The Eye of the Fish

July 21, 2009

Underground Wellington

A change of tack for a while: especially with this nasty weather around that we’ve been having.

But one in which I can find little historical information on. For a while back there in the 70s and the 80s, it seemed that the way ahead for Wellington was in only one direction: Underground. Furious digging below the streets at the major corner of Willis and Lambton gave us what is now still (just) known as the BNZ Centre, although with the BNZ offices gone from up above, and the underground level being populated with food stalls, I’m picking a major re-branding soon.

The traffic along Willis Street was seen as being so intense that there was no time left to stop the flow and let the pedestrians cross the street: or was it that the weather was seen as being so bad that people would prefer to loiter underground? There are a number of cities in the world where the outside temperatures are so extreme that the people really can’t wander happily outside – many of them too hot (like Dubai – I mean, really, who would build a city in a fireball of a desert) – many too cold (I’m guessing Anchorage gets a little frisky come December), but I’m guessing that the reason Wellington started to make like a mole was that our wind was considered just too darn strong.

There are other precedents for underground cities – from the ancient (such as Urgup and Goreme in Cappadocia), through to Montreal in Canada – both of which are considerably more extensive than Wellington’s meagre mining. Montreal notes that their:

Underground City has brought into reality a popular science fiction scenario. This network of tunnels under the streets of Montreal houses one of the most unusual shopping areas in the world. Still growing over 40 years later, it provides a haven for tourists and locals against the weather extremes common to Montreal, while giving them a shopping heaven. The first link came into being when the Place Ville-Marie, a Bauhaus skyscraper in downtown Montreal, incorporated an underground shopping mall. Built in 1962 to cover railway tracks near Central Station, it linked the train to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. With the opening of the Montreal Metro (the city’s subway system) in 1966, the web of passages began to blossom. Today, with over 30 kilometers (18 miles) of tunnels, the world’s largest underground network provides shopping for half a million visitors every day. There are over 1,600 boutiques and an equal number of apartments.

Somehow though, we’ve stopped.

The Council doesn’t seem to be pushing this at all as a solution to crossing the road any more – and neither are they suggesting we go overhead either, as the dis-used bridges overhead by the Duxton show: the people in this town seem to be far happier to just cross at street level, and risk dancing with the traffic. I’m intrigued however – are we going in the right direction? Our BNZ branded underground mall certainly seems to be on a road to nowhere – going from high quality branded goods, down to an LV Martin store, sinking further downhill to a cheap asian foodcourt, and now a bargain basement JB HiFi box-shifting electronics store – it can’t be too long before the basement of the BNZ is simply filled with a large $2 Shop (at least the prospect of really cheap tat would pull in the punters). If there was any sort of official buy-in to the idea of underground crossings, then the new Telecom building just down the road in Willis St would also be having an accessible basement to cross the road from. The lack of this requirement speaks (underground) volumes.

21 - 07 - 09

I always thought that the start of an underground road crossing was the first step towards an Underground railway / Tube / Metro / U Bahn. And that perhaps therefore, Wellington has lost that dream?

Edward Sargisson
21 - 07 - 09

As a useful point. In a similar solution to Montreal, Calgary in Alberta has the 15+. Most buildings in the central city have elevated walkways through to other buildings. They’re 15 feet above the road – hence the name.

Calgary’s climate goes to serious minus numbers in winter. I believe -10 is common.

21 - 07 - 09

Aaah, the good old elevated walkways. I sem to recall that London had a number of those as well – but they’re sort of falling into disuse. I hope Calgary’s ones are fully covered – or else it would get pretty cold up there.

Incidentally – would an elevated Rapid Transit line work better in Wellington than an underground one? Given that we’ve got earthquake fault lines running underneath our shore line?

21 - 07 - 09

JB Hi-Fi is awesome and I will not hear a bad thing said against it! It’s pretty much the only place to go for music and DVDs around that part of town. Their selection and prices are great. And unlike the Warehouse, you can actually find what you’re looking for and the staff care.

dr who
21 - 07 - 09

Aaah, maximus. the good new elevated walkways. the only way is up………..

21 - 07 - 09

Robyn – what’s your JB Hi-Fi employee number?

21 - 07 - 09

For a real underground city, check out Seattle.

The original city had a problem with flooding (when the tide came in all the toilets in the city would back-wash and overflow). Then they had a fire which razed 33 blocks of the city.
So the city leaders decided on two courses of action – the new city buildings would be built of stone and they would be about 1.5 stories higher than the original city.

There are now tours (most famously Bill Siedels Tour) that take you under the city and into the “ghost” city, under the footpaths, roads and buildings of new Seattle.
It’s very cool.

21 - 07 - 09

Is this where we are now? We’ve finished the complete revolution from the initial adaptation, through the process of considering it a bad urban strategy, and now it’s up for reconsideration? It was only 12 years ago I was sitting in courses taught by urban planning “experts” criticising these things.

