Hanging lights in a tree on Courtenay Place. Photo: Joel MacManus
Hanging lights in a tree on Courtenay Place. Photo: Joel MacManus

OPINIONBusinessJuly 8, 2024

Windbag: Holy shit, there are hanging lights in that tree!

Hanging lights in a tree on Courtenay Place. Photo: Joel MacManus
Hanging lights in a tree on Courtenay Place. Photo: Joel MacManus

Courtenay Place is dead. Long live Courtenay Precinct.

Windbag is The Spinoff’s Wellington issues column, written by Wellington editor Joel MacManus. It’s made possible thanks to the support of The Spinoff Members.

It was dreary and dark, the traffic on Cambridge Terrace was impatient. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it – at the edge of Courtenay Place, a glisten, a sparkle. I swear, I almost crashed the car. “Holy shit, there are hanging lights in that tree!” I yelled to nobody in particular.

I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I went back the next day to confirm they were real, that I wasn’t dreaming. They shone through the branches like garden fairies having orgasms. It’s embarrassing that some mediocre lights above a public toilet are so exciting, but this is the first visual facelift Courtenay Place has had since… the Tripod statue in 2005?

Courtenay Place matters to Wellington. When decision-makers talk about how to fix this city and get its mojo back, they’re happy to bang on about public transport and water infrastructure – the big, meaty issues. Compared to that, having a fun place to go out on a Friday doesn’t seem so important. But it is. At their core, cities are about connections between people. Young people don’t just flock to cities for jobs but because they promise better social environments. More stuff to do, friends to make, and people to have sex with. The entertainment and hospitality industries are far more important to the city than just their economic spend – they’re what attracts people, what gives the city life.

Courtenay Place in 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Like most industries, hospitality struggled through the double-whammy of Covid and the recession. Courtenay Place seems to have struggled more than most. The street looks tired, and it lacks a drawcard to bring people there before midnight – it doesn’t have the natural beauty of the waterfront, the office crowd of Lambton Quay, or Cuba Street’s fountain made of buckets. Still, with all its problems, Courtenay Place is the best congregation of late-night fun anywhere in the country outside of Karangahape Road (and, with some improvements, still has the potential to challenge for the top spot).

The hanging lights are a small sign of the new Courtenay Precinct. The plan is the brainchild of a group of bar and restaurant owners, with some support from corporate sponsors and council grants. They hope to extend the area’s appeal to be not just a place for the after-midnight crowd, but for afternoons and evenings too.

The name “Courtenay Precinct” refers to Courtenay Place and the surrounding side streets, such as Blair, Allen and Tory. Justin McKenzie, who owns two bars in the precinct (CGR Merchant & Co and Hawthorn Lounge), said a rebrand was needed because of the street’s deteriorating reputation and an unfortunate run of bad news stories.

Justin McKenzie, owner of Hawthorn Lounge (Photo: Joel MacManus)



The precinct’s first event, Eat Street, ran over the past two weeks, featuring buskers, performers and street parades. Each bar and eatery promoted a special small plate. It was a small festival; advertising wasn’t particularly prominent. The weather was terrible, and the council didn’t support any road closures, so the street parades ended up being processions down the footpaths. Still, as it coincided with Matariki celebrations, McKenzie says his bars had the equivalent of a “normal weekend” by pre-Covid, pre-recession standards. Sunaina Gill, who runs Jugnu’s Little India on Blair Street, said she had a busier-than-usual weekend, though customers didn’t seem particularly aware of the Eat Street offerings.

That the event was small is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s perfect. WellingtonNZ and the council events team put a lot of focus on big, showy events that bring people in from out of town. But that’s quite a provincial way of thinking – the same logic behind Wings over Wairarapa or Featherston Booktown. Arguably, small but regular activities around the Courtenay Precinct could be much cheaper and make a much bigger difference. A proper city should feel vibrant every weekend, not just during a big event.

There is palpable excitement among some of the business owners involved in Courtenay Precinct. Everyone has been in survival mode for the last few years; this is the first time in a long time that there are real discussions about building a collective future for the street. As I spoke with Gill, she bubbled with ideas, excitedly talking about cross-promoting with other businesses, getting buskers outside her restaurant, and creating better connections to the waterfront.

Sunaina Gill at Jugnu’s Little India on Blair Street (Photo: Joel MacManus)

The precinct is planning more events, including Road to Beervana, an all-inclusive beer week ahead of the national festival. McKenzie is working on plans to set up an outdoor fan zone for the two upcoming All Blacks tests and hopes to get approval to close Courtenay Place between Tory Street and Cambridge Terrace for a New Year’s Eve street party.

This is all long, long overdue. Decision-making around Courtenay Place has been in a period of stasis for years. Nothing has changed. The Golden Mile upgrade was meant to be the circuit breaker – and it will make an enormous difference to the streetscape if/when it actually happens. But Wellington City Council seems to have forgotten an important lesson it learned from the Island Bay cycleway. Doing one big, expensive, permanent street change creates conflict, inaction and budget blowouts. Wellington’s cycleway rollout has been successful because the council embraced temporary solutions that are quicker and cheaper to install and easy to adapt based on feedback.

In the eight years Wellington has spent arguing about the Golden Mile, why has the council never trialled a traffic-free weekend on Courtenay Place? It’s not hard, just chuck down some cones and planter boxes. There are some dirt-cheap upgrades that would go a long way towards making Courtenay Precinct feel a lot more inviting. Why can’t we just string a few festoon flags across Blair and Allen Street? Why can’t we make it a little easier to run a parade down the street? Why did it take so long to put some goddamn hanging lights in that tree?

Keep going!