Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The end of Palazzo Rosa?

The Il Casino building for saleYou'll probably have read in the Dominion Post and on the Wellingtonista about Remiro Bresolin's terminal illness. As Rodger mentioned, the greatest loss will obviously be to his family, but any Wellingtonian who appreciates our lively dining scene will feel a debt to Cavaliere Bresolin for bringing a touch of Carnevale to our town.

He brought Wellington its first taste of pizza, and its first 2am license. At one stage, Il Casino was serving more Champagne than anywhere else in the country. His legacy will live on, both through his example and through his family's ongoing commitment to true hospitality at Boulot and Scopa, but one vital aspect of his work is under threat: the Il Casino building itself.

The Dominion Post article says:

Mr Bresolin's Il Casino was closed in April for a six-month refurbishment. But with 70 per cent of the work done and reopening set for November, the 30-year-old business is on the market as the family assesses its options.

I think I speak for many of us when I hope that it can either stay within the family or be taken over by a restaurateur with the same commitment to quality and good times. I'd like to think that, with earthquake strengthening nearly complete, any new owners would be unlikely to throw that all away by tearing the building down. But the site is being advertised for its potential for "maximum redevelopment", and given the district plan, that means a 27 metre height limit.

We would not only lose a handsome pair of buildings and the city's best trompe l'oeil mural, but also miss a potential focal point for "SoCo" and the memory of 30 years of la dolce vita. There are plenty of sites in Te Aro that could (and should) be redeveloped before this one. Knock down a Briscoes or build on an open-air car yard, but leave us "Palazzo Rosa".

Friday, July 28, 2006

A WellUrban year

Images of WellingtonI've been writing WellUrban for just over a year now, though it feels like about ten. I originally intended this as an easier way to update my original wellurban.org.nz site about architecture and sustainable urban design, but I was inspired by those crazy kids over at the Wellingtonista to write more broadly about life in Wellington. Looking back at the first month of WellUrban, I can see that I was already writing about burlesque nights, graffiti and the "man drought" as well as Harbour Quays, wind farms and Futuna Chapel. While I've considered splitting the content into two separate blogs (one for serious urban design stuff and one for frivolous happenings-about-town), I've looked at the comments and realised that architects enjoy Martinis and barflies care about transport. What goes on in the city is just as important as the form it takes.

One of the reasons that I promote urban life is that high-density cities are more sustainable than sprawling ones. The concentration of residents and workplaces makes walking and public transport more feasible, and apartments are easier to heat than stand-alone dwellings. That's one of the reasons why New York is the "greenest" city in America, and why Wellington has a relatively low ecological footprint per capita.

But just as importantly, dense cities are more fun! Wellington may be only a small city, but its CBD has more workers than Auckland's, which goes some way towards explaining why we have so many bars, restaurants and cafés per capita. And it looks like as the inner-city population grows, our hospitality scene will continue to thrive.

Summit apartments from the northWhile there are all these benefits to compact cities, increasing the population of the inner city has to be carefully managed: probably much more so than it is at the moment. Some of the new apartment buildings and conversions are very good, but many don't even aspire to mediocrity, and there are some burgeoning neighbourhoods that lack any sort of quality public spaces. That's why I've been trying to highlight good examples of high-density residential architecture, as well as promoting reclaiming public space from cars and the importance of complementing commercial development with proactive urban design. But if you're still worried about the densification of the city, consider the alternative. In the past ten years, 7,500 people have moved into Thorndon, Lambton and Te Aro. If they'd all moved into quarter-acre sections, they'd require at least 250ha of greenfield space: about the size of Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Mystery Bar #32 - the barBut instead, they're living in town, walking to work, and contributing to a lively urban culture that supports lots of independent shops, an energetic Arts Centre, experimental music venues, and at last count nearly 160 bars (of which I've managed to visit just over 75% this year). We have distinctive street art and street artists, and of course some great streets. We're all passionate about the waterfront, though of course not everyone can agree about what we want to see there. Some of the other controversial subjects on WellUrban have been transport (Light Rail? Busway? Trolleys? or Pods?), Harbour Quays, the Marine Education Centre and what happened to our coffee culture.

In addition to my regular readers, I get a few referrals from Google, many of which are from people who must have been looking for something quite different. For instance, WellUrban is still ranked 16th on Google for the word "toyboys" (thanks to this notorious post), and I hold the dubious honour of hosting the top two results for the search "swingers Baku". Most of those visitors leave fairly quickly, but if you're looking for mystery bars, in-depth articles on urbanism, hospitality industry gossip, architecture competitions or exhausting ways to spend the weekend, then you've come to the right place.

WellUrban on air

For those of you who are not either still asleep or having brunch (I can recommend the "Abruzzo eggs" at Scopa) at the time, I'll be on National Radio at about 11am tomorrow, talking about WellUrban, architecture, urbanism, and other burning issues such as the quest for the perfect Martini. If you miss it, it'll be on their podcast soon afterwards.

I can't be absolutely certain, but I think that this will be the first time that the "Kim Hill" recipe features a cocktail.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Toi Pōneke

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The Wellington Arts Centre is now a year old, and appropriately for Māori Language Week, it has now been officially named Toi Pōneke. It also now has a Wikipedia page, and as of a few minutes ago, a ZoomIn place.

Toi Poneke, the Wellington Arts CentreThe Centre has attracted a bit of grumbling (in White Fungus magazine, and on this site as well), but most of that is related to the fact that it could never meet all the demand for cheap studio space, rather than anything that the Centre itself is doing wrong. It's clearly become an indispensable part of the Wellington art and performance scene over the last year, with plenty of exhibitions and workshops to engage the public as well as full-time artists. Eric Holowacz, its Arts Programmes and Services Manager, also publishes a very comprehensive email newsletter The No 8 Wire, which is archived online at the Gondwanaland Ministry of Culture.

