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

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Suprema a situ

Update: the chosen design (by Warren & Mahoney) has just been announced.

Yesterday the government announced that the new Supreme Court will be built on what is currently Justice Park, at the north end of Lambton Quay adjacent to the historic former High Court building.

Justice Park - the intended site of the new Supreme Court building
Previous plans involved housing the Supreme Court in the refurbished High Court building, but it proved impossible to come up with a plan that suited both the judges and the Historic Places Trust. There were also suggestions that a new building might be constructed further into the Government Precinct, specifically on the corner of Molesworth and Pipitea streets where the derelict modernist Thorndon Tavern is now. But this plan involves both the refurbishment of the historic courts and the creation of a new building, which has yet to be designed but is apparently to be "a symbol of national identity" and "a structure which people will look to in future with pride". In other words, the complete opposite of the current High Court building, which has to be one of the most forgettable structures in Wellington.

Norman Foster's addition to the Reichstag in Berlin - courtesy of Tolker Rover (original photo at http://flickr.com/photos/eob/47609285/)I hope that the architects (whoever they may be) aren't required to be too deferential to the old High Court building. It is aesthetically appealing, and highly significant since it's our first major non-timber public building, but to build an addition or companion building in a contemporary attempt at neo-Classicism would be a disaster. There are successful precedents for creating uncompromisingly modern additions to historic neo-Classical public buildings (Norman Foster's Reichstag conversion is a prime example), so the brief should be: "respond to the context, engage with the site, but let your imagination run free".

Some people will no doubt miss the current park, but the new building isn't expected to take up all the space, so there will still be public landscaped grounds around it. Also, if the building heeds good urban design principles it should provide the remaining space with more shelter and active edges than the current park. Jan Gehl (58kB PDF) described its current state as:
"an under-utilized city park ... an introverted space with a poor relationship to the street. The possible reuse of this site for the new Supreme Court Building can only improve the space and bring more people to the area."
And if the government has the courage to give free rein to our best architects, then this could be a truly exciting space to watch.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The funny farm

Tonight, the city council is holding a public meeting about the urban development aspect of their draft long term plan. It covers many topics, but a key part of the strategy is to ensure that most residential development occurs with in a compact spine that runs from Johnsonville via the CBD and Newtown to the airport, with only minimal greenfield building. But in today's Dominion Post there was a stark example of the sort of greenfield development that they will be allowing: Lincolnshire Farm.

Location of the new Lincolnshire Farm suburb and business parkThis will consist of a "business park", up to 900 new houses and a 4-lane road linking Grenada to the Hutt Valley. The Dominion Post article claims that 9000 people will live here, but that must be a mistake unless they're expecting a lot of Catholic families. It will be located between Grenada Village, Woodridge and Horokiwi, which must surely be the official definition of "the middle of nowhere".

At least the business park will provide some local employment, but any residents who work elsewhere will be absolutely reliant on cars. It's 3km from the nearest train station, bus services in the vicinity are generally pitiful, and I don't really see anyone cycling to work from here. The structure plan (436kB PDF) for the development makes plenty of soothing noises about the importance of transport and connectedness, but there is not a single mention of any form of public transport.

That makes its "connectedness" comparable to nearby suburbs, and if you look at the 2001 census data for the surrounding area units, you'll see that 70% of residents took a car to work. Of the rest, many either worked at home or didn't go to work on census day: walking, cycling and public transport accounted for only 17% of work trips. Even if we assume that (due to local employment) only two thirds of households will have a resident who works in town, at that rate the commuters will be cramming over 400 extra cars into the city. For a 30km round trip, that's an extra 12,000 vehicle kilometres per day, with all the associated pollution, congestion and expensive imported oil. Oh Joy.

The stated urban development outcomes for the long term plan are for Wellington to become: more liveable, have a stronger sense of place, more compact, better connected, more sustainable, safer and more prosperous. How does this support these outcomes?

More liveable: part of their definition includes "a variety of places to live", so I guess this provides single-family homes for those who demand them, but shouldn't a "liveable" place have more within walking distance than a couple of shops, some greenery and an industrial park? Given the trouble that the council is still having providing a community centre for Newlands, what's the bet that most trips for entertainment, education or culture are going to require a long drive?

Stronger sense of place: an isolated valley with no urban history and a name derived from an English county?

More compact: hardly!

Better connected: this includes being "pedestrian-friendly and offering quality transport choices". But if you live here, you'd better buy another car for the spouse, and one for the kids while you're at it. 35% of households in nearby Grenada have three or more cars.

More sustainable: this is supposed to include "reducing our ecological footprint by applying sustainable design principles in all aspects of urban development and urban living". What's the ecological footprint required by 12,000 vehicle kilometres per day?

Safer: how will the city be safer with all those extra cars on the road? They might as well just call this place "Dunnesville".

More prosperous: which is supposed to include "Continuing with compact city principle" and "Promoting the Central Area and main centres as ideal locations of commercial activity". This is diametrically opposed to those goals, and unless you count the individual economic benefit of cheap housing. And with petrol at $1.70 a litre and rising, how long will it take for the short term savings to be erased?

I realise that there's always going to be a significant section of society for whom an isolated sprawlburb and a garage full of SUVs constitute a vision of heaven on earth, so we're not going to eliminate such developments entirely. But I hoped that I've pointed out why sprawl like this has to be kept to an absolute minimum if Wellington is going to grow in a sustainable way.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The other park

With all the talk about the glamourous, expensive new Waitangi Park, it's been easy to forget that there's another park that's been under development in Wellington: Glover Park. Maybe that's partly because work on the revamp seemed to have stalled for months, and the controversy over the censored mural has long since died down, but today it finally had its formal opening.

Glover park after the revampThe redesign isn't particularly radical, and the main emphasis has been on opening it up to the streets and remedying its previous gloominess by removing some trees, adding lighting and using light-coloured materials. It's currently lacking any sort of centrepiece or visual focus, but that's because there are still some "sculptural lighting structures" to come. I presume that the very crude wooden benches in the picture above are temporary placeholders until the lighting sculptures arrive.

Red details in Glover ParkPerhaps the most striking aspect of the redesign is the use of bright red paint on the street furniture. It's not the sort of colour that one usually associates with parks, but its been used liberally on bollards, tree protectors and lamp posts. The official reason for this is to be consistent with street furniture in Cuba Mall, but it's also a common colour on nearby buildings such as the Global Fabrics shop in the background of this photo. So this gets marks for contextualism, but it still looks a little bit Eighties, and not in a fashionable retro-glam-punk sort of way, but in a jolly-hockey-sticks municipal plaza sort of way.

