Shoppers at Commercial Bay (Photo: Heart of the City)

The rise and recovery of downtown Auckland

The spirit of Auckland’s city centre is evolving as it emerges from the challenges of Covid-19 to continue along the path of the biggest redevelopment in its history. Alice Webb-Liddall met some of the key figures who’ve helped to build that spirit and made the city centre the destination it is today.

If you’d visited Auckland’s waterfront on the day of the final America’s Cup race this year, it would be hard to imagine a time we weren’t allowed to leave our homes. Just one year on from the country’s first level four lockdown, the city was buzzing with life as fans of the sailing converged and St Patrick’s Day celebrations carried the party through to the early morning. 

The opening of Commercial Bay in August 2020 and ongoing redevelopments around Britomart have transformed the lower end of the city into a destination for visitors, foodies and shoppers alike. At Wynyard Quarter, at the western edge of the city centre’s waterfront, creative design and practical thinking have come together to create a space that shows in microcosm the potential of central Auckland. 

Wide spaces, a collection of acclaimed eateries and pedestrian-focused architecture have made Wynyard Quarter a destination not just for those lucky to work in one of the offices on the block, but for residents, families and, as the sun gets lower in the sky, those out for a night on the town.

On a good day, you’ll see people baking themselves in the sun on the steps at the docks, lounging on the giant wooden armchairs, or exploring the history of the area in the container library next to the mechanical overbridge that leads people from downtown to the waterfront precinct. 

Blair Johnston, a principal at Warren and Mahoney architects, believes his job is about creating great spaces for people to live, work, and play. The firm is based in Wynyard Quarter, where Johnston has designed a series of buildings and public spaces which comprise the area’s Innovation Precinct. He also led the design team for the Commercial Bay development opposite the ferry terminal. 

For Johnston, architecture isn’t just about the built environment. It has to include the way pedestrians interact with the spaces framed by buildings to create a city that’s inclusive and more than just a place for the people who work and live within it. He says in the next 10 years Auckland can continue to establish itself as a laneway city, connected by its network of smaller streets and lanes lined with retail and hospitality offerings and business spaces. 

“Every day in the built environment we communicate how we place our values. How you develop the waterfront is communicating your values. The location of industry along the waterfront is communicating your values, so there’s a wide range of things there, both at the detail level and at the macro level,” he says.

“I’m far more interested in creating great places than great buildings. I think our best work synthesises a range of those influences and seeks to reflect Auckland’s position as the capital of the Pacific – young, multicultural, diverse, sustainable, in tune with the landscape.”

Running adjacent to Queen Street, High Street is famous for its boutique independent retail and hospitality. Unity Books has been a fixture on High Street since 1989, and owner and manager Jo McColl has been there since the beginning. She’s seen High Street go through many iterations over the past decades, and is now hopeful that a more pedestrian-friendly vision can make it once again what it was in the 80s: a premier destination for shopping in the heart of downtown.

“We’ve been here now 32 years and when we opened it was a really exciting street to be in. A lot of businesses that were all starting out at the same time and were all very supportive of one another,” she says, but in the late 90s “the street really changed its vibe and a lot of the independents left and chains moved in”.

Before the footpaths were revamped shopping on the street was far less pleasant than it should have been, she says. The narrow pedestrian spaces led to window shoppers “blocking the whole footpath, and that’s just ridiculous”. Now, the street has been opened right back up, making the experience of not only shopping, but walking through the street far more enjoyable.

The brands being showcased in the windows of High Street aren’t the same ones you’ll find on any other street in the central city. You can feel that uniqueness from the footpath, and now that there’s space to stop and window shop, the street feels like less of a thoroughfare between the arts precinct and Britomart, and is again a destination itself.

Jo McColl stands outside Unity Books on High Street (Photo: Heart of the City)

Connecting the hustle of Queen Street to the bustle of High Street are a series of small paved lanes directly adjacent to the main strip. For six years Edouard LeGoff has run Le Chef Restaurant on the pedestrian-only Vulcan Lane, and has been a key player in developing the culture and visual aesthetic of the area. 

The team at Le Chef run events throughout the year, the most recent being La Longue Table du Chef – a five-night dining experience in March that served over 400 people in what LeGoff describes as a part of the city with a distinct “European spirit”. 

“I’m trying to bring the French diversity to Auckland. France is so far away so we’re trying to help Aucklanders travel to France,” he says. 

La Longue Table du Chef was postponed twice due to lockdowns three and four, but LeGoff’s hopeful future events will have a clearer path. He’s waiting patiently, and optimistically, for the days when crowds of international visitors once again fill the central city. 

“I can’t wait to have the borders reopened, and I’m sure the next three or four years are going to be awesome for New Zealand when all of the people who wanted to come in 2020 and 2021 will all come back. It will be filled with tourists.”

Two years ago LeGoff led the charge to get fairy lights installed in upper-Vulcan Lane, which now provides a warm glow after the sun goes down. For years the narrow lane was dimly-lit and according to LeGoff was a favoured dumping ground for rubbish and other mess left behind each night. 

“Previously there was no lighting and it was a health and safety risk. We did work hard to get the fairy lights and since we’ve had them there’s been no more problems on the lane. It brings more people here.”

