The Eye of the Fish

Maximus
September 30, 2009

All Mall

So: the verdict is back, and the commissioners of the Council have agreed to the building of a new Mall in Johnsonville. And they’re also now formally seeking your feedback on the deletion of the Mall in Manners St. Apart from the name, there are very few similarities between them.
jville
I confess that I’m a wee bit surprised at the go-ahead for the J’ville Mall, given that the economy has tanked, and that CBD businesses must have been dead against it. We discussed it reasonably intensively before, to push for the Notified Resource Consent hearing – which subsequently did indeed happen – and to give local J’villians a decent chance to comment. We’ve not seen the figures, but I’d hazard a guess that most of J’ville would be all for it. After all, it’s such a chore to have to get in the car or bus or train and drive down to town – at least here they will be able to walk to the local mall, park on the roof, and shop to their heart’s content. To a large extent, urban space and architecture be damned.

I’m curious about the whole Mall thing – renown overseas for the phenomena of boring Mall Rats and Dead Malls and endless carparks. For my money, anyone that wants to shop in a Mall is welcome to it – a soulless experience at the best of times, and a soul-destroying experience at the worst of times, but some people like them.

Now the public democratic process has played out and the result is full steam ahead, what have we ended up with?
jvilleplan
I’m not sure if the plan has changed much, or at all, from the previous posting we put up. While the exterior looks just the same, I had hopes that perhaps a more logical plan of public space may have prevailed by the developer’s architects: the weird horseshoe loop of space and curiously truncated walkway through still remains intact. Contrary to what was noted in the press, not all at Council were glowing happily at the prospect – from what I understand, certain advisors at Council had fought long and hard to try and get a better urban design outcome in both plan and elevation, but were ultimately over-ruled. There have also been urban design exercises going on at the School of Architecture, any number of which showed potentially far more promise of excitement than the bland result we have here: and certainly a lot more integration with the local community. If only they could have shown their work to the developers and malleteers.

We’ll post more here when we find out more.

Kent Duston
30 - 09 - 09

I really wonder about the wisdom of building malls – I would have thought that the spectacle of an ugly, bloated Westfield sitting amidst the desolate wasteland of the Lower Hutt city centre would have been a salutary lesson to planners.

And then there’s Christchurch. The CBD is now dying because of the plethora of malls scattered in the suburbs, which have all pulled people and their wallets to the periphery of the city. So 200 metres from the Square there’s empty spaces that have been used as “temporary” car parks for decades, collections of fly-by-night shops selling cheap tat from decaying shopfronts, and the usual collection of vandalism and tagging. Other than the tourist-orientated developments around the river, there’s nothing to sustain the CBD. And if the tourists stop coming it would only be a matter of weeks before the tumbleweeds are blowing down Cashel Mall.

Yet for reasons known only to the planners we seem to want to repeat the experiment here, first by expanding the J’ville Mall and then by setting up big-box retailing in Kilbirnie. Given that it’s exceptionally difficult to identify a single city in the whole world that has had its urban fabric improved by an enormous mall, I’m simply stunned that we would want to trade the vibrancy and human scale of Cuba Street and Lambton Quay for a collection of Westfield clones.

Alan
30 - 09 - 09

Kent – its not quite as simple as “for reasons known only to the planners we seem to want to repeat the experiment here”. The planning laws – ie the District Scheme – sets out quite a bit of possibility for Wellington land, and if it isn’t flexible enough, then developers start howling (refer to the Rongotai Revisited palaver).

I’m not at all convinced that a single planner actually really thinks that a Mall is the answer anywhere, but the pressure from the developers is intense. That’s why things go out to consultation – if the public come back overwhelmingly against it, then that has some sway. But here, i think, the public commentary would mainly have been residents of Tawa and Johnsonville saying yes please.

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

The mall is a great improvement on what exists there already, isn’t it?

It addresses the street in ways that the old one didn’t, and reduces the amount of ground taken up by carparking…

Sure, it isn’t the perfect outcome, but when did we last see that figment? I think the level of criticism needs to be lifted however, from shopping-malls-bad/pedestrian-malls-good, so that real alternative solutions could be arrived at. My main gripe would be that there is no diversity in function, beyond retail, and I’m really wondering about the view from Johnsonville’s main street (not that the supermarkets across the road offer much to compete with there).