Aesthetic debates notwithstanding, the main reason for the redesign was to make it safer and more appealing, and part of that requires attracting a critical mass of everyday users. Active edges have long been regarded as a pre-requisite of a well-used urban park, since they not only provide "eyes on the park" but ensure that there are always people coming and going. Apart from Zeal youth venue, Glover Park is bordered on two sides by blank walls and on the other sides by roads. As I've said before on WellUrban and on the Architectural Centre forums, it's widely regarded as a poor site for a park due to the lack of through traffic, sun and activities, so no matter how pretty it is as a park, it will always run the risk of being deserted except on the most clement days.

Glover Park entrance off Ghuznee StreetIt's interesting to look at the Ghuznee St entrance to the park. The park opens up to the street like a funnel, which is the right sort of gesture. However, the tree planters are placed smack in the middle of the normal pedestrian path down Ghuznee St, so that passers-by have to make a slight southward detour towards the park. This looks suspiciously like an admission that there's no point in trying to attract people into the park, so we'll have to herd them into it!

I might be being too cynical, and I hope so. It would be great to see this become a popular place for hanging out, but my gut feeling is that unless a café or something similar opens up on the eastern edge of the park, or Garrett and Bute streets become more of a destination, it could easily slip back into its old reputation as being too dangerous and deserted for "mainstream" Wellingtonians to frequent. But in the meantime, the Cuba "quarter" already has a great open space that's popular, lively and reflects a sense of place: Cuba Mall.

Death of an urbanist

File under: ,

I wouldn't usually post an obituary here, but I'll make an exception for Jane Jacobs, who died yesterday at the age of 89. She was an activist and a flaneur; she was passionate about cities and a fierce advocate of urban values such as density and diversity. I've always seen her as an inspiration, and it's no exaggeration to say that her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed my life. St Louis' Urban Review has excerpts from the press obituaries and sums them up by saying "The world has just lost the greatest urbanist of our lifetime".

Buongiorno Waitangi

File under: , ,

Kiosk at Waitangi Park - screen under constructionThe kiosk at Waitangi Park is nearly ready, with the sun-shade coming along nicely. It's taken a little bit longer than expected, but it should be ready for the tenants to fit it out by the start of next week. At the time of my last post on the subject, Wellington Waterfront was still looking for an operator, and they've just announced that the tender has gone to Mediterranean Foods Ltd. Newtownians will happily recognise this outfit as the people behind the Mediterranean Food Warehouse on the corner of Daniell and Constable streets, so expectations will be high.

While I don't think that they'll be able to fit a pizza oven in there, they could probably just throw a few random items from their cornucopia between a couple of slices of ciabatta and the results will be delicious. And I've just had even better news: they've applied for a license! Their wine selection is exclusively Italian, so while Côtes du Rhône or Pernod would seem more natural companions to a game of petanque, I suppose we could play bocce instead, in which case a nice drop of Chianti or a glass or two of Prosecco would go down very nicely.

It looks like the kiosk won't quite be ready in time for this Sunday's launch of NZ Music month in the park, but I doubt that Bleeders fans are too fussy about the quality of their ristretto or where their prosciutto comes from.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Drawn and quartered

Comparing the old and new 'quarters' of downtown WellingtonSome time ago, Positively Wellington Tourism decided to divide downtown Wellington into four "quarters" so that they could promote the distinctive qualities of different parts of the central city. They used maps of these quarters to arrange guides to art, fashion and other attractions, and it caught on with other organisations such as CaféNET, who divide up their hotspot maps the same way.

But times have changed, and so has the city, so it appears that they have redrawn the map of Wellington. We still have four quarters, but as this comparison shows (old above, new below), there is one new quarter, one has been annexed by its neighbours, and the others have undergone some subtle changes. Of course, this is all driven by tourism and somewhat arbitrary, but by looking at the changes we might learn something about perceptions of the city.

It always seemed odd that the Waterfront was excluded from the map of "downtown", and now it gets included as a quarter of its own, stretching from Whitmore St all the way to Freyberg beach. This makes sense on one level, but in a way I'm disappointed, since it reinforces the waterfront's separation from the city: I'd rather have seen Kumutoto and Queens Wharf included in Lambton, the Waitangi precinct with Courtenay and so forth, thus emphasising the city-to-waterfront connections. It also seems a little anomalous that it stretches inland to include Civic Square and the Rialto and Wellington Market buildings.

The former Willis quarter has disappeared entirely, losing Civic Square to the Waterfront while most of the rest is gobbled up by Lambton. It was always a bit of a poorly-defined "quarter", since it was mostly defined by not being part of the others and it was hard to claim that there was a distinctive "Willis" feeling. On the other hand, it doesn't feel right to see places like House of Hank now counted as part of the Lambton quarter.

Speaking of which, while Lambton gains most of Willis, it loses the little blocks between Whitmore and Bunny streets. This seems like strange timing given the recent development here (including the Holiday Inn and the VUW downtown campus), so I can only surmise that this is in expectation that this will become part of a better-defined "Capital Precinct", which is currently subject to an urban design exercise (74kB PDF).

The Cuba quarter only undergoes minor changes, with the exception of the blocks south of Dixon St between Willis and Victoria. These are no longer part of "downtown Wellington" at all, so according to this, I'm no longer a downtown resident. The horror! But I have to admit that with a few exceptions (such as Bar Bodega), there's not much in that sliver that feels particularly "Cuba". On the other hand, there's no acknowledgement that the very top of Cuba St is in the process of being amputated by the "bypass".

There are more significant changes in the Courtenay quarter. Waitangi Park gets ceded to the Waterfront, and there's some adjustments to the boundary with Mt Victoria, but the main change is that everything south of Vivian St (part of what I've been calling "SoCo") gets the boot. From a tourist's point of view I suppose there's very little of interest here, but I'd like to think that with some sensible urban design it could become a great little residential and retail precinct.

In the past, there have been occasional attempts to define a fifth "quarter", usually Thorndon. Leaving aside the fact that in Roman cuisine the phrase "Quinto Quarto" refers to offal, it makes sense to acknowledge that there are other neighbourhoods that aren't quite "downtown" but that nevertheless have some urban interest. Thorndon is adjacent to the CBD, but lacks any real coherence, since the chi-chi boutiques of Tinakori Rd have little in common with the brutalist towers of Molesworth St or the large-format furniture stores of Thorndon Quay. The "City Gateway" might eventually become a real city precinct, but for the moment it looks like we're stuck with an isolated office park. Newtown is certainly a bustling and fascinating suburb in its own right, but the long barren strip of Adelaide Rd keeps it separate from the city. But there's another contender.

The upcoming Big Look-See (a "behind the scenes" arts weekend) has a map showing locations of events, and it's based upon the new downtown map but with a special inset: for Petone. Of course! It's been on the gentrification wagon for years, and it now boasts some unique food outlets, good cafés and galleries and even a branch of Chow. It's also apparently full of jelly. So is Petone the new Thorndon?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

My first mashup

Screenshot of my first ZoomIn mashup - thumbnails of Flickr photosI've had a bit of a chance to play around with ZoomIn's more advanced features now, and while there's plenty you can do with the standard collaboration tools (adding places, photos and groups), the fun really starts when you start playing with the API. I've just created my first rudimentary mashup to show some of my Flickr photos on a map of central Wellington.

