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

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Silver Mile

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Wellington's CBD has traditionally been very linear, with most of the shopping and entertainment concentrated along a single extended "street" comprising Lambton Quay, Willis St, Manners St and Courtenay Place: the well-known Golden Mile. This has advantages for legibility and transport, but it made the rest of Wellington (with the exception of Cuba St) seem dead by comparison, and Wellington felt like it was only one street deep.

Map of the Golden and 'Silver' Miles in WellingtonRecently, though, several factors (including zoning changes, high rents and the opening up of the waterfront) have resulted in a spread away from the Golden Mile. One consequence of this is the piecemeal emergence of a secondary shopping strip, parallel to the Golden Mile and approximately one block closer to the harbour. For want of a better term, I'll call it the "Silver Mile".

Here's a quick rundown of key developments along this strip, which runs from the Railway Station, down Featherston St, wiggles around Customhouse Quay and Victoria St, then heads along Wakefield St to Cambridge Tce. Some parts of this route are already surging ahead as shopping destinations, other sections have piecemeal developments on the cards, and some have quite some way to go before they could rival the Golden Mile as an urban experience.

Railway Station to Ballance St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - Holiday Inn under constructionMy thesis looks a bit shaky here: surely this is more grey than silver? But there have already been some big changes, including Victoria University's Pipitea campus spread around Government Buildings, Rutherford House and the Railway Station. More are on the way, including a New World Metro at the station, the Holiday Inn that's shooting up on the corner of Whitmore St, and a big dumpy office block proposed for the site next door on Bunny St.

All of that bodes well for the connectedness of the city, as this is a vital nexus between the CBD, waterfront, station and government precinct, and it has suffered for too long from vacant sections and inactive street frontages. If the council follows Jan Gehl's suggested changes for the station forecourt (62kB PDF), this neighbourhood would also have the quality public space that the increased activity would deserve.

Ballance St to Grey St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - new shops on the corner of Featherston and Waring Taylor StThis is more like it! Already, the number and quality of boutiques here makes it look more "golden" than Lambton Quay, which is being taken over by bland mass-market chains. The demand for retail space on Featherston St has been so strong that brand new spaces have had to be created from office lobbies, and the general look is very upmarket (if a little conservative).

It's also what passes as the nightlife hub of the Lambton Quarter. There are six bars within half a block of the Johnston St corner: a year ago, that would have been more than on the entire waterfront! Physically, the street is improving too, with the Waring Taylor St intersection upgraded recently, and the upcoming Lambton Quay upgrade will include a continuous paving link along Johnston St.

Grey St to Willeston St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - Bill Culbert's SkyBlues sculptureThis was the hardest section to identify. The last block of Featherston St has some strong claims, and Hunter St is coming along, but I couldn't miss out Grey St and the boutiques of Customhouse Quay. This way also brings you past Post Office Square, the second public space along the Silver Mile and home to one of our newest public sculptures.

While Willeston St was recently tarted up, it's still let down by the fiddly spaces around the base of the State Insurance tower and the glowering mass of the multi-storey carpark: let's hope that any plans to use the latter as a link to the waterfront introduce some activity to the area. Pod and Stanley Road have done their bit to enliven the corner of Willeston and Victoria, but it still needs work.

Willeston St to Mercer St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - renovations at 42 Victoria StThis stretch starts badly, and the street interfaces of both the State Insurance tower and the Police HQ are pretty much irredeemable short of major structural work. But then you come to the Chews Lane development, which has the potential to really kick some life into the street. I was worried about the gentrification of the area, but it looks like nearly all the old shops (Polygon jewellers, the coin and stamp shop, the Lightbulb man) have found alternative premises nearby.

The modernist office building at number 42 Victoria St is looking spectacular after its refurbishment, and Avid will soon be joined by Tinakori Gallery (relocated from Featherston St) to give an upmarket arty flavour to the arcade entrance. Further along Victoria St, you get to Athfield's famous Nikau palms, but what the street really needs is some real trees and a wider footpath.

