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

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Does Harbour Quays suck?

File under: ,

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.


At 4:41 pm, July 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in the Stats building. I'm in here right now, reading blogs. Without going into deep analysis I can tell it does feel very isolated out here. I miss working on Lambton Quay. Judging by the dark gray clouds I can see outside, it's going to be another long, cold and very, very windy walk back towards the city today. Ugh.

At 4:54 pm, July 11, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

I feel for you! I applied for a job there once, and it was such a wet and windy day that I took a taxi: I don't think I could work in such a place. Having plenty of space between the buildngs is all very well if you're going to drive everywhere, but for Wellingtonians used to walking, a traditional dense, mixed-use CBD does a much better job of "catering for the needs of the people that work in and use the area" contrary to the Harbour Quays website.

In a way, I think it's unfair to stop the development now that you guys are stuck out there without any shops, shelter or semblance of urban life. I think there's merit in trying to "infill" back from the Stats building to the Railway station, trying to create some sort of lifeline back to civilisation! The "Waterloo Tower" development northeast of the station is a good start, and the presence of a New World Metro at the station would help too.

I'm looking out the window and steeling myself for the walk home, but at least 90% of the way is under cover for me.

At 6:10 pm, July 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wellington is such a great city, I would hate to see the Harbour Quays development going ahead without proper public consulation. Its not right for Centrepoint to put office buildings on land originally intended for wharf use. If they no longer require it for the original purposes then give it back to the city and the people to decide its fate !

At 10:45 pm, July 11, 2006, Blogger mikeymike said...

well reasoned tom.

peacemeal office park development will never be a winner. we simply cant have the quays being to wgnt what most m25 office parks are to london. eek!

unfortunately the bottom line will be the single bottom line on this one. the financial advantage for the quays area is that the land value is a lot lower than in the "CBD". it is afterall not really "land". the office rent paid by an organisation to move to a new-build out there is accordingly lower.

an interesting curve ball in this one is the so called "green building" element. many organisations (ala stats, meridian, and MfE) are now after sustainable buildings - better orientation to the sun, "intelligent" materials, and often, onsite stormwater treatment.

existing buildings (very) rarely have the capability, and for CBD green/brownfield sites its difficult too.

quays is clearly well served physically to provide "green building" answers. financially, the lower land value more than compensates for higher "green build" cost and extra structural elements.

its not surprising to see a quays person note that the ideal would be a WCC endorsed mixed use development. that was an "original" gateway intention, and frankly mixed use (incl. residential) is an imperative.

should centreport decide to sell i'm sure they'd make a healthy gain over "book value". sadly (shannon), the prospect of us having a significant say aint too flash...

At 11:02 am, July 12, 2006, Blogger Kate Borrell said...

I def like your walkway ideas from Thorndon to the Harbour Quay.

HQ is an interesting project considering the unsuccessful story of the shopping mall/space at Queens Wharf. This now houses the head offices for Synergy and Shell as well as other smaller businesses.

At 5:13 pm, July 12, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

I think this could be something beneficial if done properly. It's what, 5 minutes' walk from the train station? This could encourage greater use of rail, and if the rents are more affordable than the CBD we could also be enticing businesses to come to / stay in Wellington rather than the Hutt or Auckland.

If we go with the "infill" idea between HQ and the station we could have a lesser version of Thorndon Quay -- specialty shops rather than Sounds and McDonalds.

Mike's green building idea is good, although I don't know how much power the council has to impose this. It would be great to have something like Queens Wharf apartments built to passivhaus standards.

As I said, if done properly...

At 9:58 am, July 13, 2006, Blogger mikeymike said...

baz, the green building "idea" is fact.
there are many large organisations presently looking for green build options. GB is not only a means of conveying corporate social responsibility, it is a very real means of enhancing staff retention and attracting top talent. GB often comes with lower operating cost too.
as i say, the bottom line is that lower land values at the quays means more can be spent on building - net position is that the required rental to reward development cost is very competitive with the cbd.

At 11:49 am, July 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well there are certainly plans for a co-ordinated connection between Harbour Quays and the city - that was the whole point i think. They showed it on TV about a year ago. Hopefully the Civic Trust will think to invite the relevant people along to do a presentation to those that haven't seen it?

At 12:39 pm, July 13, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

Mike - by 'idea' I was referring to the notion of applying green building across HQ -- if not enforced, you'll get a mix of green building and "what's the minimum we can get away with".

At 1:27 pm, July 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anon: yes, there is an integrated plan for the area. It was called "City Gateway", but as I wrote last year, most of that has been put on hold due to uncertainty about other parts of the area (specifically, railway land that may or may not become surplus to requirements) and general bickering between the various land owners and other stakeholders.

I still think that the City Gateway vision was a good long-term (50 year) plan for the area, and that's why I was initially more enthusiastic about Harbour Quays: it looked like the City Gateway was starting to happen. But then I realised that Harbour Quays was going ahead without any thought for what else might happen, and I started to get more worried about the resulting mess.

The Civic Trust seminar will have some fairly relevant people, including urban designers such as Kobus Mentz, and I think we should get a good update on what happened to the City Gateway plan.

Guv: it's still nowhere near as bad as M25 office parks in terms of sustainability. As Baz points out, it's actually got better public transport accessibility that most of the CBD - until we get light rail, that is! But we certainly risk it becoming an urban design nightmare if issues of connectivity, shelter and mixed use are not addressed.

At 5:08 pm, October 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian Cassels is my name and I'm one of the "robbed barons" - I'm very concerned over the future direction of the city and my view is long term.

I see a city which barely remembers its own survival story and can't grasp its own secret - the "buzz". Buzz is Wellingtons only world class asset - you encounter people in the Stewart Dawsons area every day that add to your thought level - you'll never find them in Harbour Quays unless they're carrying a protest placard.

60 people a day seem to come from Stats to the city each lunch hour (on a fine day) and the building, by my calculations interacts with its city about 10% of a CBD version. It takes 14 minutes to reach midland park so a lunch hour is effectively halved for the souls that undertake the journey.

Our building - the Mid City Building (ex Hoyts) in Manners Street is in fact Wellingtons first five green star rated building - we came close to losing the tenant to CentrePort which starkly contrasts a city in regeneration mode compared with what would have been another bleak amputation.

Wake up and be counted Wellingtons - do we want our city and future designed by a Port Company on what is really our land.

Heading out of town we're facing a Government Ghetto on the left and a greedy lurch to Auckland on the right - behind us is the dwindling secret to our success - buzz.

At 2:05 am, January 21, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice story you got here. I'd like to read something more concerning that matter. Thanx for sharing this information.
Joan Stepsen
Tech and gadgets

At 5:51 am, November 15, 2016, Blogger Tony said...

Well its 2016 and after several major earthquakes it seems that the Harbour Quays sitting on reclaimed land was not the best idea.
I dont think the isolation point of view was the best idea but structurally the harbour Quay has highlighted issues with its stability.

The existing Lambton Quay to Wharf reclaimed area was not built over a year but many years and so the structural stability is a lot better than the "throw a couple of piles " into the exisitng area around the harbour.
The amount of work done within the infrastructure of the harbour board has been minimal and now we are seeing wharves collapsing into the harbour and building built close to the waters edge having major issues.
Lets stop this building next to the waters edge until we get some group engineering and geo technical help on this one.
Its not about pretty buildings but the safety of our people working in those buildings.


Post a Comment

<< Home