House Stark of Hamilton: the developer who wants the city to face the river

He’s young, he’s relentless, and he claims to care more about the beauty of his creations than the money they make him. Matt Stark is a new generation of property developer, and he’s hopelessly devoted to The Tron.

Behind Hamilton’s back doors runs a river, and property developer Matt Stark surveys its twirling eddies with the fervour of a true believer.

“This is our greatest asset,” he raves. Stark, 36, takes an outside seat at Gothenburg, one of the few establishments in Hamilton where you can enjoy cocktails or tapas while sitting in the dappled light of giant old plane trees, gazing on the flowing waters for which the Waikato River was named. “Who has a river flowing right on your doorstep?”

This city does. As his English Breakfast tea goes cold, Stark laments all the years Hamilton has had its back to this resplendent awa and insists the main street must be reoriented, re-directed, to turn its face to the water. And he’s getting the ball rolling.

Stark Property redeveloped the Riverbank Arcade, which had sat empty for 24 years, into Riverbank Lane and assisted with development of an adjacent open-air terrace which opened in January. Victoria on the River is essentially an amphitheatre built high on the riverbank, facing the opposite way from most other buildings on the main street – towards the water, rather than away from it.

The developer turned a dilapidated gentleman’s club into riverside office space and various other landmarks have been given new lives during Stark’s crusade to re-imagine the CBD.

Stark Property is supported by two silent investors and owns an estimated 15-20% of Hamilton’s CBD. It takes time to transform a city, but Stark believes the CBD is an under-rated opportunity which is ripe for gentrification and about to have its moment. He’s picturing fast commuter ferries on the river, industrial laneways tenanted by artisans, and inner-city apartments. “I want to make Hamilton the most liveable city in New Zealand,” Stark says. “People will laugh at me but I don’t give a ripper.”

Stark pushed for this open air terrace on the banks of Hamilton’s river. Photo: Keri Welham

The most liveable city goal is perhaps what spurred him to spend $10,000 of his own money helping develop a vision for the geographical heart of Hamilton, even though he insists he will make nothing out of the possible revamp. Stark and fellow property investor Steve McLennan developed a proposal to spend $3.9 million rejuvenating Garden Place, a tired, bedraggled, forlorn central city space.  “The heart of the city should be represented well,” Stark says, “and it starts from there.”

But there’s lively opposition. “People are hating on it,” he admits.

Matt Stark’s clean-cut, grinning face is reminiscent of Tom Cruise, circa 1996’s Jerry Maquire. He has deep-etched laugh lines and a wide grin erupts across his face often. He enjoys water skiing, biking and multi-sports. He is “a big fan of a guy called Jesus” and regularly attends an independent Pentecostal church called Gateway Church. He and his wife Jaimee bought a 1950s house in the city, with a river view, for $550,000 about three years ago. It’s just down the road from Stark’s office so he often rides an e-bike home for lunch. He works 45 hours a week and swims in the river most days.

Jaimee Stark is a graphic designer whose sharp eye for aesthetics has been a key differentiator in Stark Property ventures. These days she’s busy wrangling the couple’s two children under three, but in earlier years they travelled to Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, a visit that has remained the couple’s enduring inspiration for Stark Property.

Abbott Kinney is a 1.6km long street which has developed organically, shop by shop, into a diverse, bustling strip. It’s a magical blend of tacos, cacti, barbers, body art, florists, murals, mustard suede heels, buskers, vegan sliders, food truck caps, designer ice cream, huskies, overalls, pilates, exposed brick, faded posters, henna, denim and petanque. These may not be images you associate with Hamilton – yet. But Matt Stark is only just getting started.

Right now, Stark’s relentlessly optimistic gaze is fixed on Garden Place. On March 29, Hamilton City Council will release its Ten Year Plan for community consultation, within which will be Stark and McLennan’s $3.9m proposal to rejuvenate Garden Place. There were three original options, including one which was to essentially accept the status quo, but city councillors voted to progress the option to consultation. The proposal Stark collaborated on features a large playground, 40 carparks and walkways.

The plan for Garden Place, and the controversial carparks. Image: Supplied

Garden Place has been a central city eyesore since forever, and many commentators and ratepayers are sick of forking out for failed attempts to resuscitate it. The option Stark helped develop features 7000m2 of open space but it’s the carparks which have people incensed.

Opponents don’t want traffic in Garden Place, but Stark argues carparks will activate the space. “We were trying to do it on a shoestring,” he says, apologetically. Anything more aspirational would cost a lot more. “Carparks are not the most ideal, I agree. But you put 40 carparks in Garden Place and that’s at least 40 people walking and creating vibrancy.” He says foot traffic might encourage more robust commercial activity and, if enough people were using Garden Place, the car spaces could eventually be taken away.