However, I’d suggest that it is a positive addition to the northern suburbs, helping them to grow into more ‘sustainable’ town centres. The idea that Northern suburbanites should have to travel to the CBD to do their shopping strikes me as rather odd anyway. Aren’t we trying to reduce the use of fossil fuels? If we want J’ville to grow into a proper centre, to help alleviate traffic congestion etc then we have to allow it to do so. The worry about drawing customers from the CBD is a little too precious for my liking. We should be looking at why the Golden Mile can’t compete (if indeed it can’t, and current rents would suggest otherwise), and then address those issues, rather than stymieing development elsewhere. Realistically, who is going to be drawn to J’Mall – existing CBD shoppers, or shoppers who frequent already existing malls? I really get annoyed by the preciousness of the argument, and wish it was more openly about the aesthetics of shopping, which is what it boils down to in my mind. And once it is boiled down to that, then it has to be agreed that it should be a matter of choice, not prescription.

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

“if the public come back overwhelmingly against it, then that has some sway”

That’s a line for a Tui billboard isn’t it!?

Kent Duston
30 - 09 - 09

Alan – I agree with your comments about the pressure coming from developers, but my contention is that the planning function has become very much about the business of development rather than the facilitation of great urban design. After all, the wasteland that is the Christchurch CBD didn’t get created overnight – it took decades of bad planning, expedient decision-making and tactical cost/benefit analysis that at no stage paid attention to the city-wide issues. Yet surely this strategic view of the whole city is exactly the reason we have a planning function in the first place.

m-d – I also agree that having high quality local facilities in J’ville is a good thing, it’s just that I don’t see a mall as a piece of beneficial public infrastructure. As we know from both international experience and the Westfield example in Lower Hutt, malls tend to destroy independent local businesses, they intentionally disconnect the retailers from the streetscape, and they tend to produce a depressing homogeneity of experience. Every mall contains the same types of retailers in roughly the same ratios, with a layout that is almost universal, and a selection of open spaces that look like public spaces but which are in fact privately controlled. It’s a lowest-common-denominator experience wrapped up in lowest-common-denominator architecture, with no purpose other than parting “consumers” from their dollars.

And I’m not trying to be a snob about this – it’s just that I’m looking at the artists impressions and thinking, at the beginning of the 21st century, in a globalised world full of possibilities – is this the best we can think of?

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

And how exactly does that differ from the Golden Mile?

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

I’m being facetious of course, even if 95% of the diversity of the GM occurs above street level, but the street environment, to me at least, is pretty lowest common denominator stuff…

(it should be noted that I suffer test tightening and cold sweat when forced to spend any amount of time in any dedicated retail precinct – be it mall or Golden Mile/Stroget – but I don’t begrudge the personal choice for others to do what they please with their time and money…)

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

Umm – that’s “chest” tightening rather than “test”, or any other derivative of that word…

a-changin’
30 - 09 - 09

“the planning function has become very much about the business of development rather than the facilitation of great urban design”

There have been moves for some time to strengthen urban design provisions in the WCC District Plan, but it takes years for plan changes to become fully operational. Until all appeals have been resolved or the new rules have been tested in the environment court, case law states that plan changes can only be given limited weight in RC assessments.

The operative district plan is exteremly lenient for anywhere zoned Suburban Centre, and if you’re within the height limits pretty much anything goes. Plan Change 52 introduced some basic urban design standards, but they were fairly vague, and given that there are still outstanding appeals against the change, the operative plan has to be given more weight.

Plan Change 73 has just been notified (http://www.wellington.govt.nz/plans/district/planchanges/planchange73.html), and that will introduce full design guides for suburban centres, as well as finally acknowledging that a neighbourhood shopping centre is not the same as an industrial park or a quarry. It’s bound to be appealed by developers who want carte blance to throw up Big Boxes everywhere, so it might be a good idea to put in a submission in favour of these controls.