Edouard LeGoff at Le Chef (Photo: Heart of the City)

A short wander down from Le Chef and Unity Books is Fort Street, a semi-pedestrianised zone where cars and pedestrians share the same space. It’s a vibrant ecosystem home to famous hospitality joints like Ima Cuisine, Cassia, Vivace and Miann, retail offerings like Lacoste, a couple of backpacker hostels and a handful of chain food outlets. Hidden below street-level on Fort Lane, a cobbled laneway extending to one side of Fort Street, is Korean restaurant Seoul Night. 

Founders Ho Byung (HB) Yun and Sam Kim opened the restaurant in 2018 in an attempt to bring Korean dining and drinking culture to downtown. Their goal was to introduce Korean tastes to a western palate, and Fort Lane was the perfect spot.

“In the past two to three years, most of the Korean bars and restaurants have been located on Chancery Street. That’s where a lot of the Asian traffic and students go and drink. We thought it would be better if we brought that down to Fort Lane where people could drink soju and eat Korean food and introduce it to people from other countries, rather than just stick to Chancery and get the same people.”

Their unique approach to showcasing Korean culture has been a hit with Auckland city diners. And now they’re well placed for a future where the city centre’s latest developments – like the Hotel Britomart and Commercial Bay – help create a self-sustaining loop.

“As the downtown area gets developed more people will come to the city and hang around and browse and go shopping and eat and that’s going to help us because there will be more traffic coming into the city centre,” Yun says.  

“The developments that are going on in the city are going to be good for business owners in the long term. We’re in it for the long term, and things like the City Rail Link (CRL) are going to help a lot.”

Sam Kim and Ho Byung Yun standing outside Seoul Night (Photo: Heart of the City)

The City Rail Link will connect more Aucklanders to the central city in a more efficient way than current public transport allows. It’s due to be completed late 2024, providing a faster way to get around Auckland and encouraging more trips into the central city. 

Further up Queen Street, the arts precinct is well-placed to reap the benefits of the CRL with the Aotea station right at the doorstep of some of Auckland’s premier theatre and arts venues. Last year was a tough one for the arts industries with theatres shutting their doors through multiple lockdowns that made planning a show almost impossible. Q Theatre general manager Sarah Graham says for artists it was like walking a tightrope. 

“Confidence within the sector is still not where it was,” she says, adding that full confidence will take some time to return because the level of risk remains so high. “People need to be balancing out their long-term longevity in the industry with the short term need to be putting things out for audiences.”

She’s thankful for events like the Auckland Arts Festival and Pride Month that helped start this year with a bang. It’s already a stark contrast to 2020, when Q Theatre went dark between March and October.

“We just feel so incredibly lucky to have work. We’ve just had the comedy festival and we’re just constantly pinching ourselves that we’re able to do this when so many other countries aren’t yet able to do anything like it.”

After a running-start to 2021, Max Tweedie, the director of Auckland Pride, has had some time to reflect on this year’s Pride festivities. The annual Pride march had a larger attendance than the year before, and some of that is thanks to its new downtown route. Tweedie says the central location not only helped make it accessible to more people, but it’s a place with deep historic connections to the LGBT+ community in New Zealand.

“The first ‘Gay Week’ happened in 1973 which I would say was our first Pride… Hero parades have since gone up Queen Street, which is where the march is now. There has always been a strong connection between the history of Pride and the central city, and I think that’s only grown as Pride has expanded.

“The three key events that we produce ourselves all happen in the central city. The gala happens at Q, the march is from Albert Park to Aotea Square and the party is at Aotea Square, so it feels like a really important place for us.”

As Pride was drawing to a close, the Auckland Arts Festival was ramping up into a busy programme to kick off what will hopefully be a busy year. From the Legacy Vogue Ball to ET the Extra Terrestrial in concert, the festival gave venues in the city centre’s arts precinct the sort of attendances they hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. Q Theatre hosted three of the over 70 shows scheduled for the festival and Graham says it was a delight to see people travelling into the city for a show again. 

“I certainly hope that people continuously think of the city as somewhere they can spend their time. There’s lots of restaurants and there’s the Basement and us and Auckland Live and the Classic and the Art Gallery – all these things [Aucklanders] can do.”

Sarah Graham at Q Theatre (Photo: Heart of the City)

The arts precinct is an essential part of the city centre, bringing in people from all over the country to see shows in the various theatres and performance spaces. And it brings in, for the most part, a different crowd to the city’s bars. Graham thinks this demographic differential is key to making Auckland’s night scene more vibrant. 

“People are going out to experience entertainment and it’s generational. You can be at any age going to see a show, whether that’s a big musical at the Civic or something more contemporary here. I think theatre and dance and performing arts really helps to make the central city a nicer place to be at night,” she says.  

“When the shops shut the theatres open and the restaurants open, and it starts to create a living, breathing city.”

But that’s not the only way the city benefits from the arts precinct. The people who travel into the city to watch shows often like to take their time while they’re there. Whether that means going out to dinner, doing some evening shopping on Queen Street or just taking a walk around the city, the arts draw people in to experience the central city in a way they might not without it. 

“We gain a huge amount by being where we are. You can go see a show at Q, have a couple of drinks at Q, maybe have dinner at Tanuki’s Cave and then go to the Basement afterwards because Snort’s on. There are multiple options to create your own entertainment itineraries.”

For Graham, the future of Auckland city is centred in this idea – that Aucklanders and those who visit should be able to see themselves reflected in the offerings of the city centre. Walk the streets of central Auckland and you’ll find a city increasingly aware of its identity and soul. Auckland central has always been home to a diverse, vibrant mix of cultures. Now it’s beginning to embrace that diversity back.




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