Draft plan offers chance to retain historic virtues of K Rd while improving safety.
Sometimes, good fortune arrives disguised as disaster. That's what happened on Karangahape Rd in central Auckland.
The construction of the inner-city links of the motorway system in the 1960s carved a gully across the middle the street, which runs east-west along the high ridge on the southern edge of the CBD. Amid a flurry of downtown development, the businesses in the city's red-light district near modern-day Britomart needed to move, and the newly isolated western end of K Rd seemed a logical place to set up shop.
"Suddenly," says Edward Bennett, who runs historical walking tours of the area, "there developed two K Rds, where there had been one."
This knife through the heart of the strip ought to have killed it. But, says Bennett, it was K Rd's salvation. It was a time when the street was home to some of the big names in Auckland retail: Lewis Eady, Stevens, Pascoes, Hannahs, Levenes.
"If the motorway had not come through, the big-name businesses would have stayed and flourished. They would have rebuilt - not just refurbished. If that had happened and K Rd had retained its economic prosperity, we would now have looked like Newmarket."
Bennett's use of the term "we" bespeaks the sense of ownership he feels. A longtime familiar face around K Rd, he's been running so-called "heritage walks" since 2007 - weekly in the warmer months and thrice-daily during the heritage festival in the spring. The walks are supported by K Rd Business Association, whose members have always had a healthy suspicion of the barbarians of urban redevelopment.
K Rd's other happy catastrophe was the 1987 sharemarket crash, says Bennett. The wide-boy developers who lunched on champagne in Parnell had plans for a bunch of the mirror-glass monoliths that were the architectural rage at the time, but fortunately they went belly-up.
Meanwhile public rage about the apartment towers on the Herne Bay ridge prompted soul-searching in the Civic Administration Building. Height restrictions, in part designed to protect views of Mt Eden, were imposed and the K Rd was saved from being a sunless wind tunnel.
"All of those things," says Bennett, "coalesced to save the street."
The sense that things happen by good luck rather than good management would be familiar to anyone who lives in Auckland. To many, including me, its down-at-heel raffishness is part of K Rd's charm; on the other hand, it's hard not to be sympathetic to business owners who are sick of cleaning up after the late-night drinkers and sex workers.
Last week the Waitemata Local Board, whose bailiwick includes the street, released for public comment a draft plan which seeks to celebrate K Rd's heritage and its role as an "entertainment and creative fringe". The problem, board member Vernon Tava told the Herald is how to "keep the colour and yet make it a safer place for business".
It's in discussions like this that the heritage aspect is easily forgotten and it's people like Bennett who do the remembering for all of us. It was not until he pointed it out to me that I realised that, uniquely in the city, all four corners of the Pitt St intersection are occupied by heritage buildings.
We meet at the entrance to St Kevin's Arcade, where he invites me to try to visualise the home built in 1845 for Jewish merchant David Nathan. Called Scoria House, for its uncommon use of volcanic stone as a building material, it sat at the head of the valley we now know as Myers Park. It's long gone, but the name of the arcade that leads to the park is a misspelled reminder of a later owner, bookmaker Thomas Keven.
Leafing through line drawings and old photographs in a folder he carries, Bennett recalls the glory days: how it was busier than Queen St because the smell of horse manure was not so pronounced high on the windy ridge; how many photographers had studios here, where ladies posed in their finery after visiting dressmakers and tea shops.
Above the awnings, K Rd's history is still inscribed on its facades. The Lim Chhour Supermarket and an associated Hong Kong barbecue restaurant occupy the street level of a building that still bears the name - Rendells - of one of the earliest off-the-peg fashion stores in town.
With the help of people like Bennett, that past will be preserved - by good management, not good luck - as the draft plan becomes the street's future.