You may have seen the article in Saturday's Dominion Post about the rapid sale of the Chews Lane apartments, which also somewhat confusingly covered the announcement of the Watermark development on the Wellington Market site. There's another article in the NBR about that project, and the developer's site is full of renderings. The preferred angle is from the southwest, which shows a very smart yet spatially complex building, but for the sake of balance here's a somewhat less flattering angle from the southeast. I believe that in a much earlier version the eastern elevation twisted a little as it rose, presumably to preserve certain viewshafts, but that seems to have been replaced by an angle in the cladding while the building envelope just goes straight up. This diminishes its architectural interest for me slightly, and makes it look more monolithic on that corner, but on the whole I think it's one of the most attractive large-scale apartment buildings that I've seen proposed for Wellington.
The tone of the newspaper articles has mostly centred on breathless speculation that the penthouse apartment might become New Zealand's most expensive home, at an unimaginable $11m. Then again, at 750 sq m it's not really an "apartment" so much as a mansion in the sky! Apart from the economic aspect, the NBR tries to link it to the controversies over the Hilton and Harbour Quays, but it doesn't have that much in common with either. The site isn't really on the waterfront, being 100m from the wharf's edge and separated from it by an arterial road. Unlike the Hilton, it's on privately-owned land. Unlike Harbour Quays, it's not threatening to take office workers away from the CBD.
But, like pretty much everything in Wellington, it has been controversial. The controversy centred on the notified resource consent application, which went significantly over the height limit for the area: 12 storeys instead of eight. But that never really bothered me, as I think this is a prime example of discretion on the part of the planners creating a better building and a better urban environment. The developer could simply have extruded the entire site up to eight storeys, producing an undistinguished lump that ruined the form of the John Chambers (Rialto) building. Instead, by going higher on the eastern end of the site, they've left most of the heritage building untouched while creating a much more complex and interesting building envelope. Of course, the Duxton Hotel objected to having their expensive views blocked, and took their objections to the Environment Court. I can understand their fears, but as some have suggested, the Duxton itself is hardly an appealing building that sensitively responds to the townscape.
If I have reservations about the development, they're not about the building itself but about what it displaces. Not so much the Rialto, which as I speculated earlier may have its arthouse niche taken over by an extension of Courtenay Central down the road, and which has always been a fairly awkward space for cinema. I'm more worried about the market, which while it's looked sad and tatty for years, provides a vital space for economically marginal businesses. Some of that role has been taken over by the Left Bank, and there's always the James Smith market to fulfil all your tarot reading, crossbow and bong requirements. Nevertheless, the tight retail market and consequent high rents make it hard for new shops and artisans to get started in the central city, and while the proposed weekend craft market might help to some extent, that's supposed to be a bit more upmarket than the current scruffy and anarchic indoor Camden.
On balance, the new ground-floor activities here (including a boutique hotel, spa, restaurants and other retail) might produce more activity on the block than the current uses, especially since the market is only open three days a week. But as that list implies, and the rather spectacular entraceway confirms, it'll be a very different sort of activity. While some people recoil at the run-down and "characterful" (i.e. filthy) appearance of the food court, it serves a more interesting range of dishes than the more antiseptic food courts around town. Would you get a Māori boil-up at Courtenay Central, or "divorced eggs" under the State Insurance building?
With the demise of A-mart, there could be an increasing gap in the market for something with a bit of energy and diversity. My pick for a great location would be the vacant shed at 10 Tory St next to Wholly Bagels. It's on the way from Courtenay Place to the waterfront, and would add to the emerging food precinct (Schoc, Meat on Tory, Mr Chan's, Commonsense Organics) near that corner. It may be a bit small, but could probably fit enough stalls to be worthwhile, and if had more consistent hours than the current market, it would help fill in another gap in the life of the city.