There are 38 empty shops on Queen St.
That's my count of just the shops down from the Wellesley St intersection, in what used to be the premier shopping precinct in the city. It's a catastrophe.
Why haven't the landlords kept those shops open? They and no one else have the power to do that.
True, it's complicated. Covid, the CRL and Queen St reconstruction have all been enormously disruptive. Some retailers have fled to Commercial Bay or Britomart. Some companies have fled the offices above the shops, for Wynyard Quarter or elsewhere.
The council's plans to revitalise the central city have been confused and confusing, lack a compelling creative and commercial vision, are underfunded and have themselves been disrupted by Covid.
But the council has also been disrupted by a widespread view among retailers, landlords and their business association, Heart of the City, that things would be fine if we could only revert to the way it used to be.
It's instructive to compare the inner city with other shopping precincts in Auckland. Newmarket gained a massive new lease of life with the new Westfield. The area behind the Rialto has also worked hard to attract customers.
Sylvia Park grows and grows. The Viaduct is well established as the city's central hospitality zone and Wynyard's North Wharf has followed. Parnell and Ponsonby were in decline, 15 years ago, but their business associations worked extremely hard – and successfully – to bring the punters back.
Meanwhile, Queen St landlords and their retail tenants have done ... what, exactly? Apart from complain.
But the landlords are not the victims here, except of their own ineptitude. They're among the wealthiest people in the city, thanks to massive growth in property values, and they've sat on their hands while much smarter businesspeople have stolen their tenants and reinvented shopping in the city.
At the big end of town, Commercial Bay's Precinct Properties, Britomart's Cooper and Co and the Westfield Group have led the way. Boutique owners have shown the same entrepreneurial courage on the fashion strips; incredibly talented restaurateurs have done it in their sector.
But Queen St landlords haven't adapted and now they have shops no one wants to rent.
An empty shop tells would-be customers to go somewhere else and it tells neighbouring retailers they'll have fewer customers, so maybe they should be packing up too. It's an invitation to anyone who wants to trash the place.
Once there's one, more follow. Empty shops have a stark message: they tell us all to go away.
Some people say Queen St has become a sinkhole and we should forget about it. Make the rest of the city better instead.
But think of any city, anywhere: the centre defines the city. It tells visitors what the place is like, and therefore affects its commercial potential.
It tells locals too. The central city contains the biggest concentrations of workers, residents, hotels, restaurants and bars, performance venues, major companies and economic life. A dying city centre threatens to take all those things down with it.
There's a list of things central Auckland obviously needs. A bigger police presence, cargo e-bikes, an end to construction dictating the look and feel of the streets, new uses for empty offices including apartments and schools, more lanes for bikes and e-scooters, better streetscapes.
And yet. You can redesign the street, change the traffic, pour in the money and resources, but there is one inescapable truth: Nothing will work if you leave the shops empty.
And that's on the landlords.
There is some progress. A couple of buildings on Queen St are being renovated, with shops closed now but scheduled to re-open. That's good. One shop contains a pop-up art installation and there have been a few others. Also good.
But what business leaders usually say is they can't do much while there's so much construction disruption.
They're right that construction must become less disruptive. But from new transport to new hotels and office blocks, there are many more construction projects to come. This is the city we live in now. There's no point moaning; we need a plan to make the most of it.
Auckland is not the only city in the world to face this problem, but it is one of the few that has not yet embraced the solution that works. Which is: create an environment of shops, cafes and other attractions that citizens and visitors alike look forward to walking around in.
Here, for the landlords among us, are a few ways they could do that on Queen St.
• Bribe the retailers in all the other shopping precincts to open a pop-up on Queen St. Don't make them pay: spend your own money. You'll get it back later.
• Make every day a market day, with shops bringing their wares onto the street. Because it worked in Ponsonby.
• Have big monthly market fairs.
• Look around the world, find the best new ideas for shops and invite locals to do it here.
• Bring in the food trucks and set up lots of outdoor café seating.
• Bring in the musicians, to play concerts in shops and on the streets. Auckland is bursting with the talent for this.
• Entice Ngāti Whātua to present Te Ao Māori in the city, however they might want to define it.
• Encourage AUT fashion and design students to open pop-up shops.
• What does future tech look like? Have a place where there's always some astonishing new thing on show.
• Help the city's urban planners to open an Urban Room, to generate public interest in the debates, ideas and plans for the city's future.
• Get the cultural institutions to shopfront their worlds: the museum, art gallery, orchestra, theatres, maritime museum, there are more.
• Integrate the festivals and the street with showcases and events. We have so many festivals: arts, film, writers, food, comedy, rainbow, the art show. Matariki is almost upon us. The Festival of Photography is on right now. Diwali is on the way. Strangely, a few fluttering banners aside, Queen St usually remains almost untouched by any of this.
• Invite the really interesting cross-disciplinary thinkers at AUT to hold public talks and debates, and invite the thinkers at the University of Auckland to compete with them with their own talks and debates.
• Capitalise on the really big events: Super Rugby finals, Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar concerts, whatever races the yachties decide to favour us with. Fill the streets with related events.
• Insist that Auckland Unlimited deliver more big events to the city and make the most of them too.
• The CRL has a great story to tell. Get them to tell it in public.
• Create a night strategy, with food, entertainments and shop opening hours to keep people in town in the evening.
• Support the plans to close parts of the street to traffic, to allow it all to happen.
This won't create the luxury precinct that shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton might hope for. Doesn't matter. Over time, pop-ups can be replaced with quality stores or become quality stores in their own right. Right now we have an emergency. The priority is to reopen the shops.
And the landlords who don't front up? Charge them an empty-shops penalty. Or maybe clamp them in stocks in the middle of the street.
Because while we worry, rightly, about kids and ram raids, it's the landlords who've allowed 38 shops to remain empty who are the bigger vandals.
• The council's events and economic agency Auckland Unlimited is hosting an event today called Auckland's Future, Now. Simon Wilson will be moderating a session on the central city.