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Auckland’s new waterfront: a Downtown lament

Graeme Lay bids a belated farewell to Auckland’s least glamorous but most useful shopping centre.

It was one of the ugliest buildings in Auckland’s central business district, in a part of town where there was tough competition for that distinction. It was the building known as ‘Downtown’. Flanked by the HSBC and ZURICH towers, its three-level block design had blighted lower Queen Street since the 1970s, a decade renowned for tastelessness in everything, including architecture.

From the outside, Downtown Auckland could have been plucked straight from Stalin’s Soviet Union or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. There was no natural light and when the wind blew from the south Queen Elizabeth II Square was no place for a monarch. There was a grove of little kauri trees there, but they were a pitiable sight, like polar bears in a zoo compound.

Dearly departed: Auckland's now-demolished Downtown Shopping Mall and Queen Elizabeth Square

Dearly departed: Auckland’s now-demolished Downtown Shopping Mall and Queen Elizabeth Square. Photo: Matt Lowrie / transportblog.co.nz

But now Downtown has completely gone. Demolished, smashed, obliterated and its wreckage removed. Now only the twin bank towers remain. Where Downtown was is ground zero. Today, walking down lower Albert Street, I stared at the huge blank gap left by the block’s complete destruction.

Now the rebuild is under way. The space is inhabited by massive crawler cranes and piling rigs. Men in hard hats and orange jackets walk about with clipboards. There is the incessant clatter of jack hammers and pile drivers. Foundations are being laid, steel piles driven. Grey sludge drips from the buckets of excavators.

Surrounding the building site is an obstacle course of orange plastic barriers and more men in hi-viz jackets. For the first time, colour has come to Downtown. Trouble is, it’s all orange. A bridge which used to connect the Price Waterhouse Cooper building with Downtown is now a bridge to nowhere, truncated at one end.

It’s good that the architectural monstrosity of Downtown has gone. It promises to be be replaced by something stylish and cosmopolitan. Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, pedestrian precincts. A revival of Victorian Commercial Bay, where Auckland began.

That’s progress, isn’t it?

And yet … and yet…

Downtown had everything a person needed. Once inside you forgot its hideous exterior. You could get a manicure, or freshly squeezed orange juice. There was a Whitcoulls, and a big pharmacy, and a place where you could buy fresh salmon. There was menswear, and womenswear, and a crockery shop and a sunglasses stall and a place where you could buy a model of a sailing ship or a straw hat for $20. The men operating a Mister Minit fitted new watch batteries while you waited. Everywhere there was coffee and tea and sandwiches.

Upstairs there were more delights. An escalator took you up to a huge food hall where you could get an Asian lunch for $10. There were frock shops and ATMs and another floor up there was a Warehouse and a Warehouse Stationery, where everyone got a bargain.

Downtown had it all. For people who use the Devonport ferry, it was perfectly placed for shopping. Everything you needed was there. And now it has gone. Forever.

I miss the old place. I really do.

Graeme Lay is an Auckland novelist.

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