It probably doesn't quite fit the strictest definition of a mashup, since it's not reading the image URLs or geographic locations from feeds. Instead, I had to use the ZoomIn map-click example to manually find coordinates for the locations, then cut and paste the Flickr thumbnail URLs and descriptions from my Flickr RSS feed into the Javascript that drives the mashup. A proper mashup would have to read and parse the XML from that feed directly, then either look for addresses in the descriptions and use ZoomIn's geocoder to find the coordinates, or include a simple tool to let the user pinpoint the locations manually then save them to the server as XML. But since my server doesn't have scripting capabilities, and pure client-side scripting won't let you do HTTP requests on other servers, I've had to rely on a bit of kludging to try out the idea.

My brain's fizzing with other ideas for mashups, such as showing the following on a map:

So many mashups, so little time!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dunne roamin'

Back in November I wrote in favour of a council proposal to reduce the speed limit on parts of the Golden Mile to 30km/h, and it seems I'm not the only one to agree: two thirds of the submissions (68kB PDF) did as well, and last week the council's Strategy and Policy committee recommended that it be put into action. Even the AA was in favour!

But not everyone agreed. Peter Dunne, MP for Sprawlistan and lobbyist for motorways and other polluters, had this to say in today's DomPost:
"Nutty" 30kmh speed limits in central Wellington will frustrate drivers and make the city more dangerous, Ohariu-Belmont MP Peter Dunne says. Wellington City Council's planned drop in the speed limit on Lambton Quay and lower Willis St would have the opposite effect from that intended, Mr Dunne said. "The whole way in which the city has approached traffic management over the years has been back to front." Mr Dunne said the city had become more dangerous over the years, as roads narrowed leaving less space for cars, frustrating drivers and bringing pedestrians too close to vehicles. The "hare-brained" focus on restricting car movement was wrong, with Wellington's topography lending itself to cars over feet, he said. Wider, less restricted, streets were needed. "Getting back to the situation where traffic can flow freely is much safer than at the moment where frustrated motorists don't like crawling through the city." (my emphasis)
Has he even been to Wellington? Or planet Earth for that matter? I've refrained from writing letters to the editor in recent weeks, but this time I couldn't resist. Here was my reply (published on the 26th of April):
Peter Dunne says that 30km/h speed limits in central Wellington are "nutty" (21 April), apparently because "Wellington's topography lends itself to cars over feet". Would this be the same Wellington that has the highest rates in the country of walking to work, public transport use and households without a car? The Wellington that has been shaped by topography into a compact CBD with linear suburbs that suit public transport? Or is it Mr Dunne's fantasy city of unconstrained sprawl, expensive motorways and frightened pedestrians? I'm glad that, unlike Mr Dunne, I live in the real Wellington: it's rather nice here, and will become better as pedestrians begin to be treated like human beings.

Mystery bar number 28

File under: , ,

Mystery bar #28 - the barThis place is decidedly more upmarket than the previous mystery bar, which as I mentioned last week was the very studenty Urbane cafe/bar on the corner of Webb and Hopper streets. It's also new in a sense, because it's had a thorough renovation. The result still looks decidely retro, though, but whether that's by accident or design is hard to tell. They seem to have vaguely gone for Art Deco glamour, with lots of curves and chrome highlights, but the end result looks more like a slightly more tasteful version of the 1980s Deco revival. Only slightly more tasteful, mind you: the slowly changing colours of the lighting strip around the bar seemed tacky in the context of the otherwise restrained decor.

Mystery bar #28 - the ceilingNot that the clientele seemed to mind. It's a very professional place, and the wine and cocktail lists seemed acceptable, so I was disappointed to note that my Martini had been shaken: they should know better. There's a view, though it's not as impressive as it must once have been, so it's easy to just sit back and look at the ceiling. And what a ceiling! The repeating white-on-white patterns of dots and squares (almost Thompsonesque) in the white acoustic tiles look like something a contemporary interior designer would concoct as a knowing nod to the 70s while maintaining a sleeker minimalist look. But I'm told that this is the original ceiling, which shows that is you leave a place untouched for long enough, it will eventually go through the cycle of fashionable to dated to laughable to ironic and back to fashionable again. I wouldn't go so far as to say the bar itself will become hip, but in one sense at least it will remain one of Wellington's top bars.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Deconstructing Marty

File under: , ,

There seems to be a bit of a backlash against Wellington "outsider artist" Martin Thompson, in reaction to Tuesday's somewhat excitable Dominion Post article about his work being "picked up" by the American Folk Art Museum. Today's edition has a featured letter from Andrew P Wood of Christchurch (the same one who reviews art for the Listener, perhaps?) saying that Thompson "exhibits no more creative expression or interpretation in filling in squares of graph paper than a computer does generating a knitting pattern. His patterns are generated by simple logic within constraints artificially imposed by the grid on the paper". Couldn't the same be said of some work by Frank Stella or Bridget Reilly?

A Martin Thompson drawing compared to a Sierpinski CarpetStephen at Dorking Labs wrote a much more thoughtful analysis of one of Thompson's works. It goes beyond the vague pseudo-mathematical witterings of art critics whose mathematical education obviously never got beyond the contents page of Fractals for Dummies, and shows with admirable clarity how one piece is very similar to the well-known fractal figure called the "Sierpinski Carpet". As this comparison shows, Thompson's piece exhibits a little more complexity than the results of the standard Sierpinski algorithm (the lacunae in his version are filled with inverted versions of the pattern) but it's clearly a very simple fractal. Thus Stephen is right to ask "when does advanced mathematics become art, folk or not?"

There's no clear answer, but it does seem that when the mathematically-minded turn to art, they are rarely taken seriously by the art establishment. Perhaps algorithmic artist John Maeda is an exception, but probably only within a particular community of Wired-reading "cyber artists". And even M. C. Escher, despite his investigations of conceptually fashionable ideas such as representation, relativity and non-Euclidean space, is usually referred to as an "illustrator" or "draughtsman" rather than an artist.

So why is Thompson's work attracting more attention? Biography probably comes into it: art consumers love the idea of the artist as outsider, visionary or "holy fool"; an obsessive recluse shuffling through the streets rather than an art-school careerist. A Baxteresque beard doesn't hurt, and the sentimental public fascination with "savants" adds another layer of interest. We still love the idea of the hand-made individual art work with it's "aura" of authenticity, and Thompson's work always bears the traces of painstaking colouring-in, sellotaped edits and the stains of the street. Finally, there's a mystique about Thompson's origins: is he autistic or a genius (or both)? Is he (as Che suggested) an acid-ravaged hippie who "fried his frontal lobe in Alice Springs" back in the bohemian 70s?