Hamilton City Councillor Angela O’Leary says Stark’s inner-city developments have been “fresh and modern”, but she does not support the Garden Place proposal. “The issue is not enough people use the space. The answer is activation – more activities and events. This has been proven in every other city our size in the world. Otherwise we just end up with [a] nicer place that people still don’t use.” She expects the council will receive many Ten Year Plan submissions opposing the Garden Place proposal.

Stark’s long-time tenant Graham Dwyer is another who opposes the proposal. “There are virtually no cities in the world that are putting cars into cities,” Dwyer argues. “They’re taking them out!” Dwyer intends to put in a personal submission opposing the proposal, which he says is not aspirational enough to truly make a difference to Garden Place. “Maybe it needs $10 million?” He’d like to see Hamilton City Council take some responsibility for activating Garden Place as the council building borders one edge of the park. There should be doors and shops opening onto the public space, he says.

Stark Property’s Knox Street development. Photo: Supplied

However, Dwyer believes that now the revamp is on the table, residents have been challenged to act. Garden Place is fixing itself, he says, because residents are making more of an effort to use the space. “It’ll get taken care of,” he says. “It’s already better.”

Stark was born in Auckland but the family moved to Hamilton when he was four. In Hamilton, Stark’s father Ray started a tech company. While Ray Stark probably appeared wildly successful because he occasionally had to travel to access offshore markets, the business was run on a shoestring. The family always had a place to call home, but Stark recalls times when they had to skimp on food.  “He started with nothing,” Stark says of his father. “It was that classic Kiwi story: the world’s your oyster.”

Stark’s mother Lynette worked fulltime as a legal secretary so Matt and his older brother Phil could attend private Southwell School, which caters for Year 1-8 and currently charges $16,120 a year for an intermediate-age day student. It was a constant struggle to pay the tuition fees and other school costs. The Starks’ financial circumstances were quite different from many of their Southwell peers. “We had the budgetest sports gear, the budgetest car…”

While there was some financial uncertainty in his childhood, what Stark says he remembers is his parents’ broad, enthusiastic outlook and encouragement to take bold risks. “So much belief.” In their teens, the Stark brothers were offered jobs cleaning at their dad’s work. Matt got the sack for mucking around. Phil stayed on and worked his way to the top. He’s now 38 and CEO of TalkingTech, the Hamilton-based international IT company Ray Stark began with $1000 on a credit card.

Matt knew tech was not for him. “From the age of six, all I wanted to be was a builder.” Phil says his brother had “a knack” for building that emerged from a young age. Around 13, Matt built a 10m high, three-storey treehouse. He left school to be a builder at the start of sixth form (Year 12), and completed an apprenticeship, moved to London where he did commercial fit-outs for banks, then returned to Hamilton.

Inside the Riverbank Lane development in the Hamilton CBD. Photo: Supplied

At 24, he began residential development. It initially went well but the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) nailed him. So he mowed lawns and did up bathrooms for friends, and says that early lesson in almost going under was invaluable. He developed a respect for money, an understanding of what it is to be in business, and saw, up-close, what hard times look like. “You think you’re invincible and bulletproof, but actually you’re not. It was such a humbling experience for me. I have a much better respect for money and I’m grateful.”

Stark Property’s committed buy-up of central Hamilton land is a particularly bold move when a gargantuan mall sits to the city’s north, effortlessly luring shoppers to its 2100 carparks and 183 retail stores. The Base changed the retail scene in Hamilton when it was developed by Tainui Group Holdings and opened in 2005. It’s in Te Rapa, 7km north of the city’s CBD, and is New Zealand’s largest shopping centre.

Stark appears unperturbed. He doesn’t believe the CBD should try to compete with the malls. He envisions a central city which is home to artisans, small owner-occupier businesses, niche boutiques. But there aren’t enough of those businesses to fill the CBD so Stark is now considering options for inner-city living developments. 

When Stark Property designs a building, Stark says, the people who will work or live there are most important. This sounds like just the sort of line you’d expect from a Tom Cruise doppelganger, but a quick study with a sceptical eye reveals no twitching, nose rubbing or other signs of bald-faced insincerity. Perhaps he’s for real.

Stark says the second consideration is beautiful design. “My daughter is two,” he explains. “And she is particular about how her Marmite is spread on her toast.” If she’s that discerning, he reckons, she will one day grow up and cast a critical eye over her father’s efforts to improve Hamilton’s CBD. “I want her to be proud, not say: ‘Dad, that’s a disgrace’.”

