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

Monday, December 18, 2006

Car-o drive

As I said I would, I took a walk along the bypass on Saturday. I was too late to see the protests, but some of the protestors were still there chalking slogans on the pavements, and there a certain tension remained in the air.

There's a lot of things I don't like about the bypass, but the thing that struck me the most about it on the weekend is that it just doesn't look like Wellington. While supposedly "just a two-lane road", parts of "Karo Drive" are three to four lanes wide, and with empty sections on one side and small detached houses on the other, the approach to Victoria St looks as flat and bleak as any anonymous arterial road in the Hutt Valley. This is not an urban streetscape.

Wellington inner-city bypass: Karo DriveOn the northern side, the relocated heritage buildings sit oddly along Karo Drive. The façades don't follow the curve of the road as the buildings in an inner city street should, but instead retain their original orientation and are set back in a staircase fashion, as shown on the map. This disrupts any potential sense of the street as a unified volume, and leaves a series of awkward, disconnected spaces that are unlikely to be successful as public space, especially once the bypass is full of roaring traffic. In fact, back towards the corner with Cuba St, the designers have dispensed with any pretense that this could be a proper street, and built a blank concrete wall to protect the cottages from the road noise.
Wellington inner-city bypass: blank wall on Karo Drive
So much for insisting upon active edges! How comfortable would it feel to walk along here, either at rush hour stuck between a hard wall and a torrent of traffic, or at night with no sense of human occupation?

At least on the other side of the wall there is a human-scaled cluster of cottages, safely away from the traffic: the bucolically-monikered "Tonks Grove". The buildings certainly look pretty, with plenty of shiny paint and white picket fences, and posters in the windows recount their historic uses. But there's a startling lacuna in that history: the writers have been quite happy to tell the tale of the settlers, a quaint and wholesome community of coal merchants and butchers, but they elide the more recent history. For instance, the written history of what is simply labelled "ex-272 Cuba St" stops before the 20th century, and without the pre-renovation photo there would be no way of telling that this was the Freedom Shop. The recent community of artists, anarchists and students has paid the price for their opposition: not only were they evicted from their homes and businesses, they've been evicted from history as well.

Wellington inner-city bypass: Tonks Grove - 'These used to be our homes'
There's no visible indication of what sort of shops and residents will be moving in here, but the "For Lease" signs indicate that the market will drive the character of the streets. One new shop has already arrived, in Karo Drive itself just around the corner from Cuba. As yet it has no name, but it sells flowers, scented soaps and delicate embroidered thinggies. The proprietors have heard that the front shop will be a jewellers, and they plan to open a tea room on the carpark next door. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Thorndon South.


At 5:51 pm, December 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a tea room ON the car park ? How terribly urbane... isn't that a nice "active edge" then? Do you really think the Transit people would want to remember the protestors? Didn't they give them years of grief? And protest that Transit weren't restoring the buildings? Adn now that they are all perfectly restored, you complain they are all too twee?

Can't have it both ways mate...

At 6:09 pm, December 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always had an ambivalent view of the Bypass. On the one hand, it won't improve traffic flows as much as its proponents claim. On the other hand, if the Bypass was built to its original 1966 plan, it would have been just another "bulldoze first, think later" concrete monstrosity.

At the very least, the same people who designed the Airport tunnel markings should have done something similar with the Bypass trench.

That concrete fence at the corner of Karo and Cuba is saying, without words, "Tag Me". Same goes for the Willis St end of the Hirepool building.

At 7:35 pm, December 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some reason after walking it I'm actually begining to think a motorway would've actually been better for the urban environment than this "drive".

Perhaps it would've given license for a completely different change to the upper Te Aro area, one that while a shame to lose what was, wouldn't be so bad. As it stands, I feel like I'm in some suburban hell hole in Christchurch or the Bay of Plenty. I'm struggling to think of a way of improving it without burying it.

At 7:49 pm, December 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon, I don't think Tom is necessarily asking Transit to remember the protestors, though they are part of Te Aro's history whether Transit likes it or not. Rather, he is talking about the business people, artistic community, residents, etc who made the place a very distinct part of Wellington for a considerable portion of its modern history.
Prior to the bypass being constructed, one school of thought was that it would be preferable to demolish all the buildings rather than move and restore them. At the time I thought this extreme, but seeing them now I have some sympathy for this argument. It would have been more honest to start anew, and well-designed contemporary buildings may have looked less incongrous than the relocated heritage buildings. It does demonstrate how important setting, and the relationship of buildings and surrounding spaces to one another are. No doubt time will do something to dispel the sterility that permeates the 'heritage precinct' but I suspect it will always have a contrived, artificial atmosphere. It will be interesting to watch how it fares in the coming years.

