OPINIONBusinessJune 10, 2024

Wellington desperately needs the Golden Mile upgrade


Wellington’s central streets are in dire need of a spruce-up. Efforts to cancel the Golden Mile upgrade would doom the city to another decade of stagnation.

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.

Last week, Tony Randle and six other councillors forced a vote to pause the Golden Mile upgrade for 18 months to complete another extensive traffic study. Let’s be clear here; an 18-month pause would mean cancellation. Which is exactly what Randle and his allies intended. The project survived by the barest of margins, after mayor Tory Whanau negotiated to water down Randle’s notice of motion. Now, council staff will just be required to produce another report, but with no delays to construction. 

The Golden Mile is Wellington’s main street (well, technically, it’s four streets. And it’s not a mile, it’s 2.43km). It’s the centre of town, surrounded by offices, retail and hospitality, with the best range of transport connections. It has the the most total visitors and the greatest economic value of any area in the city. 

If a city’s main street is a pleasant place to be, people will come into town more often, stay longer, and spend more money. That benefits not only the main street, but all the surrounding areas and the wider city economy. Investments in the main street are some of the highest-impact investments a council can make. Importantly, the main street personifies a city. It’s the place every tourist (and potential future resident) visits. A city with a depleted main street looks like a dying city that no one believes in. A city with a fresh, modern main street looks like a city on the rise. 

The streets that make up Wellington’s Golden Mile are in rough shape. Courtenay Place is scummy. Manners Street is dodgy. Lambton Quay is tired and dated. Willis Street is actually doing pretty well, to be fair. Wellington has struggled with a sense of malaise for the last decade. Cancelling this upgrade would guarantee that stagnation continues for decades to come.

Wellington desperately needs the Golden Mile upgrade. The project would widen the footpaths, create new public squares, and add more trees and green space. The road would become priority bus lanes. It would remove most carparks and vehicle access, though there would still be loading zones for deliveries, mobility parking, and access for taxis and Ubers in the evening and nighttime. The upgrade has an estimated cost of $139 million, with Waka Kotahi NZTA and Wellington City Council each funding half.

The council took over the project after Let’s Get Wellington Moving was disbanded and is currently reworking the proposal. Previous designs removed about 100 car parks from the Golden Mile, and around 200 from side-streets. That sounds like a lot, but for context, Lambton Quay averages about 3,000 pedestrians per hour in any given spot, and there are more than 3,000 metered on-street carparks in the Wellington CBD, not including private parking buildings. 

An artist’s rendering of the upgraded Golden Mile near Midland Park, Lambton Quay.

At the council meeting on Thursday, Kaffee Eis owner Karl Teifenbacher presented a petition from business owners asking the council to stop the project (he also previously circulated a petition to stop a footpath-widening project on Cuba Street). Barry Wilson, a retired lawyer who founded the group Guardians of the Golden Mile, also urged the council to cancel it. Their argument essentially boiled down to the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. But that doesn’t hold water, because the Golden Mile is broke, and Wellington must fix it. 

Before debating any of the specifics of any given project, we need to be clear about the overarching objectives. The long-term goal of any city should be to be vibrant, fun and economically powerful, to provide a lifestyle that attracts and retains residents. 

The primary thing that adds value to a main street like the Golden Mile is foot traffic. Not carparks, taxis, buses or bike lanes. Those are all just ways to get there; money doesn’t get spent until people are on foot. The simple truth is foot traffic is higher in places that are nice to be in. Retail spending is higher too. Through good placemaking and urban design, we can take places that aren’t nice and make them somewhere people want to be. In the 1980s, Wellington’s waterfront was an industrial wasteland and a giant carpark. Then, the city put a lot of time and effort into making it nice, and now people love walking around it. Karl Teifenbacher understands this instinctively, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it outwardly; his three Kaffee Eis locations are on the waterfront, Cuba Street and Courtenay Place, all areas with extremely high foot traffic. 

The Wellington waterfront when it was a giant carpark (Photo: Wellington City Archives)

In any attempt to make a street a great place to be, there will always be tradeoffs. Streets don’t have an unlimited amount of space. Cars take up a lot of room, and if you choose to prioritise them, it takes away from other things. There is a choice between carparks, footpaths, parklets, alfresco dining, benches, trees, sculptures, or space for buskers. We can’t have it all. It is physically impossible. 

A simple truth that many Wellington retailers have struggled to accept is that inner cities don’t work the way they used to. Thirty years ago, people had to pop into town constantly to do admin like going to the bank, the post office, meeting their insurance or real estate agent, and to do most of their shopping. Today, online services, delivery and the rise of suburban shopping have eaten into that market. We could fill Lambton Quay with carparks, but it still wouldn’t make it more convenient than those options. 