Mercer St to Cuba St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - street trees outside the LidoThis is probably the most attractive stretch of the Silver Mile. It has some lovely old buildings, some decent modern ones, an elegant curve and plenty of urban greenery. It also has plenty of life, with designer shops (Tamarillo, Karen Walker, Artikel) complemented by at least seven cafés and bars in just a short block.

In this regard, it's only really let down by the City Corporation building and Town Hall on the north side of Wakefield St: while these are a significant part of our architectural heritage, they present a rather inactive face to the street. I've heard vague suggestions of turning the City Corporation building into a boutique hotel: with restaurants and bars on the ground floor, it could enliven both Wakefield St and Civic Square.

Cuba St to Taranaki St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - Wakefield St near the Duxton HotelHere's where it starts to go pear-shaped. The Michael Fowler Centre has never been interested in addressing the street, and the triangle of open space to the east is so dominated by car parking that its green spaces seem lost and gloomy. On the south side, the Duxton provides a textbook example of how to ignore the street: to the pedestrian it offers neither shelter nor visual interest. The recent addition of Mojo on the corner of Taranaki St is an encouraging sign, though its café tables look like a brave but inadequate attempt to bring street life to the bleakest, windiest, most pedestrian-hostile intersection in Wellington.

I don't know whether the Watermark apartments are going ahead, and if they do, it's hard to tell whether the new residents and shops will make up for the loss of the Rialto cinemas and Wellington Market. In any case, this stretch of Wakefield St needs some serious urban design attention if it's going to connect the two ends of the Silver Mile, as well as being the most prominent link between Courtenay Place and Te Papa.

Taranaki St to Tory St

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - car yard in front of Reading cinemasThis block is crucial, since there is great potential for development and the result could either make or break Wakefield St as a pedestrian environment. It's currently blighted by service stations and open-air car yards, with SUVs and Hummers insulting the very concept of a human-scaled inner city. There's been no news for a couple of years about Reading's plan to build a five-screen art-house cinema complex (a branch of the Angelika Film Centre chain) and retail centre here. If done well, that could create an active edge to Wakefield St and provide a better link through to Courtenay Place, but given the example of Courtenay Central, I wouldn't be too confident about the results.

Across the street, the old multi-storey warehouse building that used to house Cash Converters has been cleaned up a bit, but it looks like the ground floor tenant will be something dull like offices or an estate agent. East of here, there's a mish-mash of car yards, wholesalers, a derelict service station and, of course, the red shed. The Warehouse site has apparently been sold to developers, but I haven't heard of any specific plans (update: there will be two apartment blocks there, with ground-floor retail). This cluster of properties offers a great opportunity for enlightened urbanism, with attractive, medium-rise mixed-use buildings and a mid-block pedestrian connection to Cable St to break up the coarse street grain. Of course, what we'll probably get is a couple of oversized apartment blocks, more big-box retail and a festering vacant lot used for "land banking".

Tory St to Cambridge Tce

The Tory St intersection is improving, with a Wholly Bagels branch helping to turn the corner towards the emerging foodie district (Meat on Tory, Schoc). The new Museum Apartments are a few storeys taller than they should have been for the context, but I think they look better than the renderings had indicated. Only one of the retail tenancies has been leased so far (a posh furniture shop called Ashton Grove), but given the demand for retail in Wellington, it might not be long before these go.

Wellington's 'Silver Mile' - corner of Wakefield and Blair streetsThe rest of this stretch has long benefited from the overflow from Allen and Blair streets, and the only real blight on the last section is the suburban-styled New World supermarket. It's certainly very popular, but from an urbanist point of view everything else is wrong: there's a big surface carpark, no active edges to the street, and the truck entrance is smack in the middle of the Cambridge Tce view shaft, blocking what should have been a long, spectacular view of the harbour. Urban designers and architects keep wistfully talking about some glorious day in the future when it might be resited or demolished, but there's no sign of that yet. By shifting it to the western half of the site, wrapping it with shops and building three storeys of apartments above it, this could be converted into a proper urban block while freeing up the eastern half for a high-quality boulevard to Waitangi Park. That would really be a fitting marker for the end of the Silver Mile, but I'm not holding my breath.