While I haven't heard of any official birthday celebrations, you could do worse than pop down tomorrow at 5:30pm for the opening of Windance (which also got a mention from eco-hipster blog Treehugger). Maybe the recently rather quiet gallery openings site P.O.G. blog will make it and manage a review.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Back on track: choosing rail

This might seem like a strange time to be optimistic about rail, given that fares are about to go up and the Overlander has been axed. The former was inevitable, and while the latter is sad, our sparse population and rugged topography make inter-city rail impractical. But it's metropolitan commuting that's the big issue, which is why I'm cautiously heartened by the Phase 1 Consultation Report (1.4MB PDF) from the recent Ngauranga to Airport study. It summarises the submissions thus:
There is good support for public transport, especially light rail, [my emphasis] with a route through the city to the airport a popular topic. Improved access to the airport, walking and cycling and protection of heritage and urban form were also issues frequently commented on.

It can be concluded that those that gave feedback seem to think that problems on the corridor are not caused by the roads, but the number of cars on them which can be decreased by improvements to public transport.
Of course, that's just what the submitters say, and it's no guarantee that they will be taken seriously. But given that nearly a third of submitters (there were 46 submission in the end) mentioned light rail without prompting, we would be justified in being angry if it it were not included as an option for the next phase of consultation.

While it may superficially sound like a separate issue, the future of the Johnsonville line is vitally relevant, since light rail is one of the options for that route, and the CBD section could then form the first stage of a city to airport link. While submissions on the Johnsonville corridor closed two weeks ago, there's still plenty of public debate going on. While one commentator warned against removing a "popular and affordable train network", John Rusk denies that the Johnsonville line is popular. He bases this upon 2001 census figures showing that "63% of northern suburbs commuters choos[e] bus and only 36% choos[e] rail", and upon observations that at Johnsonville station "there is a steady stream of people boarding a steady stream of buses - to travel from one railway station to another". This seems to run counter to international experience, and certainly would come as news to the Johnsonville line commuters I know who dread the thought of losing trains.

So why the difference? It all comes down to the way you define "the northern suburbs". While the options in the study were all about the future of the Johnsonville railway line, the study area extended to the far-flung outskirts of suburbs such as Newlands and Churton Park. If you include residents more than 3km from the nearest station, it's no wonder that they "choose" the bus! If one were cynical, one might almost conclude that the study was designed specifically to make rail look bad...

But let's not get into conspiracy theories, and instead see if we can see whether commuters "choose" bus or rail when both are available. I took 2001 census data for all meshblocks with at least 10 public transport users, and mapped the proportion of them who used bus (blue) or rail (red). Yellow dots show stations, and the green line encloses areas served by both bus and rail (click on the map for a larger version).

Map of public transport choices in Wellington's northern suburbsThere's still a lot of blue within the joint bus/rail area, but most of that is in parts of Ngaio and Khandallah that are separated from the stations by a deep gorge. A better comparison is Johnsonville, where commuters really do have a choice between bus and train. And most choose the train.

All of which is consistent with US studies, which conclude that when "service conditions are equal, it is evident that rail transit is likely to attract from 34% to 43% more riders than will equivalent bus service". And the remainder who choose the number 56 or 57 buses over the train? Perhaps they're the ones who work further along the Golden Mile, since the buses travel to Courtenay Place, unlike the railway line. Unless it's converted to light rail, of course.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mystery bar number 37

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As Simon and Stephen worked out, the previous mystery bar was Sweet Mother's Kitchen, in the strange little space on Courtenay Place where Cinta Malaysia was until very recently. As their coffee supplier says, they are more of a café than a bar, though they intend to open later and later as they gradually work their way into the swing of things, and to my mind any place that serves Margaritas by the carafe definitely counts as a bar. I may, however, regret trying their chili beer.

Mystery bar #37 - the barOn the other hand, this week's mystery bar is definitely a bar. It's still trying to cover a lot of markets, and while it's a little bit metro, it's more than a little retro. There's a lot of the stone wall detailing that's becoming rather over-familiar, a garish pool table, and plenty of self-conscious faux-rustic furniture. In contrast, there are elements that are relatively crisp and contemporary (as long as by "contemporary" you mean "circa 2002"), such as white leather cubes and colourful backlit bar shelves. It's as if it's trying to attract a blokey crowd but also wants to aim for chic and sophistication: it doesn't quite come off, but it's actually not a bad attempt.

Mystery bar #37 - pool tableAccordingly, there's a wide range of drinks on offer. Plenty of beer, of course; a predictable wine list; and a fairly comprehensive cocktail offering. This manages to generally avoid concoctions with "hilarious" "suggestive" names, and covers most of the classics while adding a few of their own. I stuck to my mission and opted for a Martini: the inexperienced bartender sensibly summoned expert help, and the results were very creditable indeed. It was a quiet night when we visited, no doubt due to the atrocious weather, and when this place is in full swing I wouldn't recommend ordering anything too involved. Nevertheless, if you're aiming to find an acceptable bar for a diverse bunch of people, this would be worth a try.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Traffic and trees

Constrcution starts on the Greening the Quays projectThe Greening the Quays project has started. The diggers were out today creating a 2-metre median strip along Jervois Quay, to make room for a row of "Māori Princess" pohutukawa trees (currently corralled at Taranaki St Wharf) that will stretch initially from Cable St to Johnston St, and eventually to Bunny St. The specific variety was chosen because it grows tall and straight, and thus won't spread out and interfere with traffic.

This is supposed to turn the Quays into a "boulevard" rather than a mini-motorway. The trees will certainly make the road look nicer, but there will be the same number of lanes and the same amount of traffic, so it's unlikely to do much to make the waterfront more accessible to pedestrians. There are still vague plans to reduce the quays from 6 lanes to 4 once the "bypass" is complete, but they are subject to a review of traffic levels. If the "bypass" fails to deliver the promised reductions in waterfront traffic (and I have my doubts), we will still be stuck with a 6-lane aterial road between the city and the harbour. I suppose it will look pretty at Christmas, though.