So what can a city centre offer that the internet and suburban centres can’t compete with? Entertainment and experiences. Theatres, gigs, better restaurants, high-end retail, street performers, conferences, business meetings, and simply the vibe that comes from being in a crowd of people. 

People don’t have to go into the city to spend money any more. Increasingly, they don’t even have to go there to work. They go because they want to be there. If the allure of the city centre is strong enough, people will find a way to get there, whether it means taking an Uber, a bus or bike. They’ll even be willing to drive and park further away, or pay for private parking. Even crazier still, they could choose to live there. 

Last year, the owners of 103-year-old UFS Pharmacy opted not to renew their lease on Courtenay Place because of the future Golden Mile upgrade. “Once you take the cars out, you take the customers out,” manager Julie Keenan told the NZ HeraldShe believed her business was dependent on people driving into Courtenay Place to pick up their prescriptions. Bargain Chemist and Chemist Warehouse are also on the Golden Mile and already have no carparks outside their shops, yet they appear to be thriving. They understand their true customer base is the thousands of people who walk past their doors because they work or live nearby. 

Studies show central city retail business owners are surprisingly bad at estimating how their customers get to their stores. In Parkdale, Toronto, a quarter of business owners surveyed estimated over half of customers drove to their store. In reality, it was 4%. In central Berlin, business owners estimated 21% of their customers drove. It was actually 6%. In the Berlin survey, the owners who estimated the highest car use were those who drove to work themselves. A 2020 survey on the Golden Mile found just 14% of people on the street had arrived there by car

Major cities around the world are embracing more pedestrian-friendly central streets, including Times Square in New York, Oxford Street in London, and George Street in Sydney. Those cities aren’t doing this because they think its woke or green or vaguely nice. They’re doing it because it is better for business and better for the city as a whole. Yet almost every time one of these projects is proposed, we hear the same voices crying: “We need our carparks, this city is different, it won’t work here.”

When Dunedin upgraded George Street, retailer Brent Weatherall was so angry about the change he put up signs banning mayor Aaron Hawkins from his shop. Once the project was finished, he called it “a vast improvement on what was there before”. When Auckland upgraded Queen Street, Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck was on the front page of the NZ Herald threatening to sue the council. Now that it’s complete, she says “retail demand is outstripping supply”.

It’s understandable that business owners are wary of change. It’s risky, and lots of small business owners don’t like risk. The construction process is always disruptive. In fairness, the engagement teams from Let’s Get Wellington Moving did not do a great job of selling the economic benefits of the Golden Mile to business owners. Their attempts at consultation immediately descended into combat and controversy. But there have also been some bad actors at play. Barry Wilson has spent the past few years scaremongering, running misleading polls, and telling restaurant owners their businesses will be forced to close if they lose a couple of carparks. In his speech to the council last week, he claimed some business owners were on suicide watch because of the possibility of carparks being removed from Courtenay Place.

In her book Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, the former New York city transport chief Janette Sadik-Khan outlines the strategy she used to modernise New York’s streets, including the move to pedestrianise Times Square. Her first big theme is data. The council needs to show business owners hard numbers on why pedestrian-friendly spaces are better for sales and foot traffic. Then, you have to move fast, be adaptable, and trust that people will come around once they see the final outcome. “Some people are never going to be convinced. There’s no magic wand you can wave to make those objections go away. But the proof is in the project,” she said. 

Janette Sadik-Khan (right) with Wellington mayor Tory Whanau (Photo: Joel MacManus)

When I spoke with Sadik-Khan earlier this year, she described her old job as being the “biggest real estate developer in New York”. It’s a good reminder: streets are real estate. And they are public real estate owned by the council, to manage and develop for the good of the city. The Golden Mile streets aren’t owned by the businesses that rent shopfronts. They are owned by all of us, and they should be designed for the maximum benefit of all of us. 

There is a tendency in local government to put business owners on a pedestal, coddle them, and act like their opinions hold more weight that other people because they performed the immense charity of owning a business. But small business owners can be just as stupid, small-minded and pig-headed as the rest of us. In the case of the Golden Mile, Karl Tiefenbacher and the others who are trying to get the upgrade cancelled are simply wrong. Their fears are unfounded, they are stuck in their ways, with no vision for the future or understanding of how modern cities work. The overwhelming consensus among urban design experts is that projects like the Golden Mile upgrade improve foot traffic, retail spending and overall amenity in central city areas.

The Golden Mile will be a better, more vibrant, safer and more enjoyable place once this upgrade happens. It will give Wellington a reason to believe in itself, and help to attract new residents. New shops and restaurants will be eager to get access to a busy, premium area full of people and wallets. If some of the current business owners don’t want to be part of that better future then frankly, they don’t have to be. We shouldn’t hold back our city’s progress for their sake. 

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