Growing Pains in the CBD
By Justin Hu (he/him)
If you're based on the city campus, there’s no doubt that you’ve had to endure the ceaseless sound of contractors hammering or avoid tripping over another pesky road cone.
The sights and sounds of construction seem to be everywhere – yet it's difficult to understand what the end result of all of this is meant to be.
Last month, new plans for Queen St were announced by Auckland Council. So, what does more construction actually mean for the future of the city centre? Aside from more orange cones.
What’s happening right now and how?
The newest changes would see most through traffic on Queen St diverted onto Wakefield St and Mayoral Drive –the streets facing the WT and WG buildings. This would mean most northbound cars on Queen St could only enter through crossroads northbound of Wellesley St. There will also be new widened footpaths on Queen St that will separate cycle and scooter users from pedestrians.
These changes are happening now because Auckland councillors voted in 2018 to reduce the number of cars on Queen St, with the ultimate goal of turning the street into a pedestrian-only public space within the next decade, and the potential of including on-street light rail.
It’s a project that has had broad support, but which faced fierce business opposition after temporