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

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Harbour saga

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The saga of Harbour Quays continues, and takes on new twists as it goes. While the Civic Trust's seminar has unfortunately had to be delayed until next April, the debate has been kept in the public eye by the release of the Kemp Report (866kB PDF) into the potential economic and urban impacts of the development.

It's a long, detailed document (60 pages), but what it comes down to is this: contrary to what its opponents claim, Harbour Quays won't "suck the soul" out of the CBD. On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which it could be done much better.

On the first point, the report concludes that in the "worst probable case", it will only have moderate impact on the office market. "[A]ssuming Harbour Quays attracted tenants only from the Central City ... [it] would result in an additional 3.7% of existing office space becoming vacant. This would lift present vacancies to less than 12%, which is quite acceptable in 'efficient functioning' office markets which need around this level of 'market lubricating' vacancies (to provide some choice of space and prevent excessive rent increases)" (p17). Furthermore, "any loss in office employees frequenting the retail heart of the Central City, will be more than offset by the increase in 11,290 residents planned to be living within walking distance of Wellington's retail heart by 2021" (p25).

On the second point, the report raises all the issues (mixed use, shelter, pedestrian connections) that I've mentioned before. Recommendations include:

  • Locating and staging the next developments to improve local worker amenity and connectivity to the rest of the CBD (similar to my suggestion that the next step should be to "infill" between the Stats building and the Railway Station).

  • Completing the public places, and provide sheltered connections to the rail station and the rest of the CBD (I'd add that connections across the Stadium concourse to Thorndon are also important).

  • Provide additional employee and community benefits, not just retail but also "a demonstration high tech small office and video conference centre", "program for cultural, community and special interest groups to regularly take responsibility for space or stage events", "health and fitness centre with health monitoring, lap pool, saunas, gym" and "innovative new all weather indoor/outdoor spaces and 'outdoor rooms'" (in other words, don't just build an office park).

Despite a lot of dry property economics speak, there are places where this report actually sounds quite daring and visionary, with suggestions such as "band rehearsal and recording studio, an all weather adventure play ground, solar and wind powered community art", "a series of high profile Competitions (in association with local schools, business, architectural, town planning and development groups and the local media)", "a landscaped, sheltered 'land bridge' between Harbour Quays and the Rail Station". The City Council's response (44kB PDF) is a bit more muted, but at least hints that it does want to ensure a better mix of uses, to "promote high quality design, provide for active ground floor use and smaller tenancies" and to ensure that funding is in place for proper infrastructure.

The report does raise the issue that some (older or "lower quality") office buildings may be left vacant, but suggests what I thought would be the obvious and sensible solution: "adaptive reuse of these buildings (possibilities may include boutique offices, affordable serviced office space, creative industries and residential conversions)." Harbour Quays' opponent scoffed at this, and Vibrant Wellington spokesman John Feast said "Are we going to end up having a residential cbd? The very purpose of a cbd is for offices. In every other city it is the heart of the commercial centre."

But what's wrong with bringing a mixture of uses into the CBD? Many similar conversions have already happened, and arguably they have been part of the reason why the CBD is less deserted out of office hours than it was 15 years ago. Vibrant Wellington wants to enforce mixed use for Harbour Quays, but thinks it's ridiculous for the existing CBD: there's something odd about that.

Having some older office space lie vacant for a while might actually be good for Wellington. One of the big issues of the last few years is that affordable spaces have been gobbled up for apartment and commercial development, squeezing out artists, start-ups and small businesses. Jane Jacobs put it best: "New ideas must use old buildings". In other words, buildings whose inital construction cost have been paid off are cheap, thus creating an opportunity for lower margin, risky or one-of-a-kind businesses. As the government and corporate offices move out to shiny new large-floorplate buildings, the creative and original businesses move in. Surely the long-term "soul" and "vibrancy" of Wellington rests depends more upon these people than on keeping rents as high as possible?


At 8:47 am, August 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the Dominion, the site of the new indoor sports centre is being reconsidered and it might go next to the Harbour Quays development (rather than near the airport). I think this would be great for the waterfront, particularly with proper links to the stadium and city.

At 9:19 am, August 16, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Yes, I've just seen it on stuff. I'd grudgingly come round to the idea that Kilbirnie wasn't such a bad site, based on the idea that it would be mostly for schools rather than a top-notch professional facility. Now that the "council's decision to expand the centre from eight to 12 courts made it more of a regional asset", then of course it belongs near the stadium, city and railway station.

Good stuff!


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