Rendering of Jervois Quay after the Greening the Quays project

Friday, July 21, 2006

A beautiful wind

On Tuesday, a new exhibition starts at the Arts Centre in Abel Smith St that sounds rather intriguing. Windance by Emily Farncombe is a multimedia installation that celebrates the beauty of wind turbines by combining images of the Tararua wind farm with video of dancers emulating the turbines' movements.

Anton Oliver, celebrity arts maven and part-time hooker, would definitely not approve, based on the article in this week's Listener (not fully online yet). He and most of the other opponents of Central Otago windfarms seem to have come down on the side of the sentimental rather than the environmental, by emphasising the impact on the "landscape" rather than the ecology of the land itself. As Simon Schama said, "landscapes are culture before they are nature", and the preservation of a mythologically "untouched" landscape for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons is no more "environmental" than using it for a renewable, zero-emission energy source.

Personally, I believe that it's better to have wind farms distributed around the country, close to the demand, to minimise transmission loss. Places like Makara for example. But then the nearby residents always complain about the impact on their pseudo-rural lifestyles (and a "lifestyle" is to a life what "landscape" is to land), insisting that there's nothing wrong with wind farms as long as they're located somewhere remote. Like Central Otago, presumably.

But then, not everyone finds them unattractive. Farnscome, in an interview for the No 8 wire (scroll right down) says:
I discovered the Manawatu wind farm whilst I staying with my friends there, and I was completely overwhelmed by their huge scale and numbers. I love the buzz I get when I stand directly beneath them - they are awesome monsters of energy. I just find wind turbines beautiful, and the sound they make is wonderful too.


It wasn't my original plan to make a point out of the wind farm that is proposed for Wellington. I was initially unaware of project west wind, even before I fell in love with the Manawatu wind farm. However now that I know about it I would like Windance to indicate support for the development of the project. Wind energy is a positive way forward.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Future waterfront

Shed 5 and DocksideI've been asked to give a brief talk to the board and management of Wellington Waterfront Ltd (WWL) about my "three top priority ideas for the waterfront". It will be no suprise to most of you that I won't struggle for things to say, but while I've been asked to speak as an individual rather than as a representative for any group, I'd like to get your input into this.

So, what would you WellUrbanites like to see on the waterfront? While WWL have a fairly specific plan for the immediate future, there's still scope for imagination and speculation. What are the major problems with the waterfront that you'd like to see remedied? What are its good and bad qualities that should bee enhanced or ameliorated? What facilities does Wellington lack that might find a suitable home on the waterfront?

Your suggestions can be broadly conceptual (better connections to the city, more activity, better public spaces) or very specific (get rid of the Events Centre, give us a covered deli/market and a tiki bar). They can be prosaically practical (more shelter, more public toilets) or wildly fanciful (an underwater railway, a wooden rollercoaster). They can be socially responsible (green buildings, more affordable housing) or blatantly decadent (a casino and brothel). Let me know!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Busway? No way!

I'm not going to get too involved in the "bus rapid transit" (BRT) vs rail debate for the Johnsonville line, as I lack the detailed technical knowledge (and time!) to weigh up the competing arguments, but I'll point you towards some of the protagonists. John Rusk has created a blog in support of the busway (Better Bus), while Gareth Hughes has an in-depth article (on his blog WE Aotearoa) that investigates international examples of BRT and comes down firmly in favour of rail.

John raises some interesting points, but I get the impression that his main focus is on improved reliability of existing bus services for the suburbs north of Johnsonville (such as Churton Park and Newlands) rather than maintaining and improving transit along the Johnsonville corridor itself. The former is a worthy goal, but even if BRT would deliver those improvements, I think that the latter is a better fit with the council's long-term strategy of concentrating development along a compact "spine" (Johnsonville - CBD - Newtown - airport). Even if the busway options improves travel times or reliability along the busway itself, the buses will still have to meander through the sprawling suburbs at the end of the route, and those suburbs will never have the density to support truly frequent services, especially off-peak. A light rail route from Johnsonville to Courtenay Place, with transit oriented development around the stations, is a much better match between transport infrastructure and urban form.

I think that Gareth sums it up best in his conclusion:
BRT and busways are a technology still in its infancy and there are no shining examples internationally to act as a model for Wellington. Other cities such as Curitiba and Adelaide have a different operating context that is radically different from our situation of a small compact and steep corridor that would only allow one-way busways. Busways are applicable in some circumstances such as far-flung low density suburbs not in Wellington's circumstances.
It's also worth noting that while BRT is often promoted as "just like rail, only cheaper!", Auckland's busway project is estimated to cost $325m for 6km, which is much more expensive than usual light rail costs per kilometre. In any case, we already have most of the infrastructure for a light rail system, and to rip that up for a busway would be a backwards step. BRT may be a "better bus", but it's a "worse train".

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Future city

In a recent post, I mentioned that I had seen projections of an extra 3,000 inner-city residents within the next few years, but that I couldn't find a reference to the study. As it turns out, the campaigners against the controversial Harbour Quays development have come to my rescue: their report on the potential economic impacts (530kB PDF) includes a table of actual and forecast CBD household numbers from 1991 to 2021 (page 14). They list the sources as Statistics NZ, Bayleys and Property Economics (the authors of the report), but I couldn't find out whether the future figures were based upon economic and demographic modelling or simple extrapolation.

But let's take the numbers as read, and use them to estimate the increase in inner-city population by taking a nominal average household size of 3. This is a bit smaller than the current average for the CBD, but household sizes are generally falling, so it seems a reasonable guesstimate. This gives an extra 3,300 people by 2011, and 11,000 extra by 2021: a 75% increase over the current CBD population!

My earlier study showed that over 3,000 new residents could be housed in apartments already proposed or under construction. How do these fit into the population projections? Here's a graph to show them in context:

Projected household and population numbers for Wellington CBD
The red bars show that these pending developments could absorb projected demand for the next 4 or 5 years. If demand for inner-city living continues as forecast (and that's a big if: a bird-flu scare or another Peter Jackson could skew the trend in either direction), what are the implications for inner Wellington's urban form?

