Build back better, or get things back the way they were as soon as possible? Nowhere is the debate about the post-Covid rebuild more anguished than on Queen St.
New Zealand's once-booming main street is on its knees. Two million visitors a year have all but disappeared, along with the international students, many office workers and everyone who used to go to the cinemas and concert halls and theatres.
And the pandemic is not the only problem. On June 11, the giant new retail and hospitality complex Commercial Bay opened at the bottom of the street. Over the first four days 209,000 people visited, shopping and eating in downtown Auckland but not doing it on the rest of Queen St or in streets around it.
Several of the shops on Queen St are already empty. Pop-up stores are emerging, selling cheap imported goods. Heart of the City (HOTC), the lobby group that represents central-city businesses, says sales are down by $1 million a day.
Queen St used to be the country's premiere shopping strip. Now, the very idea is absurd.
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Not surprisingly, the businesses that remain are upset and angry. What they've decided to focus their wrath on, though, is Queen St's new plastic sticks. The temporary ones that create wider footpaths and reduce the traffic to a single lane each way.
Those wider footpaths were installed at the end of the lockdown, to provide more space for physical distancing among pedestrians.
A survey of 40 retail managers, carried out by two property investment companies, found that 39 of them want the plastic dividers gone, now. Their goal: "the reinstatement of Queen St to its status as of early March 2020". A return to two and three lanes of traffic each way and bring back the car parks.
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But how will that bring back the customers?
Auckland Council wants what the retailers want: for Queen St to become a high-quality shopping street, providing a rich and welcoming experience. But it has a different idea about how to achieve this. Within weeks, council hopes to start a pilot scheme on Queen St for its Access for Everyone (A4E) programme, which is supposed to severely limit vehicle access.
Step 1 in the pilot is a "co-design" process: a ground-up consultation in which retailers, landlords, residents, shoppers and others who live, work and play in the area all contribute, developing the plans together.
Co-design gave us the wooden boardwalks and planters on High St, where the retailers are said to be most happy with the outcome. Under co-design, at least in theory, the participants decide what to do. Cr Chris Darby, chair of the council's planning committee, calls it "deep engagement".
Council has set aside $600,000 for this pilot and the Government is chipping in more through the Innovating Streets programme run by Waka Kotahi, the Transport Agency. Just this week $1.4 million was allocated to four Auckland projects, with the bulk of it expected to go to Queen St.
Heart of the City is unmoved. Viv Beck, the CEO, says her members are "not opposed to change" and she herself is "on record" supporting both A4E and the co-design process. That's true.
"But," she says, "now is not the time."
Why isn't it? The businesses can't afford to wait and besides, by the time we get to Christmas shopping the competition will be overwhelming.
Commercial Bay, and the new fully landscaped plaza in the bottom block of Queen St, and the massive new streetscape along Quay St and the waterfront: all should also be complete.
And the America's Cup contest will have rolled into town.
Include the carefully curated Britomart shopping precinct and you've got hundreds of shops and eateries, in a smart, modern, extremely pedestrian-friendly environment, close to the Cup village, right by a massive transport hub for buses, rail and ferries.
Very few car parks, because Commercial Bay didn't build many, and people, aka shoppers, walking around everywhere.
Andrew Trounson, Commercial Bay's retail manager, believes Commercial Bay will be "a magnet for bringing visitors back into the city centre". Darby thinks the new mall is "a bonus to Queen St, in the long run".
But only if Queen St joins the party. If it wants to go back to the old normal, it will die. So, literally, will some of the people there: Queen St has the worst air pollution in the country.
Yet HOTC and the retailers want to delay the Queen St streetworks. When's a better time: just when the other work in the area finishes up? That's nuts.
HOTC has also complained about the "lack of consultation" and those property investors have roped in a QC to send a very stern letter about it to the mayor.
This is little short of mischievous. The existing changes to the street were installed under urgency in the context of an unprecedented health emergency. Proper consultation is needed now, and is exactly what council is about to do through the co-design process. They know that.
The big question is this: What will a high-quality Queen St look like?
Council officers say the plastic sticks and raised bus stop levels won't come out yet because they are "invaluable to our co-design process". Everyone can study how the narrower roadway and wider footpaths work, rather than argue about how they might work. That's sensible.
However, if you've been to Queen St you'll have seen very those wider walking areas are not much used, except, informally, by bikes and scooters. Separated from pedestrians and traffic, at last. It will be beyond ridiculous if they don't use the pilot to build on that.
The Auckland Design Office and Auckland Transport are both responsible for this work. (Plans to disband the ADO, by the way, were shelved during lockdown and the proposal will now be revisited. Cautious optimism here.) I asked them what ideas they have.
They said the pilot will be flexible: ideas will be tried and improved or discarded as they go. There could be pop-up parks – little green spaces – "to draw people into the Queen St valley", more trees, traffic islands, footpath and road painting, coffee carts and food stalls "to complement existing retail".
Also, better bus stop areas. They didn't say it, but Midtown is one of the busiest bus stations in the city and could it be any more crummy?
It's not hard to think of more. Could they create a festive market atmosphere? What about art and entertainment, both fixed public art and spaces for performance?
They said the budget will not buy "permanent physical changes to Queen St" but added that "temporary" doesn't have to mean shoddy or very short-term. The High St work is "temporary" and has an expected lifespan of 10 years.
Does it all add up to good enough?
The word that comes up the most is "planters". The council likes them: they're cheap, portable, colourful and they help green the city.
Viv Beck is terrified. "Why would we disrupt an entire street to get plastic planter boxes? That's not going to cut it."
"I don't have confidence we will get quality," she says. "No, I don't. We don't want cheap and cheerful. We want beautiful public art. We want an amazing, world-class, beautiful street and we've got the bones there already."
I'm with her on that. Tim Fitzpatrick, who's running things for now at the ADO, told me: "I do not disagree with HOTC on that."
Good to know. The work needs to proceed, at pace, within the co-design process. But it must be great. It can't be done with ugly plastic and a bit of paint.