In October last year High St got a wider footpath, for 65 metres along one side. The people who made that happen have just lost their jobs.
The High St project is a trial, a quiet rollout of a plan to turn a narrow, car-clogged alleyway into the city's loveliest street for shopping. Beautiful buildings already give it the bones, but it also needs an on-street experience that's fit for purpose.
Mayor Phil Goff "opened" the wider footpath and gave every appearance of being very proud.
He should have been. Making High St pedestrian-friendly is a goal that has defeated city planners for years, largely due to the intransigence of some retailers, who did not believe that easier and safer walking would increase their customer base.
The breakthrough came when the Auckland Design Office (ADO) introduced a new planning concept, called co-design. Instead of telling the retailers what they intended to do and asking for "feedback", co-design meant they got everyone's input right from the start, and kept them engaged.
There's no radical plan: the street is not closed to cars. But it's worked. Standing alongside Goff at the opening were several excited retailers. It's worked so well, in fact, those retailers and others are now asking for more urban redesign like it, delivered more quickly.
This week, council executives told ADO staff their office will be disbanded.
It's not the politicians who decided this, although Goff and the chair of the planning committee, Cr Chris Darby, did both know about it. A wider footpath on one small part of one small street, and it's off with their heads.
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This is a disaster for Auckland, in more ways than one.
First, it suggests the politicians are not in charge. In a written response, Goff said, "It's important to respect the distinction between governance and management."
That's blather. The ADO has been in the forefront of conceiving, promoting and delivering a design-led urban landscape in Auckland. A city where people want to live, work and play.
In particular, under former head Ludo Campbell-Reid, the ADO has led the process inside council of reconceiving streets as public spaces, to be used efficiently, safely and enjoyably by all. Cars need them, but so do many other users.
That's now the council's own vision and it has consistently voted in support of ADO initiatives to realise it. The public, in consultations, in surveys and in elections, has been consistently supportive too.
The dismemberment of the ADO will undermine all that work.
The ADO did a lot. It created a design manual and built up the role of design panels, where a roster of architects and planners advise on new buildings and other urban design projects. They're the reason why ugly apartment blocks like those in Nelson St are no longer built. And it's not just in the inner city: that work happens all over Auckland.
The ADO set up the city's shared spaces, like Elliott St and Fort St. It introduced traffic calming measures like the polka dots on Shortland St and the planters and dots on the intersection of Wellesley and Sale streets. After chaos erupted on Albert St because of the CRL build, it took over liaison with retailers to try to help them get through.
In many ways, it advises and consults with other council departments and agencies on the value of good design-led processes.
I asked the council CEO, Stephen Town, why this was happening. He declined to comment and referred me to the new "chief of strategy", Megan Tyler.
She said, "The urban design capability within Auckland Council is vital and will continue to be. This proposal does not remove that capability – rather it seeks to enhance it."
She explained they are going to "embed these skills and expertise into different areas of the council closely associated with urban design functions to achieve improved outcomes and to encourage a more inter-disciplinary way of delivering design outcomes".
Translation: we don't need your leadership because we're all going to do it now. Where do executives learn such third-rate nonsense? The reality is, if you get rid of the people doing the mahi, the mahi won't get done.
Most of the senior people in the ADO have not been redeployed into other parts of council to inspire better design-led planning. They've lost their jobs. The rest will be dispersed far and wide and asked to count paperclips.
Campbell-Reid resigned in October last year, to take up a similar role in Melbourne – and Town and Tyler have seized their moment. His old job is one of those being eliminated.
I can think of three reasons this has happened. One is money: jobs are being cut.
The second is patch protection. At Auckland Transport (AT) and in other parts of council, like the planning department and an obscure unit called the Development Programme Office, they don't like the ADO treading on their toes.
But the ADO did what others were failing to do. It took control of the Wellesley/Sale intersection, for example, after years of AT just watching it get more dangerous.
The third reason the ADO is being obliterated is a lack of support among some senior executives for the council programme. Put crudely, they don't want to change the priority status of cars.
The lesson for creative people working in other parts of council? Beware. Stick your heads up and you'll get them chopped off. Creative people thinking about working for council? You've also been warned.
Is that really the signal Auckland Council wants to send?
The awful irony is that yesterday, senior ADO staff fronted up to the council to ask for endorsement of the refreshed City Centre Masterplan. It includes the Access for Everyone (A4E) programme, which will reduce the number of cars in the central city.
A4E is not – as is sometimes reported – a plan to ban cars. Don't think "pedestrian only"; rather, think "pedestrian friendly".
The plans have been out to public consultation and were strongly endorsed. Council itself voted unanimously for A4E in November 2018 and yesterday restated its support for the whole masterplan.
The ADO officials who presented those plans are losing their jobs. But they sat there, professionally, and did the business. Megan Tyler sat across from them, and said nothing. Some councillors alluded to the shock news. No one forced the issue.
Sitting alongside the ADO people was a senior AT staffer, Daniel Newcombe. With ADO gone, he'll probably take control of much of the transport-related work ADO was doing.
Newcombe explained to council that a first trial to reduce cars on Queen St could be ready in March 2021. Several people, led by Cr Cathy Casey and Independent Māori Statutory Board member Tau Henare, said they were appalled. Another year's delay, even for a trial?
"Just put up a sign," said Henare. "You are not allowed to drive a car down Queen St."
Newcombe said it would need a new bylaw.
"For goodness' sake," said Henare. "You're councillors, you can change the bylaws. Just do it."
Mayor Goff is holding a "please explain" meeting with Town and Tyler today, and Crs Darby, Pippa Coom, Josephine Bartley and Richard Hills, who have all expressed concern, will also be there.
Meanwhile, overnight, stage 2 of the High St project has been rolled out. It's still the council's flagship urban design project. It, and the co-design model, were both much praised in the council meeting. The staffer who introduced that model and made High St happen is losing his job.