CranesGet used to cranes. Once way or another, a lot of construction will be needed. Some vacant office space will be converted to apartments, but that would only house about 1,000-1,500 people. There's still a lot of vacant and underutilised land in Te Aro: I once worked out that if you redeveloped all the car sales yards and single-storey bulk retailers you could house about 6,000 people without going over 6 storeys, and without displacing existing tenants. Where will the other 3,500 people go? We could always build higher throughout Te Aro (and probably will), but that might not be ideal. Perhaps turning Harbour Quays into a low-density single-use office park, rather than a mixed-use inner-city precinct, really is a bad idea.

Walk on the left. Most of those people are going to walk to work. That's fantastic for the environment, of course, but parts of the Golden Mile already have more foot traffic than the busiest shopping streets in London, and are pretty much at congestion point during rush hour and lunchtime. Good urban etiquette will help a bit, but perhaps we need to spread the walkers out a bit. Anything that creates extra pavement space will be welcome, but making the waterfront route a more realistic foot-commuting option (through more shelter and easier road crossings) should be a priority. So should improving public transport within the CBD: recent bus-lane improvements have made a difference, but light rail would be even better.

Plan ahead. It's hardly the explosive growth that's made life difficult in Auckland (let alone Shanghai or Dubai!), but it could still get out of hand unless we plan ahead. By "we", I mean the councils, transport providers and so on, of course, but many other groups have a part to play. Architects need to set standards for quality high- and medium-density housing. Developers need to realise that their buildings aren't purely private property, but are part of the urban fabric and help define the public realm. Residents need to develop mature give-and-take attitudes to city living. Retailers and hospitality operators should look for opportunities to provide new services such as home delivery and a new generation of local shops, markets and cafés.

Enjoy the ride. If there's any predictive value in the fact that a past influx of 4,000 residents was associated with a net increase of approximately 45 bars, cafés and restaurants (based on my earlier post), then we can expect even more growth in the hospitality sector. That should offer more choice for everyone and greater vitality for the city as a whole, and I for one am looking forward to it. Certainly, the sector seems quite healthy at the moment, with almost all of the places that closed in the past year either already reopened or set to do so, and there are brand new places in the offing for the waterfront and elsewhere. Compare the dull and desolate Wellington of 15 years ago with what we enjoy today, then extrapolate the difference into the future. Okay, there's no scientific way to measure the buzz or "x-factor" of a city, let alone correlate it with something as mundane as a population increase, but it's a fair bet that our density and diversity is what makes us more exciting than other NZ cities. If we can increase that even further, while planning ahead to avoid the potential negative impacts, there's a truly wonderful city waiting for us in the future.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Whares? No worries.

Rendering of the proposed Wharenui for Taranaki St WharfWhen they were first proposed, the Wharenui and Wharewaka at Taranaki St Wharf were among the least controversial developments on the waterfront. Even Waterfront Watch seemed to cautiously approve, given that these were low-rise cultural facilities rather than medium-rise buildings with commercial components, though some of their members managed to find views that would be blocked. However, that quickly changed once the rowing clubs realised that they might have to lose some parking space, and the dispute has only just been resolved.

I initially had a lot of sympathy for the rowing clubs, since their presence is certainly a vital and natural part of the waterfront. It's obvious that they'll always need some vehicle access and parking, since it's hardly practical to lug rowing shells from the road. But then things started getting nasty. To a casual observer, it might have looked like Wellington Waterfont Ltd (WWL) were deliberately trying to get rid of the rowers, and headlines such as "End of city rowing?" fostered the impression that the clubs were in imminent danger. So what exactly was it that was being threatened?

Firstly, there's the issue of trailer access. The council commissioned traffic experts who determined that it would be possible to get the trailers to the sheds, though it wouldn't be easy. The rowers claimed that it would be too difficult, but I'm not exactly an expert on parking trailers, so I can't really comment on who's right.

Secondly, there's the rowers' "need" for parking. WWL's plans allowed 22 parks for the two clubs, but the clubs demanded 30. This is where I started to lose sympathy for them. One of the rowers' spokespeople said that parents needed to drop their kids off right at the door, rather than at nearby Taranaki St. Excuse me? These are fit young athletes, and they can't walk 100m? Apparently it was a safety issue, and parents couldn't allow their teenage sons and daughters to be alone in the city in the early hours of the morning. But Taranaki St Wharf is hardly a dark, deserted alley: it's a well-lit open space with plenty of early-morning joggers and people walking to work. This sounds like the sort of suburban thinking that lets media panic act as an excuse for laziness and equates convenience with necessity.

Finally, they were worried that competition from the Wharenui's conference facility would hurt their own functions business and thus remove their main source of funding. That sounds like a reasonable concern, but it's an example of "zero sum" thinking that rarely applies to retail and hospitality. Rather than stealing customers, having a similar facility nearby can often form a cluster that provides enough critical mass to increase business overall. I also wonder whether the sort of society weddings and twenty-firsts that like the Victorian wooden atmosphere of the Rowing Club are going to be dragged away by a high-tech marae. Apart from specifically Māori events, the Wharenui is more likely to attract corporate and government meetings, so if anyone should be worried about competition, it would be some third-rate hotel on the Terrace with a windowless 1970s function room. As the recent Great Blend showed, the location is so good that there should be no shortage of custom for both venues.

So, the factors that would "drive away" the rowing clubs boiled down to ease of driving, eight carparks, and a probably illusory fear of competition. WWL has compromised by making minor modifications to the open space plans (changes to the ramp and steps near the Kupe statue), thus improving access. The car park issue has been resolved, partly by clarifying their lease arrangements and partly by providing dedicated parking in the Frank Kitts underground carpark outside of business hours. And as I said, I believe the competition issue is a non-starter.

