway 17 was built around a main street - a street that became almost nothing through the widening of the highway and the establishment of department-store shopping at the Mega Centre.

In essence the new main street in the Albany Centre is attempting to recreate the sense of the town it destroyed in Albany Village.

But if main streets are back in with the council, Westfield is less impressed. Duguid told the Environment Court he felt the company's issue was "not so much a matter of design and amenity, but rather a fundamental opposition to retail activity being allowed to establish in this area at this point in time." Although it may have seemed that Westfield's objection had a not-so-hidden agenda of stifling retail competition - in the new main street and surrounds where the council had allowed for plenty of retail activity - when it came to the Environment Court, Westfield's' argument was more sophisticated.

With the help of Auckland University associate professor of architecture and urban design Clinton Bird, Westfield argued that a main street was a good idea and it should be extended though the council-owned Albany Lake's park right up to Westfield's mall entrance on Civic Crescent.

Bird argued that the council's failure to extend the street caused a major "fracture" in the townscape. "This fracture in the overall urban form of the town centre will have adverse effects on the pedestrian and vehicular connectivity and permeability," he told the Environment Court.

The effect would be to create "two disconnected nodes" instead of "a contiguous shopping environment integrating two different shopping experiences [the mall and the main street] into one single, unified, coherent integrated node."

He was not convinced that people would walk 300m across a vast central park with only a few civic facilities on its edge to get from one node to another.

"I consider," said Bird, "that the majority of people visiting the centre are likely to drive from one place to another creating noise pollution, depleting non-renewable energy resources and not using public transport."

Bird's argument that the proposed plan change would create "a truncated main street and disembowelled town centre" put the council on the back foot. Duguid told the court it was at odds with what a senior Westfield executive had been saying - that a main street was not necessary.

Despite the contrary statements, Duguid said he was heartened to hear Westfield acknowledge it could not deliver a town centre and, by implication, accept that Albany needed a main street. "In my view, the failure to acknowledge this has been the major stumbling block in discussions between the council and Westfield for a number of years."

The council had considered a street through the park but decided it was more important to keep the open space, and that the planned amenities - including wide footpaths, a library, cafe and perhaps a civic centre -would be a sufficient link to Westfield's mall.

Duguid said that if there was a fracture in the overall scheme it was in the external walls and carparks of Westfield's mall, which provided a barrier to Civic Crescent and the council park. Although the mall has its own internal street, and a plaza entrance to Civic Crescent, Duguid said it was not the same as a main street with a mix of retail, office and residential activities.

"In addition, the rights of the public to use this space in a free and democratic way will always be curtailed by the interests and values of the shopping centre owner."

The main-street argument also surfaced in National Trading Company's (NTC) evidence. With the help of urban designer and town planner Barry Rae, the owners of Pak'n Save and New World supermarkets argued in favour of the mainstreet concept.

But NTC was concerned about the development of land owned by Progressive Enterprises to the north of the council park and adjoining the new main street. Progressive runs the Foodtown, Woolworths and Countdown supermarkets.

Although the land has zoning restrictions and is split by a street, Rae argued that the restrictions were not sufficient to keep the streetscape intact; neither would a planned 10,000 square metre supermarket front well to the public park.

"Blank walls, carparking and service ares will unavoidably adjoin the public realm."

The question has to be asked: does the Albany Centre really need three supermarkets - the existing Pak'n Save, a New World in the Westfield mall, and possibly a Progressive to the north of the council park? Isn't there a point where the council should call enough?

"We're not super-keen to see another supermarket, it's just we don't feel the need to kick supermarkets for touch," Duguid says. He told the court that getting the right outcome north of the park reflected a planning dilemma. "Regulation alone cannot provide a cast-iron guarantee of good design."

The powerlessness of a town planner is vividly illustrated in developer Symphony Group's aerial perspective of a future Albany city.

It's a bulk-and-location massing drawing, which shows what Albany would get if developers built to the maximum permitted building envelope. It is an image of highrise apartments, office blocks, more bulk retail and commercial boxes that must have developers rubbing their hands with glee. But whether it delivers "a dynamic city centre of which we can all be proud" remains to be seen.

Duguid says that what the drawing doesn't show is that developers don't always build out to the maximum permitted space and cost constraints and requirements such as carparks affect what is possible on the site.

In the Environment Court it was pointed out that Westfield could put up a much larger building than it has, that stage two of the mall envisages more development on top of some of the carparks, and stage three allows for office, residential or more retail development.

"Unless councils are actually putting a developer hat on and buying land or developing land that they own, they're not necessarily in the driving seat," Duguid says.

"The councils are charged with putting the rules in place but you can only go so far with that. If someone chooses not to take up the opportunities of those rules, or if they find ways of getting around the rules, then you get outcomes you haven't anticipated."

He says there are always risks and councils aim to avoid the worst outcomes. When it comes to aesthetics, the council's role is less clear. "Council can't force people to use good architects. You can put the best rules in place and someone can still make an absolute dog's breakfast of a building."

Regardless of the Environment Court decision, the future of Albany seems destined to follow the path of paradise lost.