Queen St has suffered a double whammy of crushing Covid consequences and the wait for the City Rail Link. There are now 40 empty stores in what was once the country's busiest retail area. Is the Golden Mile losing its lustre? And why are planned upgrades taking so long? Cherie Howie investigates
Selwyn Maynard is standing on a newly completed public square, next to the entrance to a newly completed billion-dollar office and retail tower.
To the North Shore retiree's right, behind central Auckland's freshly-opened Te Komititanga pedestrian-only public space, is the Downtown Ferry Terminal and, beyond, the busy waterways of the Waitematā Harbour.
To his left, just along from where the 73-year-old used to work as a shipping agent in the Citibank building, Auckland's premier thoroughfare stretches 1.7km, and incrementally up, to the Karangahape Rd ridge.
Maynard isn't impressed with what he sees.
"Queen St seems to be jammed up a lot. They've made it wider for pedestrians, but they don't seem to know what they're doing. They've got cones out, stanchions.
"And down here", he says, pointing towards the ferry terminal and the ongoing enhancement works along Queen St-adjacent Quay St, "it doesn't look good".
"With the America's Cup, this should've been finished months ago."
Months ago though, the deadly Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand and the country had to, in March, shut its borders and go into a seven-week nationwide level 4, then 3, lockdown - later followed by a resurgence-sparked three week, level 3 lockdown in Auckland in August.
Maynard concedes Covid and its accompanying suite of disruption may have affected progress on the works still grinding along on the street to his right, and an update on Auckland Transport's website last year indeed confirmed the planned pre-America's Cup completion date has been revised to account for Covid's impact, along with technical challenges relating to strengthening works.
"The six projects will be completed individually and opened for public usage through the final quarter of 2020 and the first half of 2021", the website says.
"Quay St enhancements will be the final project completed in June 2021."
Maynard, of course, can cross back over the harbour and leave Auckland's most important street, and the many connecting to it, to their continuing improvements.
But for the almost 40,000 who live and almost 140,000 who work in the central city, themselves among almost 10 million pedestrians who walked Lower Queen St last year (2019's pre-pandemic pedestrian numbers topped 15 million), the ongoing works sit alongside a cluster of other concerns, from cleanliness to accessibility to the homeless population.
And their frustration grows by the day.
"It used to be called the Golden Mile", Roger Marbeck, owner of 87-year-old Marbecks music store, says, remembering a time when "there were trees all the way up" Queen St.
"If you started at the bottom and walked up now you certainly wouldn't think that."
It's not just about more greenery.
Ongoing roadworks on adjacent streets had cleared out customers, and Queen St itself - which was reduced to one lane each way indefinitely after footpath-widening for Covid social distancing was continued, using plastic pylons dug into the asphalt, under a brought-forward Access for Everyone pilot - still looks like an "absolute shambles".
"It looks like a kid's been set loose with a paint set ... it just needs a jolly good clean-up. It's an ugly tack-on.
"No one walks on them ... and no one's going to walk on them", Marbeck says, noting Auckland's generous 1200mm average annual rainfall.
Further up the street, at Remedy Coffee, one shop back from Queen St on Wellesley St West, owner Rich O'Hanlon's had a tough year thanks to Covid.
The big street a door down from his place hasn't helped.
It's filthy, smelly, there are too many roadworks, too many scooters dumped on footpaths - and the number of homeless people is increasing, O'Hanlon says.
"I think there are more people sleeping on the streets than shops open ... and there's nothing for them to do. They're bored out of their mind.
"Britomart, that's the transport hub, and the waterfront has its purpose too. There's the brand new shopping mall [Commercial Bay], and the rest of it's just roadworks. I think you should say now [to visitors], 'avoid Queen St'."
'Let's see what the light rail decision is'
But not forever.
What O'Hanlon wants is for Queen St to be pedestrianised, like he saw when he visited the tree-lined, cafe-laden, street performer-popular pedestrian street La Rambla in Barcelona.
"It's inviting. Queen St is not inviting."
It's not a new idea.
In September 2018 the Herald walked the length of Queen St and spoke to retailers, shoppers and downtown workers about what they wanted for the street's future, with the CBD's next two decades' future already being guided by Auckland Council's 2012 City Centre Master Plan, itself "refreshed" last year.
The plan's overall aim is for Queen St to "become the centrepiece of an expanded pedestrian-priority and zero emissions area covering the whole of Waihorotiu/Queen St valley".
The pedestrian-first focus was a good fit for mayor Phil Goff, who said in 2018 his fondest childhood memories of Queen St were when it was closed to traffic for Santa parades and the America's Cup victory parades he attended with his own children.
Goff wanted to bring back partial and occasional road closures with a view to easing the public into permanent pedestrianisation.
"We've got to make it more people-focused, rather than transport focused," he said at the time.
