The best of intentions on the waterfront –
but not on Oriental
By Lindsay Shelton
One of the Wellington City Council’s best-intentioned policies is that the ground floors of all buildings on the waterfront should be accessible for the public to use.
It’s a most reasonable idea. All the buildings on the Wellington waterfront occupy land that is (or was) owned by the public. And everyone agrees with the concept that the buildings should have “active edges” which can help to create activity on the public open spaces which they face.
As a result, there are lots of areas on the waterfront where the ground-floor-access policy is working and is effectively creating new activity. But it’s not working everywhere.
The most substantial failure can be seen at the former retail centre on Queens Wharf. It was opened in 1995 as an up-market shopping mall with designer stores (there was a Donna Karan shop) and a food hall. But paying customers didn’t come. The shops in the mall closed one by one, and then came the demise of the food hall. Public access to the big waterfront structure ended and the building became offices for Shell New Zealand.
The glass-panelled doors that once opened into the shopping mall from Queens Wharf are still there, though the handles have been removed and strong locks have been added. Through the closed Venetian blinds you can see desks and shelves. Regardless of city policy, public access isn’t something which is wanted in an office.
At the Events Centre (now rebranded as the TSB Stadium) the public has never been allowed inside unless you buy a ticket for one of its scheduled attractions. However a seven-day welcome is offered by the Chicago Bar which occupies a large part of its Queens Wharf frontage. Access is limited at another of its shopfronts which is occupied by a recent arrival named the Olympic Museum Gallery – which is closed at weekends. And when you walk along the events centre’s bleak and gloomy western pedestrian-way, there’s nothing but blank windows and closed exit doors. A most inactive edge.
Cafes and bars seem to be the most popular means of providing public access and activity for ground floor space on the waterfront.
Two exceptions to the eating and drinking rule are in the elegant Edwardian sheds north of Queens Wharf. Shed 11 (which housed temporary exhibitions for the National Art Gallery in the 1980s) is now the home of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, which is surely a perfect use for a historic waterfront building, though the arrangement doesn’t yet seem to be permanent. Its twin Shed 13 has been a holiday home for a temporary retail venture - a sale of underwear organized by Kirkcaldies. Both were popular with the public when I took a look during anniversary weekend, as was the Museum of Wellington in its 1892 bond store and the Academy of Fine Arts in its 1896 wharf offices building.
But there are noticeable empty spaces as well. They point to the fact that there may not be an oversupply of commercial businesses which are ready and able to admit the public at the same time as they pay waterfront rents.
At the Odlins Building (has it been renamed the NZX Centre?) on Cable Street, all the new above-the-street apartments sold quickly. But ground floor space remains unoccupied, with a discrete sign on one of the street windows inviting “lease inquiries.”
There’s also empty ground-floor space, with great harbour views but no sign of a tenant, on the south-eastern side of the much-admired Meridian Building. However the rest of its ground floor is occupied - by the strong brands of Wagamama and Mojo. And Meridian’s neighbour, the Loaded Hog, not only welcomes the public into its ground floor but also offers a choice of open areas where you can interact with the outside spaces while eating and drinking.
It’s obvious that a waterfront location isn’t everything, and that ambiance and service and branding are just as important.
Though retail shopping failed to attract crowds to Queens Wharf, the area has remained a popular destination for diners, particularly those who enjoy the experience of eating and drinking in the long-established restaurants which make good use of two timber warehouses built in the 1880s.
The Wellington Ambulance Building, kept on its original site after the city’s plans to move it were thwarted in the Environment Court, has earned more recent popularity as a restaurant and bar – with happy crowds enjoying outdoor sociability and harbour views on sunny afternoons.
It seems too early to assess the success of the ground floor of the refurbished Herd Street Post Office building, though it’s noticeable that several retail rearrangements have taken place since the building reopened.
The biggest retail venture, a deli, has moved out of the big central atrium, though its café still occupies a shop on the harbour frontage.
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Entrance is no longer allowed through the Herd Street atrium even though it's empty
When redevelopment of the Herd Street building was announced, we were told that we would be able to walk through the atrium from Waitangi Park to the waterfront promenade, which seemed a sensible plan, specially during bad weather. But at the weekend when I looked in, the automatic sliding doors weren’t opening – to the puzzlement of people on both sides - and it wasn’t possible to walk through the empty atrium in either direction.
An icecream shop has moved from the park side of the Herd Street building to the promenade side, where I expect it hopes to find more customers walking on the promenade than were walking along the park. Its signage remains overlooking the park, above its former space which is now occupied by a vet – I suppose this qualifies as public access, at least if you have a pet.
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Was an icecream store - now a vet
More details of the city council’s expectations for waterfront buildings are provided in the Waterfront Framework, which was adopted seven years ago. “Windows and doors at ground level allow people to interact with activities within the building,” states the Framework very reasonably. “The buildings and their activities should be focused outwards to address their surroundings and add character to public spaces.”
Regrettably, such admirable requirements have not been applied on nearby Oriental Parade. As one of the city’s iconic (and wealthiest) areas, it should be an environment where the best design and architecture provide lively interaction at ground level. It should be. But it isn’t.
I’m not talking about the harbour side of Oriental Parade, where there’s always been a wide promenade with magnificent views. But on the opposite side, where the footpath is next to the apartment blocks, developers and their architects seem to have had only one idea of what to create at street level. Their decision: car parks and still more car parks.
As a result, the dominating impression of a walk alongside the apartments seems to be – sadly – almost nothing but garage doors.
There are more than a hundred of them on Oriental Parade.
From 298 to 348 Oriental Parade you can count 30 garage doors, and some of them are enormous. It’s a dismal experience.
The exceptions show how this street could have been, if better design decisions had been taken.
Inverleith, for example, has a modest street façade which allows for the possibility of signs of life through three windows. But its huge new twin neighbours – 308 and 310 - confront the street with hostile and blank fortress-like walls, two storeys high, which include two huge garage doors. What attackers from the footpath were these high walls intended to repel?
326 and 328 have pleasant gardens at street level, with decks not far above them, and only one modest garage door. Their near neighbour 318 eschews gardens and decks and instead has chosen one dominant feature to overlook the street – two enormous garage doors.
At the eastern end of Oriental Parade, an artist has painted a mural showing how things could have been. It’s a charming picture of a ground floor house – or a shop perhaps – with onions and garlic hanging in the windows, a cat sitting on a window sill, a birdcage, potplants, an open door.
But the number of open doors on the built-up side Oriental Parade is small indeed. There are only three cafes in this area though it is so crowded during the summer. The remaining choice consists of a shop selling icecream, a hairdresser, a shop selling swimsuits, a real estate office, a spa, and the brave Oriental Bay Store which survives in a streetscape of nine garages. Certainly not enough to create any lively or interactive street life on this Parade.
One is grateful for each of the nine retailers, but one wonders if they’ll soon be driven out by pressure for more garages.
Civic Square is another area where the need for active edges has been ignored, to the detriment of this central public open space. The only active edge was from the popular Nikau restaurant (now temporarily closed), whose outdoor tables and chairs were hidden at the back of the City Gallery.
With Nikau as the only exception, the city-owned buildings around Civic Square fail to make any contribution to this big space.
The paucity of places to sit doesn’t help either.
“People are more likely to occupy a space if seating is provided,” says the waterfront framework.
Even if the council doesn’t intend to open up any of its buildings to the square, it could at least take notice of its waterfront policies by becoming less stingy with the number of seats and benches.
Lindsay Shelton is the editor of Scoop Media's Wellington news blog WELLINGTON.scoop.co.nz