The problem with most of the underground spaces is that most of them are dire. They suffer from amenities or serious design consideration. An interior space sealed from light or air and lacking visual cues for orientation is not usually a good starting point for a successful space. Crystal City, Virginia is a great example – a huge complex featuring an underground labyrinth featuring a ceiling that feels no higher than 2100mm, composed of a sea of cheap acoustic ceiling tile and poorly maintained 2×4 fluorescent light trouffers and the acquired smells of 30 years of various tenants with poor ventilation.

I’ll grant there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

21 - 07 - 09

Their was a proposal in Seattle circa 2000 to allow building owners to occupy the underground city with dance clubs, one of the few building programs where dark, disorienting spaces with lingering musky odours are a good thing, (the other of course being sex “dungeons”), unfortunately the proposal failed.

Seattle does has some interesting urban design rules that I think Wellington should seriously consider. It has a similar climate, although with significantly less amount of rain (high amount of cloudy days) and higher summer temperatures. In the CBD building verandahs are encouraged to be glass to keep the streets from being darker and colder than they already are. Around 2000 Seattle was also tearing down all raised pedestrian crossings to eliminate shadows on the street. The city, like wellington CBD, is built on the side of a hill, and office towers that have pedestrian paths through building get special consideration. These paths aren’t dark circuitous paths, but nice semi-public spaces to get out of the rain, avoid having to climb the hills, etc. Wellington has the connections between the terrace and Lambton quay, but they’re pretty awkward.

21 - 07 - 09

sorry, their = there

21 - 07 - 09

I think there was a food court in the basement when it first opened. And there was an elevator entrance and/or exit on Lambton Quay about where Dymocks was.

The only time I’ve been in there in recent times has been with a mate who wanted to look for heat pumps. It isn’t very inviting and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to walk down steps to get there.

21 - 07 - 09

jayseatee – point taken about the low ceilings, musky odours, and nasty gharish fluorescents. These things are almost bound to happen when one requirement is retrofitted into another – such as the requirement that all basements interconnect, or that all first floor levels have connecting walkways.

But what I’m thinking is that if these things were mandated and actually planned for, then the result would be a different beast. If instead of saying – basements should interconnect, doesn’t matter what level, as long as they do… the opposite would be to say all basments must have min 3m height, have a common datum of -2.40 (say) then and only then can you get a co-ordinated response. And of course, unless the whole network is built at one time, the thing won’t work at all. It’s like that with the aerial walkways in the City of London – at one stage it was compulsory if you were building a building there, to connect to the ‘High Walk’. But if there is even just one segment missing, and forcing you down to ground level, then there is little point in climbing back up again.

21 - 07 - 09

I think you’re absolutely right about the planning for them to be successful, instead of them being an aggregate of leftover spaces. I think they would also need to have strong connections to the ground floor, bringing light, fresh air and sense of direction to the space, and also aid in defensible spaces.

Here’s a way to test both the above grade and below grade options at once – how about reworking the Level 1 shops of multiple buildings between Lambton Quay and The Terrace. There is a lot of potential there that doesn’t seem to be very well utilised.

60 MPa
22 - 07 - 09

We’ve got soft rock here in Welly which would need reinforcing if tunnelled into and you don’t have to go down far to find the Mean Sea Level hence waterproofing hence more money.
Check your RL’s on ya plans – I was always under the impression that they are metres above MSL.
Sorry to be so prosaic but even the Pak N Save carpark in L/Hutt has got it’s toes in the aquifer..
Or Googl “wellington before earthquake”
What goes up can come down – remember Mt Cook lost 27m one day?
That’s one grunty Taniwha.

On a more positive note, one only has to do the Clifton Tce Carpark walk (highly recommended – start behind the Vic Uni squash club in Salamanca and stay above the m’way heading NNE ending in Bolton St cemetery at the City Common Grave) to appreciate how much we disassociate ourselves down on the waterfront from the immediate Thorndon/Kelburn/Brooklyn hillsides
Strictly in a design sense y’know?

22 - 07 - 09

60 – yes, RLs are measured from the mean sea level – and so the pavement level in Lambton Quay is something like 2.4m above that. Therefore at high tide, the water table is only about a metre and a half down below the pavement. That of course is the big problem with building in Wellington – if you did build below ground, there would be a continual massive leaking problem due to the ever present ground water. Still – nothing a good tanking couldn’t cope with? Like the basement at the new Supreme Court or the Piermont apartment buildings – both heavily dewatered during construction (as you know).

Not quite sure what you mean re the walk along the Carpark route. Sorry – i must be missing something.

22 - 07 - 09

ooh and Dr Who – sorry i missed checking out the link before – that’s great! Thanks for that link – love the ‘amphitheatre’ focussing attention on the street below. A nice touch….

Also good to read the comments of the other New Yorkers and the architects all debating the issue of whether the timber used was logged sustainably or not.

