Mt Albert is a town at a crossroads. The pressures of growth are set to radically reshape the area, but so far change has left some of its residents and business owners pining for the past. Hayden Donnell travels to the suburb to talk to locals about the way forward.
It’s 4pm on a Tuesday and Sarah Janthakhan is already churning through dinner orders. The owner of Lemon Grass in Mt Albert is hovering over a bench covered in Tupperware containers full of garnishes, looking to put the finishing touches on a well-to-do woman’s order of beef rendang, laksa and assorted curries. She’s still not done when a man in a tracksuit arrives asking for $6 of chips and nothing else. Janthakhan sighs, turns and fires up her deep frier.
Lemon Grass is a kind of distillation of Mt Albert itself. The menu is hodgepodge of old-fashioned fried food and intricately-constructed curries. Its customers could just as easily be Unitec students out on a date as moneyed residents of the $1 million villas in the rabbit warren streets off nearby Asquith Ave. Later on in the evening, a family will clink wine glasses in celebration over a house sale as Janthakhan and her chef Jum Donaldson wrap up tarakihi and hot dogs behind them. Often on colder nights, Janthakhan will hand out free chips to the homeless or lower income people who travel down from the nearby town centre. “Sometimes they’re hungry,” she says. “If they’re hungry we’ll just feed them.”
Ōwairaka/Mt Albert is also a place being pulled in different directions. On one hand, it’s a sleepy suburb of pretty villas, big sections, leafy avenues and green reserves. On the other, it’s at the fulcrum of a wave of change sweeping through Auckland. House prices in the area have risen dramatically over the last decade, with demand outstripping supply. The pressures of growth are only getting greater. Around 2024, the City Rail Link will put the area within 15 minutes of the city centre. There are already 4000 new houses planned on a chunk of the grounds of Unitec on Carrington Rd, and Council’s Unitary Plan allows for three-storey apartments in most other parts of the suburb. Ockham’s new apartment development, Tuatahi, is a sign of things to come. The question for Mt Albert is how to accommodate this influx of cash and population without losing the things that make it special – its main street filled with cheap-but-quality Chinese restaurants; its parks, playgrounds, and reserves, and most of all, its close-knit community.
The first changes to the area haven’t gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport completed a $6.5 million makeover of the Mt Albert town centre. It added a bike lane along with wider footpaths, extra trees, new street furniture and better lighting. But the removal of 40 car parks and a decision to change the turning rules at the terminally congested intersection of Carrington and New North Rds have been controversial. The area’s highly active community Facebook page is often consumed with debate over the merits of the development.
Bhaidas Bhula is one of the project’s opponents. He’s behind the counter of New North Pharmacy complaining about how it’s affected his trade, as his last customers of the day pick up their prescriptions. “I’m now ready to quit,” he says. “I’ve had a gutsful. I can’t. This business has been hit pretty hard.”
Bhula opened New North Pharmacy in 1982. Back then the town centre was thriving. He and his wife Provaka take turns listing the businesses that used to be their neighbours. There were two shoe shops, two menswear outlets, a picture theatre, a pet store, and a haberdashery. “You name it, we had it,” Bhula says. That changed when St Luke’s Mall came along, he says. Most of the neighbouring businesses closed down, replaced by takeaway joints and dairies. Bhula sees the removal of car parks on New North Rd as kicking him while he’s down. After 38 years in business, he wants out of Mt Albert. “I’m selling this place as a going concern,” he says.
Down the road, Chill Out Thai is just getting underway with its dinner orders. Its co-owner, Pat Saychonpituck, is already frantic. He’s the only chef in the kitchen tonight and there’s no help on the way. “We used to be having at least six staff but now only three some nights,” he says.
Chill Out started as an internet cafe a decade ago. Gaming is Saychonpituck’s hobby. He kept its name after he transitioned the business into a Thai restaurant, despite it serving curries so hot it’s hard to sit still after eating one, let alone chill out. A few years ago the restaurant was thriving. But Saychonpituck says roadworks during the town centre upgrade took a toll. “We talk among ourselves and say ‘okay, maybe when construction finishes we’ll look at it again’. We hope it will pick up again with the economy. But I think it’s still dropped. Not picking up.”
Just a few blocks up the road though, a different story is unfolding. By 5.15pm the Chinese restaurants along Mt Albert’s main street are filling up. Walkers are filing past the shops with dogs in tow, hoping to watch the sunset from the summit of Ōwairaka. Packed trains of commuters are unloading at the station just below the town centre. Their walk home will take them past the area’s newest bar, Albert’s Post. Its owner, Steve Gough, took over the lease on what used to be a tacky gift shop next to Triniti of Silver Cafe about a year ago and fitted it out as a pub. It’s already a popular stop-off point for locals. There’s Emerson’s and Panhead on tap; a kids’ playground out back.
In contrast to some of Mt Albert’s other shop owners, Gough is bullish about the suburb’s potential. He’s just been elected head of the local business association and wants to sell people on the area. “One of the things I’m trying to do is reset the narrative. Because we’re not going to develop our town centre by telling everyone how shit it is,” he says. “We’ve got to tell people how great it is. We’ve got to convince them why they should come to see us. You can fight the battles over issues but let’s not let that be all we talk about.”
