The O'Connell St Bistro, small and perfectly formed, and very near Queen St, closed forever the other day. Owner Chris Upton gave the usual Covid-era explanations and also mentioned what his rent had been: $230,000 a year.
How does a small restaurant survive paying that? Upton was a very good restaurateur and his contribution to this city will be sorely missed.
I think about him every time I read landlords complaining that the council isn't helping them bring customers back to the shops of Queen St. I think of him every time I walk past the empty shops on that street, especially when there are several in the same building.
I think leaving shops empty is urban vandalism. And forcing tenants out because the rents are too high is simply greed. Remember, inner-city landlords are the people benefiting the most from the obscenities of the Auckland property market.
Landlords could make the Queen St valley great, all on their own, if they really wanted to. Instead, a bunch of them has ganged together, preposterously called themselves Save Queen Street, and are threatening to sue Auckland Council.
Which means they're suing us, the ratepayers. They seem to believe the problems of the street are in no way their own fault.
I wrote about this only two weeks ago. I said Queen St is a mess and I set out a list of 17 things that could be done now to improve it. Many of them required the council to step up, some were suggestions for retailers and seven were a direct challenge to the landlords.
They included lower rents and never letting shops remain empty. Also, sucking up the big lesson of Britomart and Commercial Bay, which is this: to create a good experience for shoppers and everyone who wants to enjoy a public space, the property owners must curate the experience.
It's been said that because Queen St has many owners, they can't coordinate their efforts. But they can get together to sue the council? Give me a break.
I suggested they should repurpose some buildings and knock some down to make more public-spirited use of the land. And I said they should stop complaining and start pulling their weight.
I thought there might be a response. Angry justifications, whatever. But no. They prefer to sue. It's outrageous. If they want to throw their money around, why don't they spend some of it on the street?
It's especially outrageous because the council has now published details of its new designs for lower Queen St, which actually meet many of the landlords' objections.
Those nasty plastic sticks and concrete boxes will soon be gone. Footpaths will be widened with boardwalks, similar to those in High St. The new "street furniture" includes quality planters, more greenery, smart wooden seating and more.
In the look and feel, the aesthetics of the design, it's obviously a great leap forward. The experience for shoppers and other pedestrians will be immeasurably improved. It's what the landlords said they wanted.
Cars aren't banned, but they have a low priority. As mayor Phil Goff says, "Queen St needs to be a destination—a place for people—not just a through route for cars."
There will be more buses, partly because CRL construction requires crosstown services to be routed down Queen St for another couple of years.
But the good news about the buses is that half of them will be electric. The new City Link fleet launches today.
A trial of the new street design will begin within weeks, affecting the block from Customs St to Shortland St. Rollout to Midtown and beyond, incorporating whatever has been learned from the trial, is expected in September.
But the landlords are still unhappy. Why?
Landlord Andrew Krukziener said he thought the designs presented "an unrealistically pretty picture".
Which sounds a lot like, "Yep, that does look good, but I'm still going to call it bad." Not a lot of goodwill there.
He said the "fundamental problem" had not been addressed. He defined that problem as "the lack of loading, the lack of bus stops and the lack of ability for people to stop for five minutes to pick up something".
Hang on. How long has it been since you could drive into Queen St, stop outside the shop of your choice and "pick something up"? Which, by the way, is a euphemism for "do a bit of shopping".
And why should that be the goal of street design in the inner city? You can't do it at Sylvia Park or in Newmarket, or at Britomart or Commercial Bay. Why should you expect it on Queen St?
I went to see Viv Beck, CEO of the business group Heart of the City, whose concerns seem quite closely aligned with "Save Queen Street".
She assured me that no one wants to see all the cars return to Queen St. She said it several times.
I hope she tells Krukziener, because cars cruising for a park so they can "pick something up" is a surefire recipe for clogging up the place.
Also, there's no lack of bus stops. But she did agree with him that there's a problem with access for service and delivery vehicles. In her view there is no plan for where and when those vehicles can park.
Yet Chris Darby, chair of council's Planning Committee, told RNZ this week, "We're very mindful of the need for loading zones, and they're being put in place on Queen St."
Why is there such a gap between these two? The need for a service plan is so obvious I'm curious about that gap. Are both sides really working in good faith to resolve it?
Elsewhere, though not to me, she called the new plans "appalling".
In Vancouver, a city not unlike Auckland, the Downtown Business Association was one of the staunchest opponents of plans to favour pedestrians in order to revitalise downtown shopping.
But it happened anyway and the association is now one of the scheme's biggest fans. Because the shops are doing better and people are happier to be in the city.
Business media like Bloomberg and Forbes often report studies showing the same thing. But the litigious whingers of "Save Queen Street" refuse to accept it and Heart of the City, while saying yes to the theory, is still saying no to the proposal. Why?
Council and its agencies have produced a good plan. Sure, it's a pity they didn't do it earlier but they've done it now.
And sure, it's not absolutely great. It doesn't, for example, separate scooters from pedestrians, or cyclists from buses.
But it gets most things pretty right and, because it's a trial, it can be built on. How hard will it really be to turn good into great?
The thing is, though, the plan's opponents already know council will not come up with great on its own.
They know that while many cities have a chief architect or a high-powered champion of urban design, Auckland Council doesn't. It disbanded its design office last year. It has no one with both the inspirational design skills and the seniority to make council executives and politicians understand what great might look like.
That's another bit of urban vandalism right there, frankly. Vandalism by neglect.
So here's the challenge. "Save Queen Street" lists a couple of architects among its members. Instead of giving a veneer of credibility to the landlords, why don't they put their skills to good use and show us what could be done? Why don't all their professional colleagues?
Come on all you urban-design types, civic duty calls. The street could be magnificent. Why aren't you flooding us with designs that show us how?