This weekend, they're putting a temporary barrier at the bottom of High St. From 10.30am each day, vehicles won't be able to get in. A street festival will start up at midday in Freyberg Square. Cool music, food stalls, fun for kids, and all the retailers of High St, O'Connell St, Vulcan Lane and the rest of that little precinct out with their stalls. Kicking off the Christmas shopping season.
High time, right? High St will be packed with people, on foot, not trying to squeeze past the damn cars but, instead, having a great shopping and recreational experience. Come Sunday, the day of the Santa Parade, it will be even busier and even more fun.
Actually, sorry. None of that is happening.
But why not?
High St is the outstanding example of what goes wrong in Auckland when city planning isn't done right. And now so much planning is under way, now the city centre is changing so much, it's more important than ever to address the things that undermine the quality of what we get.
The scale of the change is vast. Half a dozen new tower blocks are rising to rival the Sky Tower and there are more than 50 other construction projects. The Auckland Design Office's manager, Ludo Campbell-Reid, says there are more cranes on the Auckland skyline than in any city in North America.
The waterfront is being transformed, all the way from the east end of the Britomart precinct to Wynyard Point, way to the west. The underground railway now under construction and the two light rail lines proposed by the Government will radically change the way we use not only trains, but buses and cars as well.
And, as reported yesterday, there's a big - and brave - new plan called Access for Everyone (A4E) to keep all vehicles away from the central city except those that need to be there. Central Auckland is getting a bit busy.
Mayor Phil Goff says it's about "where vision and necessity coincide". How to turn the things we need to do into the stuff of dreams. There are 100,000 people working in the central city now and 57,000 people living there. Just in the past three years, the number of people walking on Queen St has doubled. So the city needs to change.
But are we doing it right? Are we going fast enough and are we being bold enough? Are we planning for the future and not just solving problems of the present?
Those problems are not just external, like traffic. At council, they're also internal. Council agencies that don't work well together. A governing body that's too weak, with too many councillors beholden primarily to their wards and not the city as a whole. Officials who are, far too often, risk averse. A planning process that has too often put good urban design – the organisation of spaces to achieve a range of people-focused goals – to one side, favouring instead the narrower values of engineering and accounting.
One example of that? Auckland Transport has KPIs (key performance indicators) to keep the buses moving, which is good. But they don't have KPIs for trees in streets.
And running through all of this, it's rare that Auckland planners, their consultant designers, their managers and the politicians they answer to, come up with genuinely great ideas and have the skills to make them happen in reasonable time.
It does happen, for sure. You can't look at Silo Park and North Wharf in the Wynyard Quarter and not admire the triumph of creative determination. But the executive who drove those projects lost his job. Too many good ideas, or something.
You can't look at the proposals for Quay St west of the Ferry Building either – some of which are shown with this feature – without feeling great hope. They're very fine. But that's not been true on Queen's Wharf and the council's acquiescence to Ports of Auckland, allowing mooring dolphins to be built out from Queens Wharf and a five-storey "car-holding facility" on Bledisloe Wharf, prompt a feeling more like despair. Well, they do in me.
Take that A4E plan to get most of the cars out of the central city. It's new, in the specifics of what's proposed. But it's not really new. A car-free Queen St was in the 2012 City Centre Masterplan and it wasn't new then, either. But nothing happened. The council and its officials just let it sit there.
Why? Let's go back to the emblematic project, High St. Why aren't they celebrating this weekend?
In Auckland, it's easy for development plans to get trapped in a cycle: proposal, consultation, modification, business case, consultation, modification, budget revision, consultation, can't somebody just do the damn thing?
Small numbers of very vocal opponents confound the best-laid plans, and council agencies cave in to them. That's what happened in High St, and it's tragic.
High St has beautiful buildings, many good shops and the potential for many more, and a great public square in the middle. It could be the best shopping street in the city. I'd say one of the best in the world, actually.
But it's clogged with cars – in the parks and, outrageously, driving around in a loop looking for parks. Meanwhile its footpaths are now far too narrow for the people walking there. The actual shoppers.