Third, he says, is financial reward. Graham Dwyer, the tenant who opposes Stark’s Garden Place plan, is chair of business-led think-tank Agenda Waikato and a director at Ace Training. He says, as a long-time Stark Property tenant, he has noticed Stark’s fanaticism around detail and design. “If you’re cynical, you could argue he’s doing that as an investment.”

Stark Property’s Riverbank Lane development. Photo: Supplied

Dwyer is sure Stark is being pedantic and design-led to protect his investment. But he says it’s also clear Stark has regard for his tenants’ quality of life and cares an uncommon amount about the beauty of his creations, which has not always been true of developers in Hamilton.

A February 2018 economic growth report placed Hamilton’s estimated population at 165,400. In June 2016, there were 14,424 businesses in the city.  In 2017, $195 million worth of commercial and industrial building consents were granted by Hamilton City Council, representing developments totalling 117,000m2. In area, this was the third largest year for commercial and industrial building consents granted by the council since 2005. In dollar terms, 2017 was by far the largest year in that 12-year span.

Hamilton has long been considered a stink place to visit and a wonderful place to live. But Stark hopes negative perceptions of Hamilton will change as visitors discover it’s not all about The Hood – the notorious bar where a barricade of police is stationed for an early morning witching hour of violent crime every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. In January, the city’s district licensing committee decided not to renew the bar’s liquor license. If the ruling is not successfully challenged, The Hood will be unable to serve alcohol from next month.

Instead of that scene, Stark says you should fill your mind with images of riverside cycleways, world-class restaurants, street art, bright cafes, tiny taco bars and facilities such as the spectacular Hamilton Gardens. And if you’re looking for somewhere to live, Hamilton offers bustling industries and affordable homes. Stark says it’s hard for Aucklanders to move to Hamilton. “There’s not the greatest shops. But it’s that whole coming of age. It’s moving, but it’s not quite there. It’s a place of opportunity. We’ve got so much land, no restrictions. We’ve got options. We need people with vision and creativity.”

There’s an unpretentiousness in Hamilton, he says. “Hamiltonians appreciate authentic people.”  

Stark’s Waikato co-working hub, Panama House. Photo: Supplied

Stark loves the rich diversity of his community. It’s a city happily bereft of the urban sprawl of larger cities, where residents of distant and demographically disparate suburbs seldom collide. Stark has friends who are teachers, nurses, pastors, lawyers, with incomes and lifestyles at all ends of the spectrum. “A town like Hamilton jumbles you together,” he says. “We’ve got Parnell, St Heliers, Otara, One Tree Hill – all together.”

Interestingly, zealots like Stark are not rare; in fact, it’s common to find people aching to declare their love for the city they affectionately call The Tron, after a radio station’s genius 1990s slogan ‘Hamiltron, City of the Future’. Perhaps other locales fail to engender such fervour because they haven’t weathered the derision which has been aimed at Hamilton for decades. “[Hamilton] gets a bad rap,” Stark says. “But I’d never slag any place because it’s someone’s home.”

This is his home. Stark says although he’s currently scoping projects in Mount Maunganui and is likely to consider opportunities in Auckland, his property company will always be Hamilton-based,  “I love Auckland. I reckon it’s an incredible city. But I think there’s something really amazing about believing in one place and going hard. We’re based here.”

It’s common to hear Hamiltonians talking about retiring to The Mount or a beach location in the Coromandel. Stark looks incredulous that anyone would consider it. “This is your home! Don’t leave Hamilton. Why would you leave?” Phil Stark says his little brother has long been a megafan of Hamilton, and that passion likely deepened when the city presented opportunities for him to rebuild after the GFC.

“In terms of his enthusiasm for what he wants to do for Hamilton, that’s pretty unique around these parts. There’s opportunity here. Hamilton has been neglected and has been let down by developers in for the quick buck. You can see it in the buildings. Some of them are ugly and tired.”

Phil Stark says his brother is tenacious and his desire to rejuvenate Hamilton for the city’s sake is “a genuine thing”. “Once he gets hold of something, there’s no letting go. He believes in what he’s doing, that’s for sure.”

Riverbank Lane. Photo: Supplied

At Victoria on the River, neat beds of succulents lead down to the wide, yawning terrace with that dramatic river view. In a corner of the park, perched high on the riverbank, sit workmates Stacey Martin, 38, and Jackie Thomas, 30. They brought their lunch and came here to catch some sun. Both women are Waikato-born and excited to see Hamilton turning around.

Stacey says: “I’m all for the city making the most of the river, because we haven’t.” She gestures to all the buildings on Victoria St which offer their patrons not a single glimpse of this view. “We need Matt Stark to develop the whole main street.”


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