At 3:29 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger s. said...

If you're in the market for a nice, anonymous maze encounter, Jo, or some recreational lifestyle enhancers, then you've just found your spot.

Tom, unless you wrote this post on Tuesday the 6th of June, your RSS feed is screwing up its dates.

At 3:35 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Go-to guy, eh? I'll let that slide...

Well, any straight man expecting a brothel there would be sorely (no pun intended) disappointed. If you do a quick google for "Club Wakefield" you'll find a reference to its services, including "Sauna, Plunge/Spa Pool, Steam Room, Cruise area, Bunk Rooms for safe play". Nuff said.

Of course, I only know about this sort of place because I make it my mission to research all aspects of Wellington history and culture, including this interesting walking guide which came in handy when researching this post.

At 3:36 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger s. said...

Actually that's not quite fair: my feed-reader is abusing your metatags and giving me misleading dates.
issued: 2006-06-15T13:53:00+12:00
modified: 2006-06-15T02:05:07Z
created: 2006-06-06T05:06:33Z

Stupid Atom. Why Blogger.com doesn't use RSS, I'll never know.

At 3:36 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Stephen, you beat me to it. Inside knowledge?

I started work on the post back then, and have been using Blogger's "Save as Draft" function whil I added to it. I changed the date when I published it, and it appears okay in the HTML version, but something must be screwy with the feed if it's giving that date.

At 4:54 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger s. said...

It always makes me chuckle when people write/say "no pun intended", and by doing so quite demonstrably intend the pun. So much so that I've often wondered if that is indeed the point.

Personal experience, Tom? Yes, I'd have to concede that. 'Nuff said.

And as you can see from the three dates, the Atom feed is ok; it's my Feedreader which is incorrectly using the Created date instead of the Issued date, and giving me spurious information.

At 5:10 pm, June 15, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

No personal experience, though I once have a flatmate who used to get Amyl there. I must add that the only "research" I do for my blog is online. Except for Martinis, of course.

At 8:33 pm, June 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ummmmm, what is a "maze encounter" ?? anonymous or not, i'm none the wiser.

At 11:43 pm, June 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Changing the subject a bit...

I had heard that the Rialto theatre was bought by Readings. With the intention of making it the Angelika art house.

At 10:15 am, June 16, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Maximus: I'm not on the lookout for a marketing job right now! I just hope they pick up on the need for a more proactive approach to planning than the current "prevent the worst" philosophy. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the council sell some of the blocks between Cable & Wakefield streets a few years ago? I don't particularly mind them passing into private hands; I just wish there'd been some covenants to help ensure good urban design outcomes.

As for the bridge across Jervois Quay to Frank Kitts Park: that's still in the updated waterfront framework that I wrote about a month ago. Follow the link to the ZoomIn group, where I think I added some more details.

Anonymous: it's good to see the city is still full of mysteries!

Kevin: I hadn't heard that specific rumour. At the time of the conroversy over the Watermark apartments, the idea was that the Rialto complex wouldn't be there for long in any case. It is a fairly poor building for a cinema, anyway. The Rialto building itself (I think it's called the John Chambers building) would stay, but the Wellington Markets building would be replaced. I might write a more detailed post about it at some time, but things have been pretty quiet for a while.

At 2:06 pm, June 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin: no, not so. Rialto looking elsewhere: Readings do not own the site.

Jo: happy smiling Thai man will have to move, wok in hand. Possibly he can afford to retire by now..

Maximus: why not just Iron, to reflect the lumps of rusting steel left on the waterfront?

Tom: I'm sure you're on the WCC payroll anyhow, as an unofficial informant. Is that your real picture? Looks too suave to be a spotty blogger....

At 4:03 pm, June 16, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Nope, not on the payroll, and I do disagree with the council occasionally (mostly over transport issues). And not all bloggers are spotty!


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