"My vision is when we rip up the road for light rail ... there will be sections of it we'll permanently pedestrianise."
Widening of Queen St's footpaths, both last decade and last year, and pedestrian-friendly traffic light sequencing have already sent a clear message to those at the wheel - unless you must, don't drive here.
But light rail, proposed under a Government plan to link Auckland's central business district with Mt Roskill, and eventually Auckland Airport, via modern trams by this year, fell through after a bid for the project from NZ Super Fund and a Canadian pension fund was blocked by New Zealand First, citing cost and "a decade of chaos".
Since then, the Government has asked the Ministry of Transport and Treasury to rework the proposals for Cabinet to consider early this year, with new Transport Minister Michael Wood saying light rail is "critical to unlock Auckland".
It had been anticipated the light rail project would have a considerable city-shaping effect on the Queen St valley, Auckland councillor and planning committee chairman Chris Darby says.
But light rail's yet-to-be-decided future meant big changes, such as fully pedestrianising part of Queen St, had to wait.
"Some people would like us to go a lot further and create a pedestrian-only zone, and it will happen in time, but let's see what the light rail decision is, and what impacts that has on Queen St.
"You don't want to go and plough a whole lot of money into Queen St when you know there's a major infrastructure project about to come down Queen St. And in that infrastructure project you want to make sure ... that helps transform and reinvigorate the public domain around that infrastructure."
However waiting for the Government's next decision on light rail doesn't mean dropping the aim on other targets, Darby says.
"In the interim we're going to be embarking on delivering some quality streetscape improvements on Queen St - pocket parks, tree planters bringing back some green life to Queen St."
Pop-up offerings that "bring places alive", such as performers, art installations or even late-evening food carts, were also part of the plan.
"As soon as you anchor some real human life to a place there's engagement, there's interaction. People gather and they get a sense of, 'Oh, this is permitted, this is how the new place is used'."
Business association: Change must be managed
Viv Beck, who leads the business association for Auckland's city centre, isn't against change on Queen St.
Bumping private vehicles largely out of the street, for example, is now less of an issue that it once might've been, the Heart of the City chief executive says.
Heart of the City supports rapid transit in the central city but will be speaking to Wood, the Transport Minister, about what that'll be trying to achieve, and the best place for it.
Change has to be well planned - Queen St, which generates a third of city centre spending, is too important for it not to be, Beck says.
"I don't think the issue is around the vision for Queen St, but the execution."
The footpath extension still irks, and she fears decision makers not taking into account ongoing challenges, such as budget constraints and this year's planned two-year closure to traffic of the Victoria/Albert Sts intersection as part of City Rail Link works, could drag-out disruption on Queen St.
"We're very disappointed with those emergency works, which morphed into that pedestrian thing. [And] to just leave them in and then develop around it? There's such inter dependencies around surrounding streets, so it's really important any work is planned ... we need to think about things like, for example, where do people drop off in terms of ride shares?
"We just don't think that planning's been done properly. So effectively we've ended up with what people perceive to be a bit more of a building site, for nine months ... we certainly don't want to see Queen St in that state, of looking like a construction site still, for much longer."
Despite the challenges, she can see there's confidence in Queen St's future, and that of its neighbours, Beck says.
"I think there's absolute confidence in the future of our city centre, and cities in general, because I think the reasons people have been gravitating to cities are still there.
"We've clearly had a setback with Covid, but we're already seeing that investment is continuing."
Queen St has been hard hit by Covid-19, national retail leasing specialist Nathan Male says, when the Herald tells the 25-year veteran we counted 40 ground-level shops empty and, mostly, up for lease on Queen St.
"Queen St is the worst affected retail zone in the country because it's been hit by three calamitous losses - international tourists, international students and [downtown] workers staying away", say Male, the director of Metro Commercial.
"Historically it's been a very tight retail strip to get into. I've never seen anything like it, with 40 up for lease."
Businesses serving travellers - many now vacant Queen St shops spotted by the Herald previously housed travel agents, souvenir shops, and health supplements targeted at the Asian market - were hardest hit.
"The underlying trade that services' New Zealand customers has been affected, but there's still a lot of business to be had."
Footlocker has taken up a new "massive site" in Queen St, while fashion accessories specialist Lovisa also opening a shop on the street, Male says.
"They've been waiting to get in [Queen St] for a long time."
And other planned - pre-Covid - moves into the street have still gone ahead, such as that of Italian luxury jewellery house Bulgari.
The pandemic has increased opportunities for luxury brands to get into spaces previously "blocked by cheaper shops" making good profits, Male says.
Lingering anxiety about the immediate future has seen new deals done on a "very different basis than the past", with "de-risking" conditions including lower base rents, and increases linked to sales performances.
But like Beck, Male is positive about the future.