A piece by Martin ThompsonBut I prefer another explanation: that Thompson's works are generally much more interesting than the somewhat static example shown by the DomPost. Their symmetries are less obvious, their self-similarities offset from the centre, to produce a sense of dynamism and a more elusive sense of order within complexity. The underlying mental algorithms may be only slightly more advanced than the Sierpinski-ish example, but it's enough to confound the eye and mind just enough to send you looking for irregularities and rogue shapes: they're much more the "dirty pixels" referred to by the exhibition that included his work some years ago. While still reminding viewers of crystals and Moorish decoration, there's something much more animated or even alive about these drawings, bringing to mind cellular automata (such as Conway's Game of Life) and the chunky sprites of 80s computer games. They bear the same relationship to Wood's "knitting patterns" that Disasteradio's disintegrating chiptune electro bears to shiny overproduced trance.

But then, I would say that, having had the foresight to buy one when they were still going for $200!

Beats and bytes

File under: , ,

When I mentioned in my Gridskipper pitch that Wellington had a burgeoning "low-fi electro" music scene, I was only half serious. At the moment, though, it really seems to be happening. Last night, Happy hosted Control 6580, which was described as a "retro electro noise revue". I could speculate about whether the name was a reference to the 6502 and Z80 processors, the two dominant home-computer CPUs of the early 80s, but that would be far too geeky. I missed it because of a pressing engagement elsewhere, but there's a couple of very juicy looking electro gigs coming up in the next week or so.

DisasteradioTomorrow night, Disasteradio will launch his new album Datasette. When I mentioned an earlier gig, I described it as sounding like "someone had taken a bunch of old Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode albums, chucked them in a blender with some Gameboy soundtracks and broken effects pedals, then cranked the knob up to 11". In other words, it rocked.

Disasteradio seems somewhat obsessed with computer games (investigate the pixellated glory of his website if you need further proof), so the standard venues wouldn't have quite the right atmosphere. But what could be more perfect than Laser Force in Courtenay Place? For $13 you get entry to the show, a copy of the album (on a "cassette", whatever that is) and a chance to zap your friends with lasers. What more could you want? Oh yes: the gig starts at 9:30 sharp, thus leaving you plenty of time to get back home to your Commodore 64.

Mai Lee from Charlie AshIf you prefer your electro with a little less geek and a bit more chic, then next Friday's Electro Sexual will be right up your (ahem) alley. Various Wellington electro-punk and retro-synth-glam (or whatever random combination of genres they prefer this week) bands will be performing under pseudonyms for the evening, so the line up includes "The Bang Gang" (Charlie Ash), "G Fab" (Trimasterbate) and "Damn the Man" (So So Modern).

The venue is listed as "Level 1" at the corner of Cuba and Dixon, which seems a little ambiguous. Has someone opened a bar in the old Deka building above Shanton? Will it be a Beatlesesque rooftop performance above the CD store? Perhaps upstairs in the Oaks: Eef-Jays would be thematically appropriate but logistically difficult. That leaves The Big Kumara, which hardly seems the epitome of mirrorball-and-legwarmers glamour. In any case, expect plenty of people dancing to electro-pop, perhaps even like a robot from 1984.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Secret railway?

There's a tiny story on page 3 of today's Dominion Post that should be big news. The headline says Rail link to airport considered. Can this be true?!?

The Wellington City and Regional councils, together with Transit NZ, are studying ways to improve transport links between Ngauranga and the airport. If recent policy is anything to go by, you would expect this to be all about building more roads. Encouragingly, though, Transit's regional transportation manager (Eric Whitfield) is quoted as saying:
"We anticipate some sort of rail [link] will come out of consultation ... It's not just roads, we need to look at all modes of transport."
If that is the case, then some serious infrastructure development would be required, and you'd expect some mention of this in the draft 10-year plans that have recently been released for consultation by both the city council and regional council. Not a sausage. The city council's transport plan (823kB PDF) sets some modest goals for increasing the use of sustainable transport modes (they want the proportion of commuters entering the city by bus, cycle or on foot to increase from 47% now to 58% in 2016), but apart from a few more bus shelters there seems to be little infrastructural investment to help reach that target. The regional council's goals (1.7MB PDF) are even punier: maintain the proportion of journey-to-work trips made via public transport at the current 15.6% (based upon the very loaded statement that "population growth in itself is not a significant assumption for forecasting patronage growth on public transport services"). They are at least putting $500 million into upgrading infrastructure and rolling stock, but most of that appears to be just long-overdue maintenance without any real upgrade in capacity, and certainly no mention of any brand new lines. Option 3 is right to call this plan "myopic".

So where is the hard information about a rail link being "considered"? Perhaps on Transit's website? They at least have a media release about the Ngauranga to Airport study (unlike the city and regional council's sites), but there's no mention of rail and only the vaguest reference to passenger transport at all. They say that a "consultation leaflet" is available for download, but I couldn't find that either, and had to physically go to the council offices to find it. It's a thin little flyer that says it wants our input, but mentions no suggestions or options whatsoever. So, the only justification I can find for the headline is that the reporters asked Transit whether rail would be considered at all, and they didn't rule it out.

I suppose we should be glad that the powers that be are asking for our suggestions in the most general way, rather than asking us to select from a handful of options. But there's certainly no sign that they are seriously planning a city-to-airport rail link, so one wouldn't have to be too cynical to imagine that the concept will float around a bit before being discarded, and the final consultation will be a choice between two different road-widening schemes. Oh joy.

It means that it's up to us. Wellingtonians. If we're happy to let more cars clog up the city and see more neighbourhoods get torn up for motorways and "bypasses", then we just have to do nothing and the car-centric status quo will keep rolling on. Someone's bound to dig up the old cliché about "Kiwis not giving up their love affair with the car" and the "fact" that there's no demand for a world-class public transport system. But even over the last year Wellington's train patronage has increased by 7% and bus ridership by 4%, and we desparately need more capacity. Hell, even Aucklanders will use public transport if it's there! So if we want transport quality and capacity to not just keep up with demand but lead the way to the future, we need to come up with sensible, viable, concrete options and present them with clarity and force so that they can become official options for the final consultation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Shops we love: Eyeball Kicks

File under: ,

By guest blogger Hadyn.

Tom asked a little while ago over a few drinks if I wouldn't mind guest-blogging about Eyeball Kicks. I jumped at the chance. There was, though, an implied tone that I should keep my usual rhetoric to a minimum (or rather not at all).

Eyeball Kicks, 47 Ghuznee St Wellington"The Kick" (at 47 Ghuznee Street, just along from the tackle shop) is my favourite store for a large number of reasons. It relaxes the senses while at the same time assaulting them. Its main stock in trade is Hot Rod/Tiki Bar clothes, stickers, decals, posters, patches and miscellany. It also has Wellington's largest collection of Tiki mugs.