Gough points out that despite the complaints about parking, an often underused carpark sits behind the ASB just 40 metres walk from the town centre. “They’re not right outside your shop but they are closer than the park that you’re going to get at St Luke’s mall,” he says. He sees more upside for his business from public transport anyway. When the City Rail Link arrives, Mt Albert will be 15 minutes from the city centre, and the way into town will be walking through the shops, past his bar, and down to the train station, he says. “We chose our site quite deliberately. We’re by a train station. We’re on a major bus route. There’s a very wealthy and supportive demographic who live around us. They want businesses to do well. As businesses we have to find the things they want.”
Albert’s Post is a passion project for Gough and his wife Anna. They gave up careers in accounting and marketing respectively to launch the venture. Gough says it meets a gap in the Mt Albert market. Currently the only other bar on the main road is Hops and Hooves, with its evening crowd of dead-eyed gamblers playing pokie machines and swilling cheap pints. Across the road, Nara Lee has a similar story. She opened Handpicked Coffee Roasters late last year to share her passion for coffee with the local community. It’s the only boutique coffee operation in the town centre, using environmentally-friendly, specialty grade beans, and is often the place locals point to when they talk about the area’s more exciting new businesses.
Lee says she was drawn to the heritage value of the bungalow building where she operates from. One of Mt Albert’s great strengths is that it’s close to the city by public transport, while retaining both its sense of history and community feel, she says. “I love the young and elder combined atmosphere. Most people look active. Small parks and lovely sidewalks makes people enjoy time with their loved persons.”
Few people are more invested in the Mt Albert community than Catherine Goodwin. She was born and raised in the area, and returned to put down roots after serving time as a lawyer in London, this year taking over as chief executive of the real estate business founded by her father, Goodwins. She is professional and precise, but still oozes enthusiasm when asked about her home. “In all seriousness, I’m an ultra-fan of Mt Albert. I think the local schools, parks, and recreational facilities are fantastic. I love the diversity here. I love that this is still very much a multi-generational area,” she says. “For a family like us – you can build a legacy here.”
Though Goodwin shares people’s concerns over the loss of carparks in the town centre upgrade, she’s excited to see investment happening in Mt Albert. Like Bhula, she wants the return of the specialty stores that once dotted New North Rd – butchers, greengrocers and homeware – along with more apartments and commercial spaces. But that change can’t come at the cost of the area’s character, she says. “We would just hope that the planning and consent for these types of businesses in the town centre would be subject to the same heritage and road-facing precursors that other areas such as Mt Eden, Ponsonby and Herne Bay enjoy. That is, the character of Mt Albert isn’t lost in modernisation. This is a special area, and one which deserves growth and expansion, but to retain its inherent character at the same time.”
Goodwin says modernising Mt Albert will require business owners taking greater pride in the presentation and upgrade of their buildings. One vision for the future of the suburb could look like Mia Chen’s business, Eggloo. Chen’s stock and trade is selling surprisingly beautiful build-your-own desserts out of a small headquarters next to Lemon Grass. Her shop is a little different from some others in the area. It’s meticulously tidy, always decorated with fresh flowers, and kitted out with modern decor. “I tried to do something different and bring some new ideas to this area,” she says.
Chen uses Eggloo as a home base for her two food trucks, which she stations at Sylvia Park shopping centre and Lynn Mall. Its profits are still marginal, but she sees it as a worthwhile investment. Without it, she would have to rent a commercial kitchen to supply the trucks. Eggloo is just at the start of its tenure in town, and it isn’t certain whether or not it will stick around. A little further down the road though, another new business is taking the best of what Mt Albert already does well and infusing it with new ideas – and this one is already turning a decent profit.
At 4.50pm, Linda Dai and her family are having dinner at an empty table in their restaurant Taste In Memory. They have to eat early because soon the small restaurant will be overrun with customers. This is the only time they have with their children after school. “Every day I’m very busy so I can’t have some free time overnight to do anything,” Dai says. “So some more people tell me ‘oh you are so good. I say ‘I don’t know’. I’m just trying to get better. I don’t have free time overnight to do it.”
Every morning Dai’s prepares the long list of ingredients for Taste In Memory’s Shanghai-style menu. In the evening she’s in charge of the front of house. Her husband, Gang Wu, is charged with the painstaking process of making some of the best xiao long bao in Auckland. Despite its obvious quality, the food is cheap, with plates of noodles and dumplings available from $8 to $12. The restaurant sits comfortably alongside Mt Albert’s other powerhouse Chinese outlets – BBQ Noodle House and its competing next door neighbour, also named BBQ Noodle House.
Dai says she wanted to offer a different take on what Chinese food could be in the suburb. “I hope my restaurant is so different. I can give you so good food and very cheap. And so beautiful. Like sushi and the Japanese foods, you can have a little and be very full,” she says. “That’s where my restaurant is so different to another Chinese restaurant. Very small. But very clean and very beautiful.”
If you want to look at the future of Mt Albert, you could do worse than walking through the unassuming entrance of Taste In Memory. It’s in keeping with the character of the area, and it’s offering something unique. It draws from a well-established tradition, and projects that tradition forward. It’s old and new at the same time.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.