A contentious upgrade of Freyberg Place in central Auckland opens today with mixed opinions about the year-long redevelopment of the civic space.

An Auckland Council media release calls the $11 million project to upgrade Freyberg Place and refurbish the Ellen Melville Hall a "jewel for the city centre".

The new Freyberg Place, named after WWI and WWII war hero Lord Bernard Freyberg, creates a healthy urban place that reflects its environment, geology and history, the media release said.

Mayor Phil Goff said the development was "superb", creating one of the best open spaces in the CBD and preserving the heritage Ellen Melville Centre, built in 1962 and named after Eliza Ellen Melville, the first female city councillor in New Zealand.


"With more than 200,000 people working and studying downtown and 45,000 living here, we need more world-class public spaces and facilities like this," Goff said.

But the $4m redesign of Freyberg Square, with its zig-zag steps and native plantings, has drawn criticism since it was planned in 2015.

Bill McKay, a senior lecturer at Auckland University's School of Architecture, an early critic who called for something smart, cool and urbane, today said the new space was more windswept and dominated by concrete seating.

It was not as urbane as it could be and followed a phase of bringing the bush to town with nikau palms all over the place and flowing water, McKay said.

Another urban design expert, who did not want to be named, said the council had destroyed what was a lovely lunch space with no shade trees and concrete seating. Keeping four large phoenix palms outside the Metropolis Building, originally planned to be removed, mitigated the scale of change, the expert said.

The refurbished Ellen Melville Centre
The refurbished Ellen Melville Centre

Waitemata Local Board chairwoman Pippa Coom said the board was proud of the project and proud to honour the legacy of Ellen Melville by officially renaming the hall after her and naming each of the centre's five rooms after significant New Zealand women.

The project also features works by artists John Reynolds, Lisa Reihana and Graham Tipene, funded through the regional public art budget.