All of the great artists of this genre are present in some form (books, stickers, clothes, figurines or posters): Vince Ray; Frank Kozik; Marco Almera; and the grand master of devil girls, Coop (and none of that Von Dutch bull****). They also have some stuff by local artists such as Simon Morse.

Eyeball Kicks logoTake a browse through the posters and you'll find limited edition giclée prints (pronounced zhee-clay) worth hundreds and cheap $15 prints perfect for the garage (where you'll be fabricating a new bumper for your '51 Merc custom).

If you like to hang out at Trader Vics, have a martini fetish, look like these guys, own a hotrod or just liked Hot Wheels then this store is your Valhalla. Let your hair be greased and your black jeans be tight!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Graffiti wars

Stencil on the skatepark walls at Waitangi ParkToday's Dominion Post has a bit of an obsession with graffiti. There was a full-page article about whether graffiti is vandalism or art, and while a lot of those old chestnuts get very boring, there were some interesting points that deserve a considered response, especially in light of my recent post Walls without a musuem. I'll write about it soon, but in the meantime, I'll discuss the other article, which was about graffiti at Waitangi Park.

Most of the article took the predictable "shock horror" approach:
"The $23 million Waitangi Park is being smeared with graffiti, most of it destined to remain untouched ... The development is barely seven weeks old."
And this is despite the fact that much of it is on the plywood panels specifically intended to be covered with graffiti. They even quote Wellington Waterfront Ltd's far from panicked response "We accept the park is in an urban setting and graffiti art reflects that". To sum up: the designers built designated graffiti areas, and fully expected them and the surrounding areas to attract graffiti. Where's the story?!?

Having said that, most of it lacks the talent and inventiveness of the best street art around town, and certainly doesn't have the exuberant colours and accessibility of the graffiti walls that used to surround the site. I've added some photos to the Wellington street art group on ZoomIn to show what's there at the moment. I wondered for a while whether it would have been better to commission some of the local graffiti "stars" to decorate the graffiti walls, but of course, that would be missing the point. Once "graffiti art" is commissioned, it ceases to be graffiti and becomes public art; just another mural; a cheesy theme-park parody of street culture.

Perhaps the solution is in the hands and spray cans of Wellington's best street artists themselves. If you want this prominent site to express the imagination and style that we know you can produce, rather than the dull scrawlings of suburban teenagers, then get down there now with your stencils and aerosols and claim the best spots for yourselves. Of course, I'd never advocate the vandalism of public property, but don't you think the backs of the climbing walls look a little, well, blank?

Blank rear of a climbing wall at Waitangi Park

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Comparisons are bibulous

File under: , ,

There's been a lot of self-congratulatory stories about Wellington being named "the 12th best city in the world", two places up from last year, but several factors (such as Auckland coming in at 5th) made me wonder what they meant by "best". The company behind the survey, Mercer HR Consulting, designed the survey as a way for multinationals to work out how much hardship allowance they need to pay their employees for the inconvenience of being transferred to a crummy city with poor quality of life. To score highly, a city needs to have decent infrastructure, stable government, low crime rates, some semblance of cultural activity and a clean environment - in other words, to be as little like Baghdad as possible. Excitement, diversity, charm and creativity just don't come into it, which would explain why comfortable dullsvilles like Zurich, Dusseldorf and Geneva (the poster child for "bourgeois smugness") score ahead of renowned cities like Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona.

So how can you measure the less tangible qualities that make a city a lively and vital place? That's pretty tricky, but one measure that's often discussed is the number of bars (or cafés or restaurants) per head of population, and Wellington is often held up as a world leader in this regard. A friend recently pointed me towards an article about troubles with Sydney's licensing system, which said:
"...Victoria, WA, SA and the ACT have all liberalised their laws to enhance the grain and vitality of city life. It works, invigorating the town, enhancing tourism and actually - get this - reducing alcohol consumption. Even in Wellington, New Zealand, with just 163,000 humans, 697 licensed cafés, clubs and niche bars now enrich the scene; the highest bar-per-capita ratio in the world."
Another frequently-quote factoid is that Wellington supposedly has more restaurants, bars and cafes per head than New York. That's enough to make us glow with pride (not to mention stagger with intoxication and shake with over-caffeination), but where do these numbers come from?

I suspect that the Sydney article has been looking at the licensing figures for Wellington City Council: the 2004-5 District Licensing Agency Annual Report (573kB) has a list of 682 licensed premises, which is close. However, that list includes sports clubs, social clubs, bottle stores and every supermarket in town! If you restrict it to Tavern, Restaurant, Nightclub, Hotel and BYO licenses, then then total is more like 400. That still sounds impressive, but how does it compare internationally?

I can't look up figures for every city in the world, but let's take New York as a comparison. The well-known Zagat Survey lists 2176 restuarants in the whole of New York City, plus 841 bars and 1338 nightlife venues. For Manhattan alone, the figures are 1849 restaurants, 717 bars and 1178 nightlife venues. A lot of venues will be listed under more than one category (think of Matterhorn in Wellington), so without going through the full lists and removing duplicates, I'll have to make some rough guess as to how many unique venues that comes to. By taking the restaurant figures and adding half of the bar and nightlife numbers, we get roughly 3300 for NYC and 2800 for Manhattan. Divide by population and here's the comparison:

venuespopulationvenues per 1000

So it's official, Wellington does have more cafés, bars and restaurants per head than New York! It wouldn't be fair to compare Wellington City to the whole of New York City, because otherwise we'd have to include the parched suburban hinterlands of the Hutt and Porirua. On the other hand, Manhattan and Wellington City both get their share of bridge-and-tunnel crowds, so I think that that comparison is reasonable. Even given the egregious inaccuracies and wild guesses in my methodology, I'd have to say that we kick Manhattan's abstemious butt.

Urbane bar and cafeOf course, quantity is not the same as quality, and I have to admit that a significant proportion of Wellington's bars are unfortunately on the same level as this week's not-so-mysterious mystery bar. Ross correctly identified it as Urbane, on the ground floor of its hideous eponymous apartment block on the corner of Webb and Hopper Streets. They've even gone to the trouble of replicating the bilious green external girders as a plywood decoration at the front of the bar.

I shouldn't be too harsh on it though, as they seem to know their market, and they'll probably do a good job of serving the burgeoning student population in the vicinity. However, the combination of their name and the sponsor's name produced a hilarious oxymoron on the street sign: Urbane Speights.

On the positive side, we have plenty of bars that would not look out of place in New York, and despite some restrictive licensing laws, it's even possible to have a good decadent night out during Easter. And let's not even mention coffee, for fear of embarassing the New Yorkers any further.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Walls without a museum

There was a recent article in the London Review of Books that got me thinking. Peter Calder discussed Callum Storie's book The Delirious Museum, which advocates that the museum should become "both a repository of the artefacts of the past and a continuation of the city street in the present", and moved on to a meditation on Paris street signs and what they reveal about the vanished history of the city.