So, it looks like we finally have a compromise that works for all parties. The building and landscaping, which almost everyone agreed would improve the public space, are now able to proceed. It's just a pity that we had to go through such histrionics to get to this stage.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mystery bar number 36

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Okay, last week's mystery bar was way too easy: it's Electric Avenue in Courtenay Place, which has just opened in the two storey building vacated by Saffron last year. Most bars go for a stealthy approach when they're under renovation, keeping their windows papered over until the opening, but Electric Avenue took the unusual approach of actually displaying architectural plans and sketches, so we all had a fair idea of how it would look when it opened. So, now we have an Eighties bar: hooray.

Today's mystery bar doesn't have as explicit a theme as that, though its food is mostly from a specific part of the world. They've done a reasonably good job of making a potentially sterile space feel quite homely, and while the furnishings are very basic, they're turning that into a virtue by emphasising their casual, unpretentious attitude. This is emphasised by the soundtrack: while they play a bit of the usual "downbeat" compilations, they also play some of the rarer blues, gospel and jazz tracks that inspired them.

It's still evolving as a bar, and they didn't seem quite organised enough for me to attempt a Martini. They will be serving some cocktails in carafes, which could be a major drawcard, and while they have only a very basic winelist, they serve a couple of beers that are slightly out of the ordinary. Generally, though, I get the impression that they're expecting their main point of difference to be their hearty late-night snacks, and that'll make a nice change from the usual kebabs and burgers!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Architecture on show

Here's a quick round-up of some events and exhibitions related to architecture and urban development.

Museum of Wellington City and Sea - logoAs part of the Wellingtonia Live festival at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, there's a lunchtime talk next Wednesday about developments on the waterfront. Then on Saturday (the 22nd) there's the final instalment in the "Why I do architecture" series of panel discussions, with Sam Donald of Parsonson Architects, Gina Jones of Accent Architects and Stephen McDougall from Studio of Pacific Architecture. McDougall also joins Mark Southcombe from the VUW School of Architecture to discuss the churches of St Joseph (by the Mt Victoria tunnel) and St Anne (in Wanganui). That's at 6.30pm tomorrow night in Lecture Theatre 1 of the School of Architecture in Vivian St.

Back at the Museum, there's a room dedicated to the Architectural Centre's Manifesto exhibition. This not only displays the finished manifesto, but also documents its evolution in the form of discussion threads from the Arch Centre's online forum (including comments from one particular meddling non-architect). What's more, they've papered the walls with all sorts of manifestos (manifesti?), both architectural (Le Corbusier's Vers Une Architecture) and other (the Communist manifesto, the SCUM manifesto). Pity they missed the Futurist Manifesto of Lust, which is rather an entertaining read.

There's an intriguing exhibition at Enjoy gallery called Inner City Real Estate. Fiona Connor has recreated the interior of the gallery's former site at 174 Cuba St entirely within their new space at number 147. It's quite a disconcerting experience, and it's accompanied by a series of events exploring urban change. At 2pm this Saturday, gallery manager Melanie Hogg will discuss the architectural, historical and social implications of the move. The closing party (next Friday at 6pm) will have performances from The Stumps and Birchville Cat Motel: members of both bands were involved in a particularly interesting night at Happy that got blogged about here and there.

Photo from 'The Velveteen City', an exhibition by Alastair McAraAnother art exhibition with a focus on architecture and urbanism is The Velveteen City at the Arts Centre. Photographer Alastair McAra uses a pinhole camera to document the people and buildings of upper Te Aro, and in the words of the press release, he has "sought out sites that have developed character over time through use or non-use and buildings that are being relocated as part of the Inner City Bypass construction. What I am exploring is whether they retain this sense of character." I suspect not.

As the countdown in my sidebar indicates, the film festival is nearly upon us, and there's one documentary of particular interest to architecture fans. Sketches of Frank Gehry shows the processes that the eponymous starchitect follows to create his famously sculptural buildings. The local science fiction thriller Event 16 also sounds intriguing: it'll be interesting to see what a digitally-recreated Wellington of 1893 and 2038 looks like on screen.

Looking further ahead, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, on the 26th of August the Civic Trust will host an all-day seminar about the future of what it calls the "Northern Gateway". That's the flat area between the CBD and Ngauranga, and as well as the contentious Harbour Quays development, it will also consider better rail access to the port, improved ferry access, State Highway realignments, cruise liner berthing, revitalising the railway station and the creation of a landmark sculpture. Full details are still to be published, beyond what's in the press release (116kB PDF), but it will be held at Rutherford House and will cost $40. This is a vital chance to look at all those issues in an integrated way, in contrast to the uncoordinated developments that have left it so messy and unappreciated for so long.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Does Harbour Quays suck?

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Harbour Quays 'sucking the soul out of Wellington'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.

Relative distances to Harbour Quays and alternative sitesStraight 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.

Harbour Quays isolatedThings 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.

Harbour Quays reconnectedNone 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.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Back on track: why submit?

Drawing of an LRT stopSubmissions on the North Wellington Public Transport Study close on Wednesday, and while this is obviously of major interest to those who live in that area, everyone else could be forgiven for thinking it irrelevant. However, there are many reasons why other Wellingtonians should care:
  • Congestion: both of the bus-based scenarios would result in more buses on the road (the group Option 3 estimates as many as 20), to replace the rail line, producing more congestion and pollution at the northern end of the CBD. The second scenario (closing the rail corridor entirely) would be worst, since it would also drive many people back to cars.
  • Fuel: both of the bus scenarios shift people from electric transport to diesel buses. Not a smart move for pollution, climate change, noise or NZ's balance of payments.
  • Community: even if you don't commute via the Johnsonville line, you may have friends who do. Even with the current, relatively decent, service it's difficult for me to catch up with my friends at times. Any downgrading of the service would make that even harder, whereas the light rail option would make it significantly easier for northern suburbs residents to travel into town and vice versa.
  • Light rail: even if the Johnsonville line on its own is not quite enough to economically justify a CBD light rail line, this is the first chance the public has had to promote such a line, which would then form an essential first step to converting other lines and for an extension to the airport. If we miss this opportunity, it'll be much harder to build a world-class integrated mass transit system for the entire region.
  • Urban form: the council's long-term community plan is based upon a "growth spine" concept from Johnsonville to the airport, and this relies upon high-quality public transport along the spine to encourage people to live nearby. Trains and light rail do this; buses don't.
The spine concept has always explicitly relied upon what it calls a "seamless travel" corridor, but there are different interpretations of that phrase. A light rail line would be the obvious answer, as it offers a high-quality, high-capacity service without having to change modes. However, ditching rail in favour of buses or busways would also technically meet the "seamless" part of the definitions, but without the quality to attract riders or the capacity to reduce congestion.