A small number of retailers believe they will lose business if their customers think they can't park outside the shop. It's nuts: evidence overseas and in Auckland suggests they'll get a massive leap in business once the cars are gone.
Heart of the City, the city centre business association, is trying to broker agreements now, and there's talk of night markets and the like. That's great. But in the council's 10-year budget adopted this year, construction funding was pushed out to 2024.
High St should be a showcase street when the America's Cup and Apec roll around in 2021. But it won't be, because those who could make it happen are too frightened to move.
Goff says, "It's just a disaster".
Is there a way to get past this? Yes there is. Several ways, actually.
7 SUGGESTIONS FOR AUCKLAND COUNCIL
1. Try things on the cheap
Times Square in New York is the busiest urban space in the world and it used to be full of cars. But in 2009 they put up barriers in part of the square and created a plaza with deck chairs. It was temporary, a trial, and it cost almost nothing. Turned out the traffic managed just fine, the local businesses loved it and so did the public, who voted overwhelmingly to keep it. So, in stages, they started spending money to create a high-quality permanent public space, free from cars.
It's called "tactical urbanism": cheap, easy and temporary interventions that test an idea before you start spending money. If it doesn't work you can modify it or simply call it off.
Tactical urbanism is a way of introducing disruption without destroying livelihoods and making stakeholders fearful. And it's a way of generating support, because people can see the benefit.
I asked Campbell-Reid why they don't do it here. He said Times Square was very expensive. In fact, although it cost US$55 million (NZ$81m) in the end, the trial was very cheap.
He said, "I agree it's important to do whimsical things but they've got to be part of something else, or else why are we doing it?"
Later, he said, "Everyone says to me why don't you close this or that, But you can't just do it on a whim. The new masterplan gives us a plan."
These things are true, but are they what the ADO does? It has a "Tactical Urbanism Kit", which includes the coloured blocks and planters currently in place on a part of Federal St. The big coloured dots on Shortland St and Federal St are also examples of ADO's "tactical urbanism".
Now, don't get me wrong, I love those dots and they seem to have made most drivers more cautious. But they are not disruptive. They don't change the traffic flows and they are not part of a larger plan to change anything else. Even though they're on the road right by the entrance to High St, they are whimsical.
ADO practises the tactical urbanism you do when you're not really doing tactical urbanism.
That office, like Auckland Transport, Panuku and all the council agencies that do urban design, prefers to get the whole plan settled first. All the underground work, the expensive pavers, artworks and trees. Then they announce they're going to spend many millions and are disappointed when there's an outcry.
But get this: the Auckland Design Manual contains a case study on Times Square that says what a great example of tactical urbanism it was. Campbell-Reid's office wrote that manual.
2. No more shared streets
Why are cars given 24-hour access to O'Connell St, Darby St, Jean Batten Place, Fort Lane, all of Fort St and Lorne St outside the library? Most of the cars there are just rat running, and they limit the potential of the streets and make them more dangerous for pedestrians.
3. Better consultation
It goes round and round forever and still people complain they weren't consulted. Why not use the cheap-and-easy tactical urbanism approach, generate debate about it, refine the idea (or drop it) and only then spend the money?
Panuku, the council's development agency, did a great thing in Takapuna this year, where there was very vocal opposition to their downtown plans. They surveyed the locals and, when the results showed two-thirds support for their plans, they resolved to press ahead. That's the spirit.
4. Open the process to others
Nearly all the urban design changes that happen in Auckland arise out of the council and the firms they work with. But what happens if someone else comes up with a great idea?
The answer is: nothing. As both Archimedia and the Waterfront Consortium discovered this year when they proposed new uses for the wharves, including a waterfront stadium.
Proposals from the private sector to create a new university on the waterfront, and/or a high-tech medical precinct, have met the same fate.
In some parts of council they know this is a problem. Planning committee chair Chris Darby says, "We talk about being a welcoming place but we've got gates in place".
He talks about wanting to see "creativity amplified" and listed the universities, the design community and mana whenua as sources of good ideas they don't use well.
"I want to establish a process where we can have those inputs. If someone has a radical plan, we want to invite them into the process. Look at how it fits, does it kick our ideas on?"