Sign referring to Sturdee StWhile Wellington doesn't have same depth and violence of history in its streets (like the French Revolution's erasure of street names derived from saints), you can still find reminders of whole streets that disappeared. This sign on the Dixon St side of the old Farmers building refers to Sturdee St, which after much demolition in the 1970s was absorbed into the traffic-clogged artery that is now Victoria St.

Ghuznee St alley - street as museumBut it's the concept of the museum as "continuation of the city street" that intrigued me, and I thought of ways of reversing the proposition. What about the street as museum? The Paris street signs are an example of this, whereby the informed stroller can read the city's history through the "signs" (literal or otherwise) on the street. And I can think of at least one part of the Wellington streetscape that has become a de facto art gallery: this grungy alley between Ghuznee St and the Left Bank has become an ever-changing collection of street art that fascinates braver passers-by. This ZoomIn page shows its location and several photos, and I've also posted these photos on Flickr.

Apart from the usual mindless tags, there's a mix of political and artistic expression, but disappointingly few examples that combine the two. The political graffiti tends to be urgent but artless; and the prettier cutouts and stencils seem more like the work of design students pitching for a lucrative illustration contract. I've yet to see much to rival the subversive talent of someone like Banksy, so perhaps this is another example of Wellington's creeping complacency.

The key to seeing the street as a museum is the phrase I used above: "the informed stroller". To become your own curator of the street, you either need a personal understanding of the city or a good guide. That, perhaps, is where "Web 2.0" technologies like blogs, Wikipedia, Flickr and ZoomIn can come into play, by allowing people to "edit" the city and share their selections with others. The city as it is, with its wealth of easy-to-miss details and stories, could be seen as an inversion of the "Museum without Walls", André Malraux's descriptions of books that took art to the people rather than being confined within a physical institution. The city consists of "Walls without a Museum", but when people share their selections it can become a superposition of thousands of museums: artistic, historical, architectural, frivolous or subversive. Beyond their practical mapping applications, this is an exciting possibility for Google Maps mashups and ZoomIn Groups.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

High-rise highlights

Manchester Unity building - facade detailThe latest issue of Architecture New Zealand has plenty that's of interest to Wellingtonians. There's a five-page article by Christine McCarthy, celebrating Wellington's high-rise offices of the 50s, 60s and 70s, that elaborates on the walking tour that was part of last year's Architecture Week. Specific buildings include the Racing Conference building (voted "best dressed building" by the Architectural Centre), the Manchester Unity building (dubbed "a vertical cemetery" by Ian Athfield, for reasons which become obvious when you look at the façade) and the often-overlooked Petherick Tower on Maginnity Street.

Someone asked me why the article's photos were all in black and white, and I couldn't quite work it out myself. Is it to give the images a period feeling? Is it to follow the Modernist emphasis on form over colour and decoration? Is it to hide the slight grubbiness that's apparent in some of the surfaces when you see them in colour?

Summit apartments from the northSpeaking of colour, there's also an analysis by Tommy Honey of the colourful new Summit on Molesworth apartment block in Pipitea. Honey likes it almost as much as I do, though unlike me he gets a chance to look inside and bemoans the formulaic layout of the apartments themselves.

There are more architectural critiques in My Wellington's City Space section. Jellicoe Towers is praised for its daring slenderness ("an undeniably inspiring and unsettling building") while the Von Zedlitz building gets a richly deserved bollocking. Criticising the architectural quality of VUW's Kelburn campus is a bit like shooting brutalist fish in a concrete barrel, though, and Dennis Welch probably made such an exercise redundant when he described the campus as "a series of planning mistakes cunningly disguised as halls of learning".

Roger Walker/Terry Serepisos development proposal for the corner of Dixon and Victoria StreetsOn the other hand, if you're mad keen on high-rises and want to see more of them in Wellington, then you'll love SkyscraperCity's Wellington forum. I know that I often come across as a rabid advocate of high density and tall buildings, but even I believe that some of Wellington's recent developments are the wrong building in the wrong place, whereas some of the contributors' statements ("more glass = class", "great to see more cranes over Wellington") don't exactly speak of critical and nuanced urbanism. It's a very useful and interesting site, though, and it often posts renders of proposed buildings that aren't visible elsewhere on the web (such as this image of Roger Walker's explosion in a bling factory on the corner of Dixon and Victoria). Some of these may never happen (for example, does anyone have any insider knowledge of whether "The Needle" proposal opposite Post Office square is going ahead?), but even the abandoned projects give a fascinating alternative view of a Wellington that could have been.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mystery bar number 27

File under: , ,

Martha was just too darned clever (even if she said so herself): the previous mystery bar was indeed Atlanta on The Terrace. I have a feeling that this week's one might be a bit trickier, though.

Mystery bar #27 - flowers on the barDon't expect as many suits here as at Atlanta. While they have a fairly fully-stocked bar, and a basic range of wines, the alcoholic emphasis seems to be on beer. There's quite a lot of beer branding involved, some of which comes across as unintentionally ironic. The bright (if not garish) colour scheme, flower arrangement on the bartop and large number of potplants seem to be brave efforts to feminise and enliven what could seen as a blokey and bare-bones environment, but I'm not sure that they've succeeded. Dozens of jokey beer posters and a vast plasma screen are hard to counter with a few bits of greenery.

Mystery bar #27 - blue sofasIt's also trying to provide a wide range of services. One corner was set aside as an internet café, and the counter was doing a roaring trade in takeaway breakfasts when I visited. It's definitely catering to a young market, which makes sense given its location, and the absence of expensive design features is a corollary of that. Despite the gritty environs and inexpensive (to the point of tacky) furnishings, the abundant natural light make it reasonably pleasant for daytime visitors, though from the looks of things, many of the customers would have preferred a little less light.

Pod people

Pod image adapted from http://www.atsltd.co.uk/media/pictures/There was quite a media splash at the weekend from promoters of an "ULTra pod" Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system. They want the council to fund a $1m study towards a 6km elevated central-city loop of 4-seater electric "pods" that are claimed to offer the best aspects of both personal and public transport. They would be cheaper than taxis, more space-efficient than personal cars, and unlike trains or buses, would deliver you straight to your chosen destination without stopping along the way.

I remember being excited about these when I saw a display about them at Sydney's Powerhouse museum about 5 years ago. But since then, I've seen a lot of less appealing information about them. There's even a site called PRT is a Joke that goes so far as to claim that PRT is either a scam or a "stalking horse" for the road lobby:
PRT proponents can say things that the highway boosters could never say, such as "people don't like to ride with strangers". This anti-transit propaganda divides and conquers the opposition to highway projects.
While I haven't studied the subject in enough detail to examine such extreme claims, the proposal certainly has a whiff of Ogdenville, North Haverbrook, and Brockway about it, and there are some real issues with PRT. For example, the promoters claim a capacity eight times that of buses and four times light rail. But this seems to be based upon the unrealistic assumptions that the pods would always be full and that they could run three seconds apart at 40km/h. If you're promoting this on the basis of not having to ride with strangers, then imagine how much more uncomfortable it would be to be stuck in a tiny pod with them than in a bus! So 2 people per pod seems like a more reasonable average. Also, running pods that close together wouldn't allow for safe stopping distances: a more sceptical analysis suggests that 15 seconds is a more realistic headway. Thus, their capacities seem to be inflated by a factor of about ten, and any advantage over more proven modes disappears.