Kent Duston
30 - 09 - 09

m-d – A mall is different from the Golden Mile for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, there’s no dead hand of blandification along the Golden Mile; there are different architectural styles, different priorities from developers and retailers alike that affect the scale and form of the buildings and the stores, the opportunity for practically any type of business to open if they can pay the lease … in short, diversity in both form and function. In contrast, mall managers try and ensure the mix of retailers is “optimised”, and there’s a depressing same-ness about the design decisions throughout the mall. It’s like a McMansion turned up to 11, and the latest trends in mall design seem to acknowledge this by turning the places into theme parks, presumably because the place is so visually tedious without some distractions.

The second reason is that the Golden Mile has genuine public space. You can loiter on Lambton Quay to your heart’s desire, you can busk badly, collect money for Greenpeace while dressed in a furry animal suit, give away political or religious tracts, preach to the uncaring masses … whatever takes your fancy. The assumption is that anything is permitted on the Golden Mile unless it’s specifically outlawed. In comparison, practically all of those activities – including the loitering – are not permitted in a mall, and you will rapidly be moved on by the security guards (who are watching over CCTV) if you attempt to indulge in them. In contrast to public space, everything is outlawed in a mall unless it is specifically permitted.

One environment gives rise to the complexity of social interaction and activity that we call a living city. The other environment confines its occupants to a single role as a consumer, which – as you rightly point out – can feel awfully like a near-death experience.

m-d
30 - 09 - 09

Thanks Kent, for the explanation, although I am well-familiar with these points of difference. However, I’m arguing that the end result (when using Lambton Quay as a yardstick) is little different in practice. Lambton Quay needs to compete witht he malls rather than lobbying to regulate malls out of existence. If it can’t complete, then that model is obsolete.

And, you should be aware that you are in effect calling for “a globalised world full of possibilities”, but discounting the globalised possibility offerred because it doesn’t fit your personal criteria… despite it being the model that is most sought after by most people in most places (call it the tyranny of the majority if you will, but there is also a long history of designers/architects ‘knowing what is best’ at the time and then subsequently screwing up our environments completely based on these faulty ideals).

And yes, I am guilty of just stirring things up a little, but nevertheless, I am a believer in that people get what they deserve: Modern consumer-driven society gets suburban malls.

Kent Duston
30 - 09 - 09

m-d – You’re right about Lambton Quay needing to find its own way without overt and covert subsidies. If it’s able to deliver something the punters want, then it will flourish, and if not then it will wither; although it does seem that the process of creative destruction is much easier when the buildings are individually owned. Recycling an entire mall when it’s past its use-by is a far more difficult task, albeit some of the solutions in the US seem pretty creative.

It also has to be said that the mall developers aren’t above pulling all the lobbying strings they can. The subsidy that always amazes me is the rates holiday that some malls negotiate – I mean, what does the cost/benefit analysis look like on that? “If you give us a rates holiday we’ll build a mall that will add nothing to the streetscape and will materially decrease the capital value of all the other retail buildings in town, which will decrease your rating base for all time … ”

And I love this comment: “Nevertheless, I am a believer in that people get what they deserve: Modern consumer-driven society gets suburban malls.” So true!

Maximus
1 - 10 - 09

Don’t stop now- I was enjoying that !

I think it is significant that every time people I know come back from Europe, they will tell stories involving ‘this amazingly small shop’ they found, and rave about the personality and diversity.

I’ve yet to hear anyone rave about going to a mall. But then again, perhaps I just move in different circles.

m-d
1 - 10 - 09

Oh the sheltered life you lead Max… You’re in need of a personal tsunami to wash you out of that little pool of yours, into the big wide ocean… it’s all about diversity my friend, that quality so sought after by romantic urbanists everywhere (how do you do a tongue-in-cheek emoticon?)

greenwelly
1 - 10 - 09

Youíre in need of a personal tsunami to wash you out of that little pool of yours, into the big wide ocean

Not exactly the best turn of phrase given the current events.

Peter
1 - 10 - 09

Seems I’m with you on this one Maximus, malls are no substitute for small businesses (often family run) such as one finds throughout Europe.