At 10:19 pm, December 18, 2006, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

There's nothing else for it; we're going to have to Wellingtonise it.

At 2:05 am, December 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you ignore anything to do with attracting more traffic and just look at it in terms of having a good urban environment the full motorway would have been far better. All underground. Although during the construction it would be a lot more nasty but the end result would be 100x better.

At 7:17 am, December 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


whatever they did there was going to be bloody awful, motorway or no.

my question is about the change to upper cuba. it seems like karo drive now kind of marks off "the city" from the 'student precinct' (which i imagine runs from the five-road junction at adelaide/rintoul to the cube on the corner of webb and taranaki).

the 'vibe' of the two parts are subtly different. someone else will have the words, but north of karo is kind of bohemian chic, while south is a dormitory borough for students.

plus, all the hippies can move to newtown.

At 5:10 pm, December 19, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anon1: I think Anon3 said it very well. While I don't think that demolishing them would have been better, and I'd like to think that time will give back them a sense of reality again, there's a middle ground between demolition and trying to wind back the clock 100 years.

What made upper Te Aro a special part of Wellington was not that there were a bunch of old cottages there, but that an interesting and diverse community had lived there and added their own touches to their homes. "Character" is not something that is inherent in architecture, or something that can be built: it takes time, human history and the slow accretion of physical change. All of that is gone now, and the buildings look lobotomised: brain-dead amnesiac shells of their former selves.

At 6:12 pm, December 19, 2006, Blogger Triple T said...

"buildings look lobotomised: brain-dead amnesiac shells of their former selves."

like it.

i'll but it off you for a nominal fee.

At 2:52 pm, December 20, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Che: "my question is about the change to upper cuba. it seems like karo drive now kind of marks off "the city" from the 'student precinct' ... the 'vibe' of the two parts are subtly different. someone else will have the words, but north of karo is kind of bohemian chic, while south is a dormitory borough for students."

There might be something in that, and certainly the bypass will be more of a physical and psychological barrier. From what the draft district plan suggests, it seems that it will mark a border between the inner city and the suburbs, with the area south of there staying a bit more low rise and residential. The current uses are already a bit mixed up, though, and while you distinction between "studentville" and the city could have something in it, there are already several high(ish)-rise student hostels north of the bypass.

At 2:20 pm, January 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just been for a drive along Car-O drive - my first since it opened last week - and oh boy, it's really bad. Sort of made sense on paper, but to drive it is awful.

Basically it is just a glorified motorway on-ramp. Yes, i know, that was obvious from the start, but i sort of believed the hype that it would be a 2 way local road integrated into the community. Don't believe the hype!

Bypass My Ass ! It's wide, its ugly, its full of intersections, its nearly all one way, and there are forelorn heritage buildings scattered all around. Cars will be revving their engines from Buckle St (if not before at the Basin) and powering away down the wide lanes onto the motorway, cutting down hapless pedestrians in swathes. Expect massive prangs and the odd death. Starting on Monday....

Next time, Transit, do it properly: Build it UNDERGROUND ! We could have had a quite nice, quiet part of the world around here if you had....

At 1:00 pm, January 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The phased lights are impressive although I only observed it last week when everyone was still on holiday and noone was in the city.

Of course this is only the first stage, it will be very interesting when Vivian Street swaps direction and Ghuznee Street becomes two-way. It will also be interesting to see how the Ngauranga to Airport study makes use of the bypass.

I can't wait to see activies in all the buildings and development of those remaining vacant sites.

At 11:01 am, February 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live nearby in Cuba St, and since people have been back from holidays, there has been horrendous (compared to before) back up of traffic in upper Cuba St in rush hours and more cars idling during the day. I wonder if this will change when the southbound section is complete? Doubtful. Though I live in hope.

It also seems to take forever to cross Car-o-drive as a pedestrian. The cynic in me insists that the lights are phased green for longer than they should be on Car-o, to make it look like the whole thing is a wonderful, flowing, success.
Still dislike what its done to my community. It still looks like a fresh scar.

At 3:41 am, February 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom - I admire your frank and easy criticism of the whole bypass deal. 'Thorndon South' says it ALL I reckon.
What a bloody shame eh Wellington.Ah, it's all down to:
'the right contacts'and
money talks these days - whichever way you care to see this.

At 11:12 am, February 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a waste of time & money. Karo Drive is a disaster & Transit Cocked it up big time. Now there is more traffic & ever at Basin Reserve, Adelaide Road. Any more cock ups by Transit will make Wellington traffic worse just like Auckland's.


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