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Viv Beck: Open for business, but not business as usual

News story
Monday 9 Mar 2020

Our CEO Viv Beck looks at how the city centre has changed and how we need to evolve with it. This piece was first published as an op-ed in the NZ Herald on 9 March 2020. Read it on the NZ Herald here

Exasperation with road cones has been rife this summer and it's no wonder. My heart sank when I saw the line-up of new cones in the city centre early in January and thought about the impact for businesses already stretched by construction and change.

You might be wondering when it will be back to "normal"?

It won't, not as we know it.

This is a tough but momentous time in the city centre's evolution. It's open for business and — while cones will come and go as it transforms — it will never be the same again. It's time to start looking at it through a new lens.

Imagine a lively place that shows our unique heritage and beautiful waterfront, is easy to get around, vibrant with customers and a memorable place to relax and spend time. That's where it's heading.

If you boil it down, cities are about people and many other international cities (New York, Paris, Barcelona, Melbourne) are becoming more people-friendly and cutting down on cars in the inner city.

This is not just a fad dreamed up by some bureaucrat in an office, it's the way the world is moving as cities keep on growing and space becomes more scarce.

Studies show a positive impact on retail sales when there are more shoppers and fewer cars.

For the first time since the 1950s more people are coming to the heart of our city by public transport than car each day (just as you wouldn't expect to drive in to central London or Sydney).

Not everyone has access to public transport and that's why Heart of the City lobbied to keep the Auckland Transport carparks.

Cycleways symbolise the changes under way. People want new ways to get around and the take-up of e-scooters and e-bikes clearly illustrates that.

Yes, something new takes a while to shake down (a bit like when skiers had to start sharing the mountain with snowboarders) but it is a sign of things to come.

Developers are even converting carpark space to bike racks and showers — they wouldn't do that if there wasn't demand for it.

We are getting glimpses of what's to come every day.

People no longer clear out at New Year. And over the next three months alone, we counted more than 50 reasons to come into the city, catering for all tastes and representing the diversity of our city — including the Auckland Arts Festival, the opening of Commercial Bay and Bright Nights in the Viaduct.

Access is easier and cheaper than you might think at night and at the weekend kids under 16 go free on public transport.

Construction is highly visible and while it's happening in all parts of the city (a sure sign of confidence from investors) there are major milestones as we head towards America's Cup, which kicks off later in the year.

Wynyard Quarter, Downtown, lower Queen and Quay St, Britomart and lower Albert St, will make our waterfront area tangibly better for Aucklanders.

It's not just about construction.

From about 1300 people living here 30 years ago, this small concentrated area (less than 1 per cent of the Auckland region) now has almost as many people as Whāngārei. This figure is set to double in the next decade.

For these people, the city is their backyard, they want to enjoy attractive public spaces with their families, not just trudge to work and home again each day. These are new customers who buy local, and participate in our growing urban culture.

As a centre of commerce, vacancy rates are low and new businesses continue to set up. More than 130,000 people come in each day to work and this is also tipped for strong growth. People want to meet friends in great cafes, with exciting things to do nearby, day and night. They want clean air and that's why there's a push for electric buses and fewer vehicles in Queen St.

What can be done to make things better now?

We will keep urging public organisations to show they care about the impact works are having on business, their customers, staff and suppliers.

Things do need to get done but these organisations must give people confidence that they are doing it as well and quickly as possible. While improvements are being made in Auckland Transport, the CCO review under way must deliver better alignment across the council group at the strategic level to avoid wastage and mopping up when spades are already in the ground.

People need to know what to expect and when, along with a more attractive environment around the cones.

Change is hard at the best of times and particularly so when it's a city, with concurrent physical, social, cultural, environmental and economic change going on. We have to tread carefully but boldly through this transition period. It's a difficult time for impacted businesses and they are reliant on loyal customers.

I hope you will challenge yourself to find new ways to come in and enjoy the interesting and diverse place our city centre is becoming — starting now and looking beyond those ubiquitous cones.