22 - 07 - 09

There are some interesting underground projects being discussed here:

As for the height, I think higher than 2400 would be necessary and variation, creating double and triple height space to help eliminate the feeling of being buried. There are some really fantastic industrial spaces in these images that could be interesting models for a public space.

22 - 07 - 09

On really miserable days, when walking to the library from Lambton Quay. I would enter Old Bank Arcade, walk down via the basement to the BNZ Centre and exit opposite the Library. (can also do this via the arcade on the other side of Willis Street).

22 - 07 - 09

Thanks for that info on Seattle jayseatee.
I had always assumed that Seattle was rainier than Wellington.
They have a saying in the Pacific Northwest – “You don’t tan in Seattle – you rust…”
Interesting to see that they get about 950mm of rain a year, to Wellington’s 1200mm. When I lived there in the 90’s it felt like it rained a lot, but they don’t have the big dumps that we do.

Another interesting thing about Seattle is that when new buildings get built in the CPD it is compulsory to install external water and power to the corner of buildings. These are for the coffee carts which are seen on most corners of Seattle’s business district. They have a great coffee culture there (and not just Starbucks or Peets) – they have some great independent roasters.

There was a report which I read recently (which I will hunt out to reference) – the top 5 coffee cities in the world –
1) Vienna,
2) Rome,
3) Seattle,
4) Melbourne,
5) Wellington.

22 - 07 - 09

I really enjoy the Old Bank Arcade, but crossing over into the BNZ underground is just depressing, it really does feel like a very cheap mall with a low ceiling.

I like the idea of a highline connecting buildings. It would require a bit of planning from the start, but I could imagine one going across from Willis Central’s 1st story to some form of connection at Chews lane, that would look great crossing over that part of Willis St, or maybe move up the other way towards Willbank, zig zag across the road perhaps?

23 - 07 - 09

I reckon you’re all missing an important point. There’s something in the road already – a shit load of pipes. At all sorts of different depths. So you’re fighting to get space between and underneath those.

Going overhead? So much easier.

60 MPa
23 - 07 - 09

Maximus, was following an earlier link to info on whether overground/underground (wombling free?) is better and I was thinking that seeing as our fair city sits on the beach and hence has water immediately below it (as well as the pipes that Digger has mentioned), it seems that an underground area could be built somewhere else.

Thinking about bridging a divide I imagined an underground shopping area/community/zone cut partly into the hillside under the motorway section that runs from the North end of the Terrace tunnel to the Bolton St cemetery end – pretty much the Clifton Tce carpark area but added to with terraced shops/cafes cascading down the hillside wending their way from underground to the light. It could benefit from being sheltered by the m/way overhead and could include pedestrian/cycle area as a promenade for terrace suits to run the gamut of lengthwise, as well as creating more links in line with the Cable Car for commuters to take a bike up to Kelburn, for example. Escalators and steps could join the terraced levels so there would be a pedestrian flow of people going up the hill on the free public conveyances to bring foot traffic counts up to sustain retail. Cyclists know that the hills are the killer so a boost up that first section could see more people riding in from Karori.
I figured the carpark could go under (cars don’t need 20m of headroom); the rest could be tiered down above it following and occasionally burrowing into the hillside and the odd cable car-style funicular could run above like a strand joining that riven bland underutilised gulf that currently exists.

Something almost abandoned (ie the Clifton Tce Carpark) right next to a high-rent busy area (the Terrace) is prime for development. It’d probably get called something unimaginative like “The Terraces” but in principle it could work

Of course, Maximus, you were meant to figure that all out from my previous post but I’m a 2-finger typist who almost exclusively posts when drunk so my apologies beforehand..

23 - 07 - 09

“Iím a 2-finger typist who almost exclusively posts when drunk” aah yes, I know exactly. I often get two fingers from typists. Anyway…..

What you’re describing reminds me greatly of the Mid-Levels in Hong Kong. Hard to describe – but like what you said. I’ll go find some links….

24 - 07 - 09

But it might be better to build up, not down, with the way sea level rises are expected to go. :-)

I like Wellington’s streets so while going underground is awfully appealing in these cold winter days I’d have to abandon them when the worst months of winter were over. It also seems a little different in places like Calgary, which don’t have much street level activity in the areas where 15+ is (from my very limited time passing through there). Couldn’t we design better protection though, such as wider awnings, shelters at crossings, perhaps even grander ideas such as completely covering some pedestrian areas. E.g. pedestrianize the southern block of Lambton Quay (outside the old BNZ building), and build a large glass, high, arched, perhaps old iron work style, etc. over it to enclose the space. Danger of course is just turning it into a giant wind tunnel instead. But the point is why not grand upwards somehow enclosing the outside space rather than downwards, putting people under the surface.

27 - 07 - 09

I’ve always had the strangest feeling that Capital on the Quay was just the tip of a vast network of untenanted white tiled arcades.

27 - 12 - 09

I had the weirdest dream in which Wellington was endowed with a subway linking The Airport to Old Bank and Auckland. Awesome!