Gochu at Commercial Bay (Photo: Yuki Zhang)

Commercial Bay is weirdly radical and the future of malls

A new mall in downtown Auckland prizes food over shopping and public transport over private. Duncan Greive digests it all.

Next year St Lukes, the venerable icon mall of Auckland’s inner west, will turn 50, showing the enduring power of the imported American shopping innovation. It arrived just eight years after New Zealand’s first, Lynnmall, built in 1963 for $21m in today’s dollars, but by the early 70s the country was already becoming infested with these smorgasbords of brightly lit retail action. 

Growing up, St Lukes was a wonderland, a safe space to start being an independent person. I bought my first cassette there (Dennis Leary’s No Cure For Cancer, unaccountably), and my first really expensive pair of shorts (Rusty, in red, $79.99 – in 1993!) at Amazon. Recently my second-eldest daughter had her first mostly unsupervised trip to the mall there. I’m getting emotional just typing about it.

Only, St Lukes isn’t the high-gloss shopping experience it once was. It hasn’t had a major overhaul in over a decade, and, despite its central location, has been usurped from its former position as New Zealand’s fanciest mall by a host of others – Albany, Riccarton, Sylvia Park, Newmarket… Even the upgraded LynnMall comfortably shades it. According to Steve, it shows:

IMAGE: WESTFIELD ST LUKE’S SITE

As of a couple of weeks ago, it slipped another rung back when Commercial Bay opened and – I don’t say this lightly – changed everything we thought we knew about malls. 

Looking towards the Commercial Bay outlets of Tart and Wise Boys, two small, local vegan food businesses (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The definition of a mall

Let’s pause for a second and think about what a mall actually is. A collection of mostly chain stores, selling products made mostly in the world’s factory, China, mostly hitting the low-to-middle price points. It exists because it has a great many different products in one place, because it works in all weather, and interacts beautifully with those other keystones of 20th century life, the motorway and the private car. 

The great malls of our time are defined by having near infinite carparks and existing near to motorway on- and off-ramps. As time wore on, they evolved somewhat – adding supermarkets and movie theatres, the former a nod to all-of-outing utility, the latter a recognition that going to the mall is not simply about purchasing a much-needed new product, but about shopping as leisure. Like a casino, which has no visible clocks, natural light or exit that anyone can find, mall operators want you to stay as long as possible and spend as much as you can. This is why food courts became a key bolt-on to the mall experience – if people get hungry, they might leave. Let them eat, so that they might stay.

The food court at St Lukes is not its beating heart. (That honour goes to the majestic double-high atrium, where Santa hangs in December and NZ’s Next Top Model once staged a live event.) If you must stop shopping to eat, you do it fast – you can eat delicious, bland interpretations of world cuisine, served from bain maries throughout the day. You can be refuelled and ready to go to Smiggle (if young) or Typo (if old) in under 15 minutes. But it’s an unlovely part of the mall, tucked under and around the escalators, well away from the garment district and Kmart, which feels like the mall’s current centre of gravity.

St Lukes (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Back to Commercial Bay

This has been the format for malls forever: a huge volume of retail; just enough food to keep your energy levels up for shopping. It might have been tweaked around the edges a bit – Sylvia Park has a huge Nando’s and a number of other sit-down restaurants, while Westfield Newmarket has a similar scene atop the giant hulking colossus. Yet the vast bulk of their floorspace remains devoted to shopping – they were conceived of and constructed so their owners could extract the maximum possible rent from retailers. And each is still situated next to motorways, with frankly eerie amounts of parking around everywhere. The story of the mall as it has always been, with a modern refurb.

Commercial Bay flips the whole thing on its head. It cost $1bn, or 50 times what LynnMall did back in ‘63, but the tag is misleading – it also includes 38-storey PWC tower and an Intercontinental for good measure. More than the price inflation, it’s the inversion of the classic mall archetype that shows just what a quantum leap it is. 

Firstly, rather than a bunch of retail with a food court attached, Commercial Bay is a food court with a bit of retail attached. That’s not strictly true – there are 60 retailers against 40 hospitality clients. But the equivalent numbers for St Lukes are 127 and 28. Which is to say that drinking and eating represents 40% of Commercial Bay’s tenant base, while St Lukes’ food offering is 18% of its tenancy.

But even that understates the gravity of the shift. The hospitality areas – divided into multiple distinct areas, with different price points and pace – are clearly the result of meticulous care and thought. There are none of the chains that have dominated food courts for decades here – no McDonalds, no KFC, no Subway or Coffee Club. Instead it is tenanted by outposts of a swathe of hospitality clients that barely existed five years ago, like vegan bakery Tart, or cannot be found anywhere else, like super buzzy and great new Korean restaurant Gochu.