It's not at all clear how that's going to happen, but it is clear that council itself is not the repository of all good thinking about the city.
5. Use events as opportunity
They closed part of Queen St for Diwali this year and it was magnificent: the street filled with people dancing. They don't close it for the Auckland Arts Festival, but the potential is immense. Imagine if the festival and the council worked together on a plan to transform central city streets for a fortnight?
Those disruptive opportunities are good in themselves, and they also point to the future. If you can do it for Diwali, maybe you can do it more often?
6. Use disruption as opportunity
It's such a cliche but it's true, and often ignored. The rule of thumb for council agencies is that if you dig up a street you should restore it the way it was. That's bad. They should take the chance to restore it better, to reflect future use and potential.
The council is starting to grasp this. Goff says with the Government proposing to dig up Queen St for light rail, it's the "perfect opportunity to make that street something special".
But there's a long way to go, and they've missed a trick with CRL construction.
Why don't we have a big viewing gantry above the intersection of Albert St and Customs St so we can eat our lunch peering into the trenches and watching the work?
Why doesn't the council do more to help disrupted businesses, with better signage, easier access to shops, market stalls and more?
7. Do it everywhere
The city centre is important but so are the other centres. The council knows this, and has work in various stages of planning and construction for many other centres, including Otahuhu, Henderson, Manurewa, Browns Bay and Takapuna.
It's vital they keep that highly publicised. Auckland is not just for the denizens of downtown and some ward councillors get antsy when they think that's where all the energy's going.
THE THREE STAGES OF TRANSFORMATION
This Tuesday, the council's planning committee will consider a report from Ludo Campbell-Reid on plans for the central city to 2040.
The work is at three stages. Queen St is in the "visioning" stage. No cars? It could be. They want the debate.
Midtown, the area in and near Wellesley St and Victoria, is at the "planning" stage. They know what they want to do, in concept at least, and are consulting and working out how.
The essence of the plan is to make the central city a place to go to, not a place to pass through. You want to drive across town? Go around, that's the thinking: on Customs St, Mayoral Drive and especially on the motorways.
Queen St, as Phil Goff says, should become "a great visitor destination". Ludo Campbell-Reid, mindful of the high levels of diesel pollution there now, believes it could have "the cleanest air of any city in the world".
Cr Chris Darby explains the motivating idea like this. "We can't make another Albert Park, but the space we can use is right before our eyes. It's the streets. The street is the great open space that people have to reclaim."
There are better uses for streets than just handing them over to cars. It's brave in this town to think like this. But it's also become necessary.
And third: Downtown, especially from Customs St to the waterfront, which is at the "delivery" stage. It's pretty exciting, especially the big new pedestrian areas, especially west of the Ferry Building and around to Queen St in front of Britomart.
In parts, though, it's also problematic. New bus terminals are proposed for Albert St and Quay St east, but the Quay St one have been contested by the owners of the Britomart precinct, and plans are far from finalised.
Up on Wellesley St, by the universities, another new bus terminal is required, but they don't even know, yet, where it can go.
And in Wynyard Quarter they're going to replace Te Wero bridge, because it's judged too small for the America's Cup crowds.
There's a lesson in that bridge. It's been spectacularly successful but it was not the result of a long, careful design process. The original idea was too expensive so what we got instead was a cheap, quick and clever option. Proper processes don't always produce the best ideas.
Will it really be too small? Will the replacement be better? The Rialto in Venice is too small, but nobody's knocking that down.
Darby says, "I think there's a real falling in love with the city centre. Learning, living, earning, visiting and staying. We want to make a city even more worthy of that."
Cr Richard Hills says, "People want this. Do it now." Yep.
GROWTH IN THE CBD
• 57,000 residents, up from 27,000 in 2012.
• More people live there than travel in by car.
• 100,000 people work there.
• 70,000 students.
• $1 billion private-sector investment per year.
• Around 60 major construction projects.
• 7.3 million visitor nights, up 31 per cent on 2010.
• Council pledge to have only zero-emissions vehicles in city centre by 2030.