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

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Urban Eye: Tory St Big Box Retail

What is this sprawling, anti-urban retail park doing in the centre of town?

Urbanism -4
This is the antithesis of urbanity. Stolid, mute boxes squat around the edges of an asphalt desert. The coarse scale, contempt for the street and the priority given to cars all mark this out as a place where pedestrians are suffered rather than welcomed. It's not a place to linger or enjoy: just drive in, do your shopping, then go home.

All this would be bad enough in the exurban sprawl-lands of Porirua MegaCentre, but what is it doing here, just five minutes' walk from Courtenay Place? It's a hangover from the time when this part of Te Aro flat was the fringe of central Wellington, a low-rise shambles of light industry and car yards. But the city is spreading south and revitalising southern Te Aro, with a mixture of residential, commercial and entertainment developments springing up along Tory Street. This is part of the city now, so I'd like to think that this place's days are numbered.

However, even apartment dwellers need furniture, so it wouldn't be desirable to drive out large-format retail. There is a way to heal these urban scars without displacing the existing uses. Build two or three storeys of offices or apartments on top of the retail (there's an example further north on Tory St that shows how this can work). Build a narrow retail and café block along the street frontage, with smaller units to encourage independent operators. Then allow a new public thoroughfare through to Fifeshire Ave and Cambridge Terrace, and instead of an insult to the city we'll have a lively, diverse, fine-grained urban quarter.

Aesthetics -3
This is non-architecture at its blandest. One of the older buildings has a modicum of no-frills industrial dignity, but the others are soulless minimum-spec sheds, and not even plastering them with vast logos and strident colours can mask their essential meanness.

Environment -3
Some of the buildings stretch to two or three stories, and the buildings themselves don't actually belch out noxious fumes, so this place doesn't quite deserve the worst rating. But this type of retail is the polar opposite of sustainable urban form.

A few sad beds of agapanthus cannot compensate for the runoff from all that asphalt and roofing iron. There are ways to make carparks less damaging, with porous surfaces and filtration beds, and trees between rows of car parks would suck up some carbon dioxide. Greening the roofs would also help redress the balance. But even with all these measures, this is a typology that is deeply unsustainable, as low density and segregation of uses chew up land and promote driving.

Social -1
Large-format retail is all about big business and chains, so there's no room for individuality or local colour here.


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