"This is the low point. The Aotea City Rail Link [station] opening is getting ever closer. That will be on us before we know it. At that point the vast amount of train passengers will emit down Wellesley St and onto Queen St.
"There's a number of big renovations taking place up that end of Queen St. We're going to see more economic activity between Victoria and Wellesley streets."
Many business owners spoken to by the Herald talked of the need to have more flagship stores - the biggest, most impressive store in a retail chain - to help lure shoppers away from malls, and their hectares of free parking.
But a place to put the wheels isn't everything.
Male would choose central Auckland over a mall any day, and Queen St pedestrian counts - historically the highest in the country - show he's not alone in being drawn to the excitement of downtown.
"The CBD remains far more interesting to visit than any mall."
'Sometimes at night I want to cry out'
Despite new opportunities, and a hopeful future, many are still doing it tough right now.
When the country went back to Covid alert level 1 in June, Beck told the Herald spending in the CBD was down 40 per cent.
Three months later, Stats NZ figures showed retail card spending fell $530m in August last year, compared to the month before, after almost a third of the population was put under level 3 restrictions when community transmission of Covid-19 was discovered in Auckland.
Spending rallied as the country moved back to level 1 later in the year, and Black Friday/Christmas/Boxing Day shopping sprees provided another boost, but the initial hit was too much for some businesses.
"It's still quiet", Mojo Cafe barista Krystal Cody says as she waits at a street-facing counter for customers on a week-day lunchtime, albeit in mid-January.
"Normally, we'd have big groups of people [coming past]. There's just a lot more empty shops. The QF Tavern, I couldn't believe it when that went."
A mid-town business owner has noticed a nearby sushi shop no longer stays open in the evenings, and a franchise fast-food outlet doesn't open as early in the morning.
"Those places usually like to open early and close late, to capture every dollar. People are being very careful with money. Eighty per cent of the businesses I know are saying they wouldn't survive another level 4.
"It's been a very scary time."
At Queen's Jewellery, owner Linda Lin has managed to avoid lay-offs, partly because some staff earlier resigned over fears of catching Covid-19.
But she still worries about the "very tough" trading conditions.
"I don't want to fire people. For my heart, I don't want to", she says.
"Sometimes at night I want to cry out, but during the daytime, for my customers, I have to keep a smile on my face."
Some business owners and shoppers also told the Herald the number of homeless spending their days and nights on Queen St was growing and, in some cases, making a mess and behaving badly.
But they aren't aware of any spike in numbers, an Auckland City Mission spokeswoman says.
The mission is among five organisations under the Housing First initiative who work together, with Ministry of Social Development and Auckland Council funding, to find homes for people who are chronically homeless, and support them to keep their tenancies.
Heart of the City also has a work experience programme, Street Guardian, where people on the street can do paid work for charities such as Sustainable Coastlines.
Some of those seen on the street may simply have returned to the CBD after going home for Christmas, and people should also remember not everyone on the street is homeless, the City Mission spokeswoman says.
"A lot are housed. But there will always be the drift back to the community of the street. In a utopia world it would be awesome if everyone chose a life they want to live, but [people on the street] have a lot of complex issues around health, addiction."
Those on the street also told the Herald they hadn't noticed a rise in numbers.
Most of those spoken to had accommodation, but chose to live on the streets.
"I come to Queen St because I love it", says one, who came to the city after his brother was killed in a road tragedy near their Northland home.
"I've got a place to stay, but it's not clean, there's needles and s**t. It's clean out here."
Transforming Queen St: It won't happen overnight
Ultimately the council's vision for Queen St, as outlined in the City Centre Master Plan, is to create more space for people, prioritise pedestrians and public transport, and improve liveability and air quality in the city centre, says Goff, who also told the Herald in 2018 he didn't take visitors to Queen St - favouring instead Wynyard Quarter and Freyberg Pl - but that would one day change.
Bringing the council's vision for Queen St to life is complex and long-term, and hasn't been without challenges, and they've worked hard to understand and include the needs and aspirations of those who use the street.
That will continue, Goff stresses.
Covid-19 and uncertainty over light rail have affected the delivery of some improvements, but completed projects - Te Komititanga, High St's upgrade and the Galway St shared space - offer a peek into the future.
"[They] are a glimpse of the potential Queen St holds and which we are seeking to unlock."
Streetscape improvements, such as the Fort St pocket park, will soon follow.
And late summer will see proposed network changes aiming to reduce through traffic on Queen St, prioritising people and public transport movement, go out for consultation, Goff says.
CityLink buses are also going electric, meaning electric buses will make up half the buses travelling down Queen St - good news for people's health and the climate.
"Transforming a street of the size and complexity of Queen St will not happen overnight", the second-term mayor says.
"But we are working towards a vision of a people-friendly, vibrant and attractive main street that will be a destination in its own right, and an integral part of our world-class city centre."