It's interesting to see the phrase being used by the "Yes to the Busway" campaign, which is the subject of a short and very uncritical article on page A4 of today's Dominion Post. The campaign is being run by the Bus and Coach Association, which while it might sound like a pro-public transport organisation, just represents the business interests of bus companies. Thus, they don't care if the overall number of people using public transport drops, just as long as they increase their own customer base. There's plenty of research to show that when rail lines are converted to bus routes, even in "busway" form, overall patronage drops. Nevertheless, this campaign seeks to portray the option as some sort of upgrade, even though there's a remarkable consensus across the political spectrum from the Greens (of course) to United Future (what the?!?) that it's a backward step.

I'll be going along with Option 3, Transport 2000+ and others in supporting light rail as my preferred option, and upgrading the existing rail service as a second choice. All decisions should also be taken in light of the Ngauranga to airport study, rather than in isolation. I urge you all to do the same, or at least to read all the background documents with a critical eye and make up your own mind. The online submission form is on the Greater Wellington Regional Council website, or you can email your submission to Boffa Miskell. You have until 5pm this Wednesday.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mystery bar number 35

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There are plenty of issues I could be writing about today, such as whether the Harbour Quays development will suck the life out of the CBD, the merits of the new Cathryn Monro sculpture planned to go outside the Musuem Hotel, and of course the endless transport debates. However, I seem to have got into a pleasantly intoxigenic mode this week, so it's time for another mystery bar.

Strictly speaking, no-one has guessed the current mystery bar yet, but "Anonymous" got very close on his or her second go. It's The Lab Underground, which has an entrance that is separate from The Lab itself, and used to be "graced" by a giant polystyrene sculpture of Einstein until the council decided that it defaced a historic building. There's still a bewildering collection of odd polystyrene figures throughout the bar itself, which otherwise would have little to distinguish it from the other sticky-carpeted dives mentioned by the guessers.

Mystery bar #35 - the barWhile The Lab Underground may have a lot of Eighties relics among its furniture, today's mystery bar doesn't look quite as Eighties as it should. It's decorated in neither black leather with chrome and neon, nor pastel shades of peach and teal, but instead revels in bright slabs of primary colour. It straddles the boundary between being exuberantly tacky and just a little too tasteful, with rainbow-coloured lighting along the bar and comfy, curvy banquettes on the opposite wall. It has a range of spaces, from intimate low-ceilinged booths to wide-open dancefloor.

Mystery bar #35 - patronsWhile the decor is not be too explicitly themed, they seem to be making up for it with the audio and visuals. The speakers pumped out old Queen and Pretenders songs, while plasma screens played clips from MacGyver and E.T. They didn't have a printed cocktail list, and since they were lacking vermouth a Martini was out of the question, but I get the feeling that this could be Fluffy Duck central.

Overall, it's not as horrendously cheesy as it could have been. In fact, I was almost disappointed! This is unlikely to appeal to the Good as Gold/Electroluxxe crowd of ironic mullets, lightning-bolt earrings and new-wave glam-punk electroclash mashups: instead, you should expect nostalgic thirtysomethings squealing with glee at hearing the Top 40 from 20 years ago. Which is what you get in about 80% of Wellington bars anyway. On the other hand, if they get a DJ to mix up some old Gary Numan, Art of Noise and Yazoo tracks, I'll be there in a flash.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The weather may be wet, but my Martini's still dry

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We've just passed the halfway mark of 2006, and I'm just ahead of schedule on my project: I have now had a drink this year at exactly three quarters of the bars in central Wellington. It's a bit of a moving target, since some bars closed before I could get to them, while others have closed and reopened since I visited, meaning that I'll have to go back! It's a hard life.

But seriously, some bars are definitely hard work, such as the current mystery bar. Some of the guesses are getting pretty close, but none of them indicate that the guesser has actually been inside the place in question: if you've been there, you'll recognise it (presuming you didn't partake of too much Jack Daniels while you were there).

Along the way, I've been able to pop into some much more salubrious establishments, and whenever it was feasible (and sometimes when it wasn't) I have ordered a Martini. I've realised that I'm long overdue to publish a Martini review, so building on from my first four instalments, here is the latest batch of fresh, (mostly) delicious, gin-based goodness.

Copita: 8.5
Classic ingredients (Tanqueray, Noilly Prat, three olives) were always going to give a classy drink, and the results didn't disappoint. Strong herb and citrus aromas led on to an icy-cold drink with a rich oily mouthfeel, though let down a tad by a somewhat fierce finish.

Coyote: 6.5
I didn't see the making of this Martini, but I don't think the ingredients were the best. The faint aroma was gin-dominated, and while the drink was admirably cold and clear with a peppery bite, it quickly degenerated into a thin junipery body and a hot, unpleasantly bitter finish. The garnish consisted of two olives pierced lengthwise by two short sticks.

Eclipse: 5.5
The bartender placed ice in the Martini glass, stirred Bombay Sapphire and Martini brand vermouth in a shaker with more ice ... then went off to serve another customer, leaving it to dilute. The result looked clear and cold, but had ice chips floating on the surface. The aroma and taste were both slightly sweet and citrusy, and the finish was watery and stale-tasting. The use of two cheap black olives in place of the canonical green didn't help either.

