Does Harbour Quays suck?
You've probably seen the articles and full-page ads in the DominionPost by a group opposing the Harbour Quays development, and may have looked at their Vibrant Wellington website. I've written about Harbour Quays several times before, and while I've always been sceptical of the "office park" concept, I must admit I was a little wary of the opposing campaign, since it seems to be driven by a group of property developers and commercial landlords worried that cheap competition might undercut the soaring office rents that they're currently enjoying. But last Thursday's "open letter to the city of Wellington" was also signed by retailers, restaurateurs and three of Wellington's most prominent architects, so clearly there's a broader base to the opposition.
The core of their argument is that Harbour Quays would "suck 5,500 workers out of the Wellington CBD, relocating them to what is a comparatively remote site", and thus "empty the city of some of its spirit, and, of course, affect the livelihoods of some of our city traders". Beyond urban design issues, whch is what I've concentrated on so far, the validity of this claim rests on predictions of the supply and demand for office space. High-quality office space is in very short supply at the moment, so there's little doubt that the development would meet a short-term need. But the Vibrant Wellington campaigners have published an interim report (530kB PDF) stating that in the longer term there is ample opportunity to develop or refurbish office space in the CBD itself, in fact far more than there is projected demand for. Thus, it would be better to locate those workers within the CBD, maintaining and enhancing the liveliness of the inner city rather than sprawling out to an isolated office park.
As regular WellUrbanites will know, I'm not exactly averse to high density urbanism, but it's worth examining the numbers and some of the other details. On page 14 of the report, they quote an NZIER projection of an extra 10,000 FTE (full-time equivalent) office employees in the Wellington CBD by 2021, requiring an extra 200,000 sq m of space. But they also estimate that central Wellington has sites that could easily be developed or refurbished to provide "over 450,000 sq m" of space, and on page 16 they list specific sites that could offer over 350,000 sq m of that. I've looked at most of the sites, and while they certainly could physically accommodate the space, I was left with a couple of questions. Would these sites be any less "isolated" than Harbour Quays? And would Wellington be better with these sites fully developed?
Here's a quick map showing Harbour Quays (red area), the alternative development sites (red dots), and distances from two points that could be considered the "centre" of the CBD for different purposes. It's already clear that Harbour Quays is far from isolated from a public transport point of view: it's closer to the station than most of the CBD is. But the circles show the distance from the "office centre" of Wellington (somewhere near Grey St, based on the 2001 census) and the "government centre" (taken as the Beehive) to the centre of Harbour Quays.
Straight away you can see that Harbour Quays is indeed quite a distance from the office centre (as far as Ghuznee St or Waitangi Park), and that most of the alternative sites are much closer. However, as the report points out, the government sector is driving most of the demand for the sort of large floor plate offices that Harbour Quays offers, and most of the existing sites are much further from the Beehive than that development is. Hardly isolated, from that perspective.
But isolation is about more than just physical distance. The Statistics building is only as far from Midland Park as Manners Mall is, but even on a fine day it seems like a long, grey trudge by comparison, and on a wet day the barren, exposed nature of the route makes it a daunting prospect. Until the gaps along Aotea Quay get populated and enhanced with greenery and shelter, Harbour Quays will indeed feel isolated from the CBD.
Things are even worse between it and Thorndon, even though that seems like the district with which it should have most in common. This map shows pedestrian "no go" areas in blue, and it demonstrates that Harbour Quays looks like a very lonely peninsula in a sea of inaccessibility. If you worked at the Statistics building and lived in the Stadium apartments or had to go to a meeting in the government centre, what should be a short walk becomes a long and frustrating detour via the Stadium concourse.
None of that is impossible to fix, though. A couple of extra footpaths would make it much more accessible, as this map indicates. It would still be pretty bleak up there, but in the very long term the space above the station platforms could become a public square surrounded by buildings and shops, a bit like Federation Square or Broadgate. I've also shown the original proposed site for the indoor stadium, though that was unfortunately dumped in favour of a suburban site, to indicate how that could have helped the connection between Harbour Quays and any future residential development on redundant railway land east of Thorndon Quay. Perhaps a similar use could still be found for that site (a convention centre?), but all of this is the sort of connected thinking that seems to have been abandoned in favour of an unimaginative office park.
At least Harbour Quays won't destroy any existing buildings in the CBD, whereas some of the inner-city sites mentioned would require the demolition or extreme modification of buildings with varying degrees of architectural, historical or townscape value. The destruction of Roger Walker's Wellington Club in the 1980's caused massive consternation among the architectural community: would demolishing his Willis St Village in favour of a 14-storey office tower be any more welcome? The proposed redevelopment of Deloitte House (formerly ICI House) has already been denounced by the Architectural Centre (47kB PDF). There are already plans for a tall office block at 16-42 Willis St, and while the rendering doesn't make it explicit, it's likely that it would require the demolition or gutting of some unlisted but handsome old shops there. And while I doubt that anyone would miss the tired 1980s Oaks complex, I imagine that replacing it with a 7 or 8 storey office building to provide the suggested 15,000 square metres would raise more than a few hackles. I'm not exactly a heritage fundamentalist, but I do have to raise the question: would these developments be good for Wellington's architectural and urbanistic future?
Nevertheless, there's probably enough room among the rest of the alternative sites, along with sites 8, 9 and 10 at Kumutoto, to provide for most of Wellington's office needs over the next 15 years. The Vibrant Wellington group doesn't want a complete ban on development at Harbour Quays. I asked their spokesman, Brent Slater, what he would prefer to see, and he replied:
We would prefer to see the WCC buy this 6.5 hectare site and develop it with an even balance of residential, destination retail/entertainment and office usage with site coverage limited to 50% and the balance heavily landscaped as is the case on Wellington waterfront - i.e. a natural extension of Lambton harbour up to the stadium.I mostly agree with this, though it seems strange to seek 50% site coverage, given that the "bustle and movement, ... vibrancy and ... energy" that they celebrate in the CBD has been generated by much higher densities. I'm also not sure that having 5,500 workers move to the edge of the CBD would "suck the soul" out of the city, when 10,000 are supposed to be moving in, but I still think there's a lot wrong with Harbour Quays.
My main concerns are that it's going ahead too quickly, in isolation from all the positive changes that could happen in that part of town, without adequate planning controls and with an exurban "office park" mentality that explicitly rejects everything that I like about the CBD. So it's very timely that the Civic Trust is planning a public seminar (116kB PDF) on August 26th to discuss the wider possibilities for the whole City Gateway area. Since Harbour Quays is being developed by Centreport, which is mostly owned by a subsidiary of the Regional Council, I think that Wellington deserves much better social and urban outcomes than the current plans promise.