Amidst all this talk of Hubbard, Buzzard, Toil and Gloom, it’s nice to hear something positive once in a while. Word has it that at a NZIA Urban Design forum this week, the audience was mighty impressed by the new Aussie boss of the Urban Design Group in Wellington, Jan McCredie. She’s made a few public talks in her time here in Wellington this year, and it’s clear that she’s got some great ideas buzzing in the team. Wellington 2040 is the aim of the WCC’s vision – to try and see 30 years into the future, and what measures do we want to have in place now, to ensure that we get to where we want to be. Crikey! Does that make sense? Almost.
The 2040 scheme must have been set up by someone else in the Urban Team, as I have a feeling it predated McCredie, but she certainly seems to have picked up the odd-shaped ball and run with it. The scheme isn’t for public release yet, so there was only a snippet or two of what may be coming, but it is good to hear that someone at the Council is doing a bit of forward thinking. There is apparently a concentration on space in the city, of which we may presume that perhaps she is talking about either A) better quality space, or B) more quantity of space, but either way it would be good to have a decent look at the urban design of the general CBD. Due out in a month or two – don’t hold your breath. But nice to know that there is some life in the UDG after all!
As we all know, Wellington is blessed with a stunningly good natural geography, but if attention isn’t paid to detail, then it will all be stuffed up for generations. There are a few (only a few) main, grand avenues in Wellington that we have to play with – Cambridge / Kent Tce, and Taranaki St prime amongst them. We know that Lambton Quay, Willis St, and Courtenay Place are our trump cards, but the experiences of the ‘Naki street are lagging too far behind. Mayor Kerry murmured something almost a year (or was it two?) ago that we were in line for a avenue of pohutukawas down Taranaki St from the Memorial Park / Bypass to the waterfront, but I’ve been straining my fishy eyes to see anything breaking out of the asphalt there yet. I know, I know, there will be reasons like: money, or lack of; and Memorial Park, or lack of; or political gumption, or lack of; but it would be nice to be tied up and teased with some plans that don’t involve the world’s worst traffic designers botching it up, as is happening with the area around Te Aro Park. And Kent / Cambridge Tce works brilliantly as a race car track for late night drifting, as is evidenced by the Friday night drive bys and the Saturday morning car yards (really – people still buy cars? oh how boring), but it is pretty rubbish as a place to be. If these roads were in any other major city in the world, those would be the premier addresses in the town – Taranaki St would be like 5th Avenue, full of shops; and Kent Tce would be lined with the Waldorf Astoria and the Trump Tower, instead of the El-cheapo tacky sheds of Shackell and SuperCheap.
But enough about roads. People, Readers, Fish Fans: we have a more serious problem at hand. Wellington has always had a tight supply of commercial property. We’ve delighted as a city that our vacancy rates were New Zealand’s lowest, revelling in the luxury of a mere 2% vacancy, while Auckland wallowed with a weary 10%. Well, times are changing: and indeed, it sounds like they already have changed. Who knows what rate Auckland is up to – and quite frankly, who cares – and we can be certain that there will be a lot more vacant businesses in Timaru and Christchurch tonight – but really, what we’re concerned with is Wellington. Now, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone – indeed, Vibrant Wellington (hard man Ian Cassells and big softy Bob Jones) have been saying so for the last couple of years – but the construction of a new office park down at Centreport, and the construction of Wellington’s biggest and ugliest grey monolithic HQ for IRD, have changed the game for good. The carefully balanced equation of just a little, not too much, that has prevailed in the capital over the last 20 years has come apart at the seams, and we’ve got a little glut. But a little glut is like being a little bit pregnant. And it’s time to deal with it.
So I call to you, fine fish-finned friendly fellows, to come up with some ideas with what to do with our newly empty buildings. The IRD alone apparently has emptied out 10 buildings around Wellington as they decant them into their new, anonymous box, without telling anyone they’ve moved. The other Government departments used to play a game of shuffling around under the Clark government, but under the Key/Hide government, they have to stay put and stop being conspicuous. Never mind that South Canterbury Finance has just swallowed up the equivalent of 2 or 3 brand new Wellington Hospitals, the government is clamping down and there’ll be no more lolly to dolly up Polly. Golly!
So what to do with our empty buildings? Last time it was easy – last time we converted them into flats and apartments, stringing up timber partitions with just enough sound proofing to tone down the noise of the telly, and whacking balconies on the outside of anything that looked like it could be lived in. But then again, last time, banks would loan money on converted buildings, as they had a lot to lend. This time around, and especially right now with SCF screaming southwards, the banks are less likely to lend. The universities have got their student numbers under control – there’s no urgent need to corral the students into former offices like battery hens. This time, assuming that we can’t convert all the empty buildings into apartments, we need to find a new use for them. And that’s where you come in.
There was a bit in the paper today about how Wellington had lost its Mojo – that we don’t have any particular affinity to the Absolutely Positively Creatively Thingummy any more. That Wellington needs a new raison d’etre. What thinks you?