Establishment: 9
An admirably old-fashioned approach, using Tanqueray and Noilly, with enough of the latter to allow the complexity of the French vermouth through. The drink was poured right to the brim of a small glass, the way that it would have been in the Forties, and garnished with two large, fresh, delicious olives. Wonderfully balanced and easy to drink. (Note: this was at the back bar, not in the main bar(n), and I specifically asked for Matthew to make it. Your mileage will definitely vary.)

One Red Dog (Kumutoto): 8
Despite the barman's nervousness, he was happy to take directions, which at least meant that I got it made exactly the way I like it. Tanqueray, Noilly (no, don't chuck it all out!), stirred (gently! gently! you'll bruise the gin!), olives (three please). It was all looking good, with a crystal-clear body and a gentle haze of condensation outside the glass, and I was licking my lips and thanking the barman as he brought out some water for my companions when ... SMASH! He brought one of the water glasses down on the side of the Martini glass, shattering one side of it into a thousand gin-soaked fragments. Profusely apologetic, he offered to bring a fresh one to the table, and when he did, the results were very, very good. However, a Martini is all about quiet confidence and delicate poise, all of which is incompatible with having a glass smashed in front of you, so I had to take off at least half a point.

Gibbon's Bar: 2
I've reviewed this at length before, but I think it's worth a recap. The staff were earnest and pleasant, but had clearly not only never made a Dry Martini before, but had only vaguely ever heard of one. They knew enough not to just serve up a glass of Italian vermouth, but the result was little better. After carefully specifying gin and asking for a 5-to-1 ratio (best not to attempt anything too dry in such a place), I then had to carefully explain to the incredulous bartender that no, I didn't mean 5 parts vermouth to one of gin, but the other way around.

Mystery bar #30 - the barThis seemed to evoke severe cognitive dissonance in the poor bartender, and I eventually managed to end up with something neither shaken nor stirred, but that at least had slightly more gin than vermouth. Well, I presume it was gin, but I couldn't tell, and didn't want to know, what brand of gin was involved: it was poured from an invisible dispenser above the bar. To top it off, three large ice cubes were plonked into the Martini glass, resulting in something that bore as little resemblance to a Dry Martini as the membership of Waterfront Watch does to the clientele of Havana. I managed to force down a couple of sips before giving up, and I'm being very generous to give this 2 out of 10. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: the worst Martini in Wellington.

Harem: 5
I didn't see the ingredients, but I did hear the shaking, so I knew what to expect: watery and topped with ice chips. What I didn't expect was a straw! There was a strong gin aroma, but not much flavour. Hardly suprising, since one wouldn't expect subtlety and grace from a place full of neon palm trees and papier-mache stalactites, and I'd recommend sticking to the "Sultan's Passion". Good company, though.

Lido: 7.5
This has always been a cafe rather than a bar, but the presence of a cocktail list nudges it barwards. Unlike some similar places, they can back up their promises with some very creditable cocktail making. My Martini was crisp & cold, with a distinct herbal aroma, smooth rich flavour and two large olives.

Paradiso: 7
They had no Tanqueray, so I went with South gin and Noilly Prat. The result was generally all present and correct, with the standard three olives and a restrained aroma and flavour, but something was definitely wrong with the presentation: it was served in a metal "glass"! I'm all in favour of innovation, but visual clarity is an important part of the Martini experience, so serving it in an opaque vessel is like encasing a diamond in lead. It also interferes with the tactile experience of sipping, and at least gives the illusion of affecting the taste and smell. The glass was branded "Absolut", which explains everything.

Pod: 8.5
The barman was keen to do everything to my specification, asking me for my preferred make of gin (Tanqueray), level of dryness (7-to-1) and even the number of olives (two). The process was quite elaborate: he stirred the gin with ice and the olives; added ice to the glass; discarded the ice; poured vermouth into the glass; discarded most of that; then finally strained the chilled gin into the glass and added the olives. The result was cold and clear, with a pleasant yet undemonstrative nose and a smooth, oily palette The flavours were distinctly savoury (perhaps a result of adding the olives while stirring?) with herbal and liquorice overtones. Overall, it was sleek, uncomplicated and satisfying.

Red Square: 8.5
They used Tanqueray, which was good, and Martini, which is less so. There were the usual three olives, and the result was served in a pleasantly traditional small glass. It had strong pepper and citrus aromas, and a smooth, cold body, and a slightly unusual, almost salty finish. Perhaps they were using brinier olives than usual, but whatever it was, I quite liked the savoury edge it brought to the drink.

Whitby's Piano Bar: 6.5
Shaken and bland, with ice chips floating on the top, a watery body and a lack of flavour. Not good enough for a supposedly swish hotel bar.

Ponderosa: 8
An all-round solid effort, with Tanqueray and Noilly, and the only non-standard touch was the use of a bamboo skewer for the three olives. Tasty and refreshing, but not spectacular.

Capitol: 9
When a cocktail menu specifically lists four versions of the classic Martini, with increasingly premium varieties of gin, you should expect them to know what they're doing. And they do. I chose the Tanqueray Ten Martini for $17, and it was a bargain. The appearance was impeccable. The aromas were intoxicating and fascinatingly complex, with clearly separable notes from many different botanicals, including liquorice and grapefruit as well as the usual juniper berries. The body was rich and sumptuous, with deep and moreish flavours. While unapologetically alcoholic, it was deceptively easy to drink, and I had to restrain myself so as to savour it with the leisurely attention that it deserved.