The thought occurs that the Johnsonville Mall might not have been regarded as an asset by some of the local advocates if the council had planned for a number of small community friendly suburban centres with a residential component, in the northern residential areas. As a bonus, efficient transport links (with an integrated fare system) between the centres and the rail links could engender the commute, socialise/shop, stroll home patterns that exist throughout Europe.

Richard
1 - 10 - 09

I agree with Kent. We should not give the proles the choice of where to shop because it might undermine the viability of the places we like to go.

PM
1 - 10 - 09

Some interesting comments – One point that some people may have not understood is whether the effects of the Mall on other businesses (eg in the Wgtn CBD) were considered. I haven’t read the decision yet but I suspect not. Changes to the RMA which came into force today further strengthened the restrictions on considering trade competition in RMA decision making which is long overdue. In an effects-based planning system, the consideration of the potential loss of business to a trade competitor is an interesting point. The RMA is clearly not intended to be an economic planning mechanism, yet different land use decisions can have quite significant economic effects.

Thoughts anyone?

Maximus
2 - 10 - 09

times they are ‘a changing’ indeed. There are some quite separate things going on here, all bundled into the one situation. One the one hand there is the design, look, feel, and function: which often is a thing of strange and awkward taste at work. As ‘a changing’ says:
“Plan Change 73 has just been notified (http://www.wellington.govt.nz/plans/district/planchanges/planchange73.html), and that will introduce full design guides for suburban centres, as well as finally acknowledging that a neighbourhood shopping centre is not the same as an industrial park or a quarry. Itís bound to be appealed by developers who want carte blance to throw up Big Boxes everywhere”.
It’s our city we’re talking about after all, and if developers think they have a god-given right to put up some of the big-box crap they have been getting away with, then I’m all for PC 73 giving the Council some teeth to bite them in the arse.

And on the other side of the coin, as PM puts it, the RMA is “not intended to be an economic planning mechanism”. And, strictly speaking, nor should it be. There are enough issues and problems trying to get projects through the RMA as it is already. However, if there is no other mechanism in place, then in effect it is an economics-free decision making process – again, something we have probably all noticed when trying to get Resource Consent for projects – the planners seem to consider all manner of things except for our client’s economic situation.

But that does then leave us in the terrible situation where no-one and nothing considers the economics and the planning. In theory, that has already been considered by the RMA under the District Plan – and as this whole area is already noted as a Suburban Centre, then the council have already signed away a majority of their power by saying that this site is already intended for Shopping. Its a whole different situation from that at Rongotai debated recently, where the developers were asking for – in effect – a Zone change, in order to put up Retail where none had been intended before.

m-d
2 - 10 - 09

Richard – classic line – I’m not certain with how much sarcasm it should be read in relation to your own values, but it nevertheless had me chuckling out loud, even at this early stage of the day…

m-d
2 - 10 - 09

All – Aren’t you perhaps a little guilty of romanticising your European experiences somewhat. Have you been out to the far flung suburbs of these wonderful cities that you insist on comparing our own to? I mean, there are malls are a feature of the suburbs of Paris or London, or anywhere else. The boutique/independant family businesses (normally tourist affairs) are a part of the main shopping parts of the city centres, or ‘old’ centres (and to be fair, in suburban town centres to), not such a different scenario from here… I doubt whether other Main Streets get all snotty when a suburban mall is proposed in a far flung suburb. Sure there is a difference in scale, but even that is ameliorated somewhat by vastly more efficient public transport systems.

Johnsonville versus St Germain is not really a useful comparison – comparing like with like would be a rational place to begin the discussion…

Maximus
2 - 10 - 09

m-d – well call me a romantic if you must, but I certainly don’t go to europe to visit outer suburbs or outer suburban malls. I mean, who does?

There are certainly some minging suburbs in the Parisian banluie (sp?) but no visitor ever gets there. Apart from being filled with Albanian separatists, or ganja selling Senegalese, there’s not a whole lot going for them. Johnsonville is like Mecca compared to the 24th arrondisement….

Guy
2 - 10 - 09

Not so fast there with your sweeping generalisations Maximus !