Some of the other "advantages" also seem irrelevant to this specific Wellington proposal. The main selling point over traditional public transport is that you don't have to change lines: you select your destination, and the pod itself will switch tracks as necessary to take you there. After struggling through the London Underground with luggage more times than I care to remember, this is certainly an appealing thought! But this proposal is for a simple loop, so there would be no changes to make anyway, and it would seem to have little "personal destination" advantage over a bus or tram.

Also, our main issue is not so much in getting around the CBD as in getting to and from it. There will still be a mode change involved for suburban commuters (switching from cars, buses or trains at the railway station or Courtenay Place before getting into their pod) which is always a big disincentive. One of the main advantages of a light rail system is that it could switch from existing rail lines to the city streets, so that you could travel from Johnsonville or Petone directly to Courtenay Place. A more extensive PRT network might also offer this advantage, but it would cost a lot more than the $50m quoted for the downtown loop.

The other advantage of light rail over PRT is that it's proven technology. It's been around for longer than the car, most European cities couldn't function without it, and even the USA is catching on. PRT, by comparison, has never been installed in an urban situation, and despite the glowing news continually reported by PRT backers, it never seems to get anywhere. In fact, the Cardiff trial that the Dominion Post article mentions was abandoned in 2003.

And I haven't even mentioned what 6 kilometres of elevated concrete tracks would look like along Lambton Quay and the waterfront!

I'm not willing to dismiss this proposal out of hand, since it's good to see someone seemingly promoting serious investment in sustainable public transport. Have a look at the promoters' presentation to the council (2.5MB PDF, PRT presentation starts at page 6) and the Wikipedia article on PRT as well as the more sceptical sites that I've linked to above. Read what other people are saying about the potential of light rail for Wellington. Then we need an informed discussion about the options, and at the very least, this proposal may kick start debate about alternative transport options.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Suppression and subversion

Sticker revealing suppressed evidenceEugene Doyle may have suggested that Wellingtonians lack the passion to engage with the big political and intellectual issues, but last week's events may have provided a counterexample. When activists circulated suppressed evidence relating to the trial of Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton for allegedly raping Louise Nicholas, one reader commented that it certainly seemed like a subversive political act: more black coffee than trim latte.

There's an urbanist dimension to this, too. As well as using new(ish) technologies like blogs and email to circulate the message, they applied some of the oldest subversive technologies of all: pamphlets, posters and graffiti. By handing out leaflets in the Railway Station and Cuba Mall, they emphasised the importance of urban public space as a political medium, not just as a gap between shops.

The legal issues have yet to be tested, but I'm certainly not going to risk showing the content of this sticker, which is why I've blurred and pixellated it. I could potentially be found in contempt of court just for letting you know where it is, which is why I'm not being more specific. But if you're one of the few who haven't found out online: the word is literally on the street.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Bouncing back

I've mentioned a few closures recently, but it seems that the market for eating, drinking and shopping is still pretty strong, since many of the tenancies are opening up again fairly quickly.

Cordoba Nights at 203 Cuba St closed down a few weeks back, which was no surprise given the signs that had said "Restaurant for urgent sale, contact Rex on ...". I wonder whether the "Rex" in question was the well-known, well-connected (though not universally well-liked in the Cuba quarter) owner of the building? In any case, we'll miss the Sangria, but work started straight away on refitting the interior. There's no real sign as to what it will be, but from the contact names on the "Kitchen hand wanted" signs, there's a fair chance that it'll be an Asian restaurant or café.

The demise of Rouge was rather more spectacular, but it was clear that the site had enough going for it that it wouldn't be empty for long. On April 15th (next Saturday) a new casual Italian restaurant, Scopa, will open in its place. Expect high standards, given that the owner is Remiro Bresolin of Il Casino fame. It's quite possible that it's only a temporary venture, given that it opens just as Il Casino closes for six months of renovation, but with Scopa's location and pedigree they'd have to do something monumentally stupid for it not to be a great success and carry on once big brother is back from its makeover. There's no word yet on whether Kopi and Bouquet Garni are set to get a new lease on life.

Moving on to a slightly different level of Italian food, when La Casa Pasta moved out of the first-floor space at the corner of Dixon and Eva streets, its downstairs companion Diva also shut up shop. The entire building was set to be demolished and replaced by a controversial 14-storey apartment block: despite being one of the oldest buildings in the city, it had never been officially protected as a heritage building. However, the developers got into trouble for advertising apartments for sale before they had resource consent, and while I haven't heard whether the plans were officially abandoned, someone's decided that it's worth opening up again. Work is slowly proceeding into turning both storeys into something called Boss Bar, with a dance-music-oriented nightclub on the ground floor and a karaoke bar above. Rumour has it that the decor will be something quite special, though not perhaps what most would call "good taste".

In the world of retail, it was sad to see long-established Wellington designer Zana Feuchs leave town, but at least the location of her former boutique ZFA won't be empty for long. In the first week of May it will reopen as the Wellington branch of Moochi, a New Zealand womenswear label known almost as much for its striking shop design and lavish opening parties as for its clothes. According to an article at My Wellington, "the collection will be slightly altered to incorporate the distinct atmosphere and flavour of Wellington". I'm not sure what that means, but you can probably expect more black.

Finally, there are a lot of changes underway at the corner of Courtenay Place and Taranaki Street. The historic toilet block will become an underground wine bar, the old Design Zoo space is becoming a Burger Fuel franchise, and the road in between gets the cars kicked out to be turned into a public plaza or park.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Zooming ahead

File under: , ,

You may have seen some chalkmarks on the streets with a teardrop shape and the URL zoomin.co.nz. This is part of a new campaign to publicise the mapping site ZoomIn, which I wrote about way back in November. Back then, I mentioned that it looked very promising, but not quite at the level of Google Maps yet.

Screenshot of ZoomIn showing the 'Wellington waterfront changes' groupNow it's really starting to get going, with a refined interface and aerial photos. But even better, their promise of a two-way system that allows users to add places of interest is beginning to bear fruit. They said that "we want people to add stuff - like their views of what cafes they like and what beaches are good, so people can use it to share information", and that's exactly what's happening. It's extremely simple to sign up (for free), click on some places on the map and then add descriptions, links and photos. What's more, you can gather them together into groups, link other people's places into that group, and publish a link to the map of all places in that group. For example, it took me just a few minutes to create a Wellington waterfront changes group to highlight the places that I mentioned in my recent post Waterfront evolution.