So why only 9 out of 10? They didn't so much garnish it as cram it with olives: six olives on two separate sticks! This cluttered and detracted from what should have been a near-perfect drink, since the olive is supposed to be a grace note, not a dominating ingredient. It was a Sunday afternoon, so perhaps they felt that by law, I had to have a meal. Such a pity. Everything else was perfect: the clarity, the aroma, the taste, the company of a beautiful woman, the violet light of a late afternoon in winter. Next time, I'll specify the number of olives, and may aim even higher by trying a Miller's gin Martini. I've never experienced the perfect Martini experience, and maybe the very concept is illusory ... ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Martini for?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Moving in

In last week's post about hospitality trends, I mentioned projections of a further 3000 inner-city restaurants residents (oops, Freudian slip!) in the next 2-3 years, and that this increase alone should be enough to support many new bars and restaurants. Where did that projection come from? I noted the figure down after seeing it in a real estate market analysis a while back, but I can't find that study online. In any case, I wondered how firm such a projection could be.

So I decided to do my own unofficial estimates, based solely upon new buildings that are already in the pipeline. I estimated the number of bedrooms in all apartment, townshouse and hotel developments that either have been completed since this year's census, are under construction, or where the site is at least undergoing preparation. I then multiplied this by 0.8, to allow for the fact that not all bedrooms will be inhabited. I used the same adjustment for hotels, even though room occupancy rates are usually a bit lower than that, since some rooms are occupied by couples and hotel residents are likely to eat out more often than locals.

This gave me an estimate of over 1700 new residents, based solely upon developments that are already underway. There's room for approximately another 1300 residents in other proposals that are still either undergoing consent (such as the Hilton) or have been approved but show no sign of immediate construction (like the Watermark update: that's now confirmed). That adds up to ... well, just over 3000 extra inner city dwellers, many of whom will be moving in within a year.

I created a map to show just the first 1700, to show where the most likely and imminent population increases will be. Each red dot represents a new resident, shown randomly distributed within 100m of their home-to-be.

Map of new apartment dwellers and green space. One red dot per new resident; green rings show distance from green space.There are some fairly strong patterns here. Most of the growth will be in Willis St, southern and eastern Te Aro, and near the waterfront from Te Papa to Oriental Parade. Lower Cuba St is pretty quiet for now, and the Lambton Quarter is generally static after many years of apartment developments along the Terrace.

What is that strange green fungus growing underneath? Long-time WellUrbanites might recognise that as my "green map" from nearly a year ago: the brightest green shows areas of urban green space, with expanding rings of paler green showing increasing distance from those spaces, while grey areas are more than 300m from the nearest patch of public lawn. There's one big cluster of new developments (Century City, Monvie) near western Courtenay Place, so if you believe that compact local parks are an important amenity for city dwellers, then the proposed park upgrade seems very timely. Submissions close tomorrow!

But one area stands out as a potential problem: deep into SoCo, near the corner of Vivian and Tory, several hundred people are about to move into the greyest part of Wellington. In fact, there are no quality public spaces here at all. I've already suggested three sites near upper Tory St that could potentially be turned into pocket parks or local squares, and there's another one between Lorne and Tennyson streets that might also work. While Cobblestone Park could definitely do with its planned upgrade (and the map shows plenty more residents on the way), I still believe that SoCo should be the greatest priority for urban design and public amenity improvements.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Healthy wards

Happily, the council seems to have selected the most sensible of the proposed ward structures, by keeping 5 wards with just minor adjustments for population shifts. As I wrote earlier, some of the options (such as a 3-ward system) would have lumped together places with far too little in common to be considered "communities of interest". If anything, I think the Lambton ward could have been refined even further to allow for continuing population increases there. The calculations were based on population estimates from June last year, and given that the inner city population has increased at a rate of 40% over the past five years, and that many more apartments are close to completion, by the time we get to next year's elections the inner city could be under-represented again.

The other changes seem reasonable, too. The Makara/Ohariu Community Board gets extended to include other (quasi-)rural areas to become the Wellington Rural Community Board. The abolition of the Tawa Community Board might be more controversial, but then again, why does Tawa have one when (say) Kilbirnie, Berhampore or Brooklyn don't? Public consultation on the changes starts next Monday and goes through until the 28th of August.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mystery bar number 34

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It didn't take long (a mere 45 minutes, in fact) for Martha to identify last week's mystery bar as The Wellesley, a gentlemen's club turned boutique hotel in the impressively metropolitan Maginnity St. It has been a quiet retreat for men of substance for over a century (though not always in that location), so perhaps Martha knows it well from past tycoon-stalking expeditions. My impression is that its adjustment to boutique hotel status hasn't quite delivered the flawlesly elegant experience that it should have done, but nonetheless it makes a change from the usual Friday night watering holes.

Mystery bar #34 - the barObviously, my readership has gone much too far upmarket for that sort of establishment to present any challenge, so it's time to delve into the shadier corners of this city's nightlife. This is the sort of place where merely ordering a Martini might present a threat to one's physical wellbeing, let alone drinking whatever might result. Even requesting a G&T resulted in some sidelong glances from the bartender, who looked surly enough after having to take valuable time away from the brightly-coloured pool table in order to serve customers. And as the photo shows, there are plenty of bright colours here, though they struggle to be seen amid the stygian gloom. It's easy to imagine that it would have been even gloomier in the days before the smoking ban, and in fact it seemed as if the walls themselves were still smoking, reluctantly releasing the reeking carcinogens that had accumulated throughout their long, hard lives.

Mystery bar #34 - statueBut there's one thing that sets this apart from every other dive bar in town. Amidst all the neon, UV lights, rock 'n' roll paraphenalia and mirror balls, there's a strange collection of statuary. Some of the busts and figures have a pagan aspect, while others seem demurely Christian. A few appear to be nothing but repainted mannequins, but others seem much more original and painstakingly crafted. It seems odd to find such an assortment of eccentric and slightly eerie characters among the bourbon stains, beer logos, pokie machines and leftover eighties furniture. I'm sure that under hard daylight they would seem just as tired and tawdry as the suroundings, but it's obviously a long time since they've seen any ultraviolet light that didn't originate from a bulb. The darkness suits them.