Without knowing what the leases look like, you would guess that the food offering is returning significantly less proportionally than the retail. It’s hard to imagine Paella Pod delivering what Icebreaker is to owner-developers Precinct Properties. Yet that contrast overlooks the function of the food – it’s no longer to energise a hungry leisure shopper. It’s now there to attract them in the first place. Food has gone from a cynical afterthought to the main attraction. The shops from the reason you come to parasites that catch you on the way into or out of what you’re really there to do, which is eat.

It’s also not near a motorway, or not very near one, and if there’s carparking I never saw a sign for it. Besides, anyone who drives into the central city right now is either a partner at a law firm or a sadist. Instead it’s situated alongside Britomart station, which will have a capacity of 36,000 passengers per hour when the revamped City Rail Link version opens in 2024. Adjacent to it are a ferry terminal, cruise ship terminal and bike lanes – which is to say that it’s the first major development to face a future where the private car is not the default transport mode. 

Commercial Bay, looking past Kōkako coffee bar (Photo: Getty Images)

What does it all mean?

This is extremely big and consequential, for New Zealand, and for our economy. It is the confluence of a number of megatrends, and seems to anticipate them, rather than resist them, the way other recent megamalls do. The emphasis on food is part of the shift towards the experience economy, valuing things you have done rather than those you possess, and towards eating and drinking being perceived as more profound leisure activities than shopping. (This can be seen in miniature in the Rodd & Gunn menswear store, which has a restaurant attached to its prime location.)

The reduction in the quantum of retail within the mall environment shows the impact of online shopping, which, while still often impulse driven, mostly reduces the value and function of stores. And the alignment with public transport over private is a consequence of both the increasing density of the city, and of city planners looking to break the addiction to motorways and replace it with lower carbon alternatives.

It also portends a quite different economy. While St Lukes is largely filled with chain retailers, Commercial Bay, despite its name, has emphasised a much more independent lineup. The vast majority of the food offerings are either unique, or have only a handful of small branches. That might change in future, but was clearly a strategic play. Same goes for a number of the retail offerings, with the likes of Superette, Ingrid Starnes (RIP) and Just Another Fisherman examples of operators unimaginable in a traditional mall environment. The curation suggests that Precinct wants you to have an experience you cannot replicate anywhere else, whereas part of St Lukes’ pitch was in part about its familiarity and ubiquity. 

This has flow-on consequences, though. Small businesses are far more likely to market mostly or entirely through social media or email databases. In a similar way, the big retailers like Cos and H&M rarely advertise through traditional channels either, letting their brand, prices and collaborations do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Some consider prime inner-city locations marketing unto themselves. None of that is good for our ad-funded media – Harvey Norman has done cover takeovers of seemingly every major newspaper every day for a week. Cos isn’t going to do that, and nor is Burger Burger.

Yet it’s probably good on balance for our overall economy. Hospitality is by its nature more labour intensive than retail. Three people can work hard for hours in the space occupied by a counter in a large retail store – a bustle and energy unimaginable in a retail-dominated mall. A move to denser, more vibrant cities brings with it more demand for apartments, which are a cheaper, lower carbon and more easy-to-scale form of housing. This allows younger people to live close to the city, and gives them a greater share of their income to spend on anything but housing, which helps spin the flywheel faster.

It’s not uncomplicated, though. For all its innovation, Commercial Bay remains a giant and imposing structure, which excludes as much as it attracts. The centre was at pains to say those barred from entry for carrying signs after a Black Lives Matter protest were not actually contravening its policy, but malls by definition are private spaces and less free than the city which surrounds them. Having a bunch of low-priced food offerings bunched together won’t solve the hospitality crisis, and could exacerbate it by hollowing out other areas and leading to unhealthy competition on price. For some, the concept of a mall remains anathema, regardless of what it sells, a force that sucks people from the streets and neighbourhoods, and makes them less hospitable as a result.

On balance, though, Commercial Bay feels like something new and intriguing. Modern and lively and different, much as I’m sure LynnMall and St Lukes did when they first appeared a half century ago. While I have a baked in and unshiftable nostalgia for St Lukes, and will continue to go there more than any other mall out of some learned homing instinct, I also recognise that, like me, its time is passing. Commercial Bay is the new mall of our dreams, at once familiar and in its own way, quite radical.



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