Last time i went to Paris I headed straight for the outer suburbs, to visit the vast outdoor markets there. Not at all like a supermarket or a mall, and really pretty unlike anything we’ve seen in NZ, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Row after row of small shops selling an amazing range of goods.

“The most famous flea market in Paris is the one at Porte de Clignancourt, officially called Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but known to everyone as Les Puces (The Fleas).”

alan
2 - 10 - 09

While tourists may not visit the outskirts of Paris, the locals certainly do. From the Paris Digest website:
“Most Parisians and inhabitants of Paris region (11 million people) do part of their shopping in huge and modern shopping centers (shopping malls). Most of them are located in residential districts outside of the top central Paris tourist areas. Many of them are only reachable by car. Fortunately, a few of them are easily reachable by the metro.
These shopping centers feature a hypermarket, selling everything from food to clothes at low prices. They include a mall with restaurants and stores selling fashion clothes, books, electronics and lots of other things at reasonable prices. “

Maximus
2 - 10 - 09

aaaah, the “hypermarkets”. Mais oui, mon petit poisson. I went to one of those once – a booze hypermarket near the border with England – hideous beyond any extreme – and full of fat white brits with badly fitting shell suits and white transit vans buying shed loads of cut price Kronenberg to sell in back alleys in Liverpool.

Scarred for life.

Perhaps that’s why I dislike malls.

Guy
2 - 10 - 09

Again with the sweeping generalisations! And obviously, if its full of Liverpudlians, then the tourists do indeed go to the outer malls.

So you’ve just disproved your own point.

And possibly exposed yourself as a Transit van owning Pom in a shell suit too….

Maximus
2 - 10 - 09

Sigh…..

No van.
No shell suit.
No pom.

Kent Duston
2 - 10 - 09

Maximus – the intersection of the economy and the planning controls is a particularly vexatious one. On the one hand, I can’t think of any reason why the J’ville Mall should consider its impact on existing businesses in Lambton Quay. To do so would be to entrench the past by effectively taxing the future – putting in place unnecessary barriers to entry for new businesses.

On the other hand, however, is Christchurch. But I’m not sure whether the wilderness they’re busily creating in the CBD would have been ameliorated by some kind of economic testing; perhaps a better approach might be planning controls that result in (in the words of Cr Andy Foster) “we no longer accept blank walls”. The soulless mall culture in Christchurch has these in spades. And Queenstown seems to have been singularly successful in outlawing “corporate” architecture such as those distinctly unappealing plastic golden arches, and doesn’t seem any culturally poorer as a result.

Still, perhaps Queenstown has been saved by the accidents of geography that make enormous malls and big-box retailers an impossibility within the town centre, rather than any particular planning wisdom.

jack
6 - 10 - 09

I live in Newlands, and shop in Johnsonville quite a bit. I saw the petitions being circulated around in the Mall in support of the upgraded mall proposal. A lot of people were signing those peitions. And I’d certainly be willing to bet that most of those people weren’t thinking about urban design or anything like that – they’d have just been thinking that the current mall is a bit crap, has a huge amount of wasted space in the form of the carpark, and it’d be quite nice to have a better place to shop and a better space.

I get what Kent’s saying about the contrast in the control structures between malls & shopping streets, but m-d has an excellent point that the actual difference in shops, when you get down to it, is minimal. Wandering along the golden mile I see Whitcoulls, Supre, Hallensteins, the DVD store… not that different to J’ville mall.

Yes, malls can suck the local life out of a place. But have you been to J’ville recently? It’s not exactly chokka with independant cafes, small art galleries, etc. And how much competition is it really going to be for the golden mile? It’s going to pick off the punters who’re willing to drive 10k from the CBD to shop. Which means it’ll probably mainly affect the people living to the north of the CBD (say, from around Crofton Downs/Ngaio) who would be driving the extra 10k to Porirua (it’s a zip on the motorway) to shop. I don’t think the golden mile should be worried – they’ve already lost those punters. I think Westgate should be crapping themselves about it.

m-d
4 - 01 - 10

“if the public come back overwhelmingly against it, then that has some sway”

That's a line for a Tui billboard isn't it!?