On Thursday, the Council’s Strategy and Policy Committee voted — 9 vs 5— to approve the proposed changes to Manners Mall and Lower Cuba St. Today, the proposal was finalised at a full Council meeting, and the plans look set to be implemented in the near future.
Despite a vocal opposition campaign, public and private views on the changes seem mixed. Written submissions were almost evenly split for and against the proposal, while an earlier poll reported a pro-change public, and a more recent survey shows two thirds of local businesses support that plan. Assuming these gauges were at least somewhat accurate, why then was the opposition movement so prominent and widespread?
Looking back, the pro-Manners movement seems to be centered on a few key players advocating among a largely apathetic public. Their overwhelming strength of preference of these few players created the ubiquitios WGTN Loves Manners Mall campaign, a popular facebook group and various petitions.
But beyond these, the public willingness to engage in any meaningful protest seemed limited. In the last few months, especially as Luigi Muollo withdrew his marketing efforts, the protest movement has increasingly seemed misguided and disorganized. The design competition failed to eventuate. The human bus march was a flop. The sleepover appeared deserted. Benjamin Easton’s legal action backfired, at cost. The final protest had to resort to hiring a crowd.
The arguments against the Council’s plan centered on 3 main fronts: the loss of public space, a loss of public transport efficiency, and the cost to the ratepayer.
Those claiming the change would in fact increase travel times seem remarkably misguided. Both the Council and Opus International reports concluded that “opening Manners Mall is by far the single most effective improvement that could be made” to public transport. The estimated gains suggest a 3 minute improvement on transport times, and – possibly more importantly – a decrease in the variability of times. Moreover, gradual, iterative improvements to public transport have been consistently identified as the most effective measure to cope with Wellington’s increased traffic load. No legitimate response to these findings has eventuated.
Those arguments against losing public space seem to be the main concern. Yet since the lower Cuba St changes were added to the proposal, such arguments have failed to evolve. If the choice is between Manners Mall as a public space, and lower Cuba as a public space, why exactly should WGTN chose the former? What unique value does Manners actually posses?
It’s true that is often a vibrant and well used area. But it is also generic, dull and in desperate need of repair. Its only value to the public is that is at least some form of public space, if a poor one. Supplanting this public space to lower Cuba — and in the process getting a chance to create an improved space — would seem to be at worst, a neutral change.
Moreover, having the mall as a two way lane opens up a number of other options. The reduction in traffic along Wakefield and Dixon allows them to be sites for new public spaces, and increased pedestrian priority. Manners Mall is a small trade-off for the ability to improve pedestrian connections and spaces throughout the wider area, and it is encouraging that this has been identified in this weeks proceedings:
To quell opposition to the loss of public space in the mall, enhanced public areas will be created in the next five years in Wakefield, Mercer and Willis streets. Parts of Dixon St could be used to enlarge a remodelled Te Aro Park.
The only legitimate opposition seems to be based around cost. $11 million is a lot of money. Apart from judging the figures at a visceral level, determining the cost/benefit trade-offs of the proposal seems like a ridiculously complex task. Ties between efficient transport systems and economic productivity are clear; the only question is, at what cost, and for what gain? It seems entirely plausible that in the long-term, a saving of three minutes per bus trip could pay dividends, but apart from economists and traffic engineers, who can really tell for sure?
Opposing the cost in the face of a recession seems equally misguided. Isn’t the established wisdom that governments increase expenditure in the downtown; creating a counter-cyclical effect? Somehow I doubt that those who oppose the expenditure would take such an anti-Keynesian, pro-Bill English stance in other areas of government policy. But perhaps I’m mistaken.
The Council did a spectacularly poor job of selling both the proposed Manners and Cuba St changes. Yet, the long-term benefits of both seem clear: a more effective public transport system, and a more effective series of public spaces. Its unfortunate, but necessary, that the most effective way to achieving these changes is through Manners Mall.
Moving forward, the advocacy for public space should be channelled into the new public spaces. If the loss of Manners is so important, then the proposed changes in Cuba, Wakefield and Dixon should be advocated for. Wellington’s first foray into shared public spaces risks becoming a spectacular failure unless they are designed to be pedestrian-focused.