There already plenty of places of interest marked on the map for Wellington, with groups highlighting skateboarding spots, railway stations, beaches and shops on Cuba Street among others. I wouldn't be surprised if some dipsomaniac ends up creating a map of Martini reviews before long. There's an API you can use if you apply for a development key and like to play around with JavaScript, and from what I've read so far it offers the ability to add custom icons, tailored behaviours, geocoding and all sorts of juicy possibilities. But for now, there's plenty to play with just using the standard interface and think of all the ways that this could link in to blogging, Flickr, transport timetables, restaurant reviews, sporting events, architectural history...

Bucket man

John Radford's installation Cuba Mall Disartster was very short-lived, and these kids seemed to delight in assisting (officially or otherwise) its deinstallation on Saturday.

John Radford's Cuba Mall Disartster being dismantled
The "Transplasticizer" (i.e. clay) may all be gone, but if you want to hear more about this transformation of the Bucket Fountain and a derelict Holden, then you can hear Radford giving a talk tonight on "The Bucket Fountain reconsidered". It's on at Lecture Theatre 1 in VUW's Schools of Architecture + Design building at 139 Vivian Street: be there at 5:30pm for drinks and 6pm for the lecture.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Waterfront evolution

The near-simultaneous end of the Festival and the golden weather have left our beloved Waitangi Park a much quieter place than it was a few weeks ago. The Festival Club tent and open-air stage are all packed up, leaving the grass underneath to gradually recover. The Earth from Above exhibition is still drawing crowds, but once that ends, I expect the place will need some other attractions to get people there on anything other than a sparkling day. Luckily, more facilities are gradually being put in place, which might help the park stay appealing throughout winter.

Waitangi Park - after the Festival
The kiosk next to the petanque terrain is getting its finishing touches, including much-needed public toilets and a sun shade that will extend to the edge of the playground. As far as I know, they're still looking for an operator for the kiosk (who would you prefer to run it? Mojo? Fuel? Motel?), but it's expected to be complete by the middle of this month. There will be more play equipment for the sprogs, including a kid-sized basketball hoop, possibly some hopscotch markings and maybe a new mini-slide.

If the wetlands look a little forlorn at the moment, that's because they've been temporarily drained to allow completion of the Graving Dock. As part of that work, gabions are being installed in the holding pond and planted with tall reeds, so that once they've grown you'll be able to stand on the middle bridge and be surrounded by greenery. Given about six months' growth, the whole of the wetlands will eventually look as lush as the playground end. It's just a pity that during the works they look as stagnant as the naysayers predicted: it would have been good to have some sort of signage to let people know that it won't always look (and smell) like it does at the moment. At some stage there will also be a waharoa (carved gateway) between one of the bridges and the lawn, which should make a good landmark and meeting place.

Progress on the graving dock and graving dock gardens, Waitangi ParkThe bulldozers are now busy finishing off the Graving Dock gardens, which will have a variety of paths and an interpretive trail winding through local coastal plants down to the beach. The propellor from the frigate F69 will also find a home here. The final section of the outer promenade will be paved shortly, which will give a few more options for walking or cycling around the park as well as completing the important visual axis from Cable St to the harbour and city. And we'll finally see the Wind Garden west of the Herd St building: this should include graduated planting (getting taller as you go further from the water), landscaped berms, seating and wind screens to provide shelter and visual interest. Now that the Festival is out of the way and the contractors are back on site, all this is expected to be finished by the middle of May.

Herd St building being opened up at ground levelBut wait (as they say), there's more! Area One of the park itself should be complete by then, but work continues on the Herd St building with its adjacent "Boathouse" apartments and atrium. Some people would have preferred the building to have been demolished to provide more views from the park, but it became pretty clear during the festival concerts how much the park benefitted from its sheltering effects during a northerly. The ground floor is being opened up, with the intention that park users should be able to see right through the new openings in the building to the marina beyond, thus providing a welcome compromise between views and shelter. We'll have to wait to see how well this works in practice, but it's a good sign that Wraight Athfield Landscape Architects (the designers of the park itself) are designing the ground floor interior. Megan Wraight said that she is designing the interior as "an extension of the park", which sounds intriguing.

There's no word yet about what exactly will be in the ground floor tenancies, but the developer's website says that they "seek retailers with ingenuity and originality, for example; galleries, a special book shop, gourmet delis, cafés, an oyster bar or sushi is a must, a pharmacy, gift shops, a florist, fish and chips to die for, cutting edge hair salon, and more". According to an article in the Dominion Post's commercial property section last weekend, they have engaged a "shopping centre expert" to ensure that they get the right mix, rather than blindly leasing out the tenancies one-by-one. Filling 22 tenancies in a relatively isolated location sounds a bit optimistic, especially given the current economic climate, but there's still a high demand for retail space in Wellington and the building is on the major pedestrian/cycling commuter route from Oriental Bay. I hope they have a casual café/bar facing onto the park: the Festival Club drew big crowds in the evenings while it was there, and I'm missing it already. The building is (perhaps optimistically) expected to be finished in October, and the tenancies should be available soon after that, just in time for Spring.

The Free Ambulance Building on Taranaki Wharf - nearing completionFuther along the waterfront, the Free Ambulance Building at Taranaki Wharf has just about gone through all its strengthening and exterior renovation, with the tenancy fitout expected to be finished by about the start of June. There are no details yet on exactly what's going in the ground floor, except that it will be some sort of hospitality business. This won't reach its true potential until the Taranaki Wharf public space development is complete, and its hard to tell when that will even get started due to Wellington Waterfront Ltd's battle with the rowing clubs over parking and car access. I'll write about that in more detail later on, but for the moment I'll just say that the rowers used to have a point, but they're sounding more and more histrionic.

Right at the northern end of the waterfront, work on the Kumutoto Site 7 building and the surrounding public space is well underway. The foundations are being laid, and the Tug Wharf has been temporarily closed for strengthening and improvements (seating, pontoons etc). Wellington Waterfront Ltd are still looking for ground tenants, but there's no hurry, since the building won't be finished until September next year. Meanwhile, as I speculated earlier, it looks like Shed 11 is getting closer to becoming a permanent home for both the Centre for Photography and the NZ Portrait Gallery. Wellington Waterfront Ltd and the city council are offering financial support if central government chips in (84kB PDF), and there are architectural drawings curently on show at Shed 11 to give an idea of how it might work as a building. I haven't found any online images to link to, but to me it looks like a nice balance between respecting the heritage building and opening it up to both Kumutoto and the street, and the inclusion of a café and bookshop will certainly give a more active egde to what is currently a closed-off shed.

That's quite a lot to keep track of, so here's a simple timeline of various expected completion dates for the rest of the year.

Timeline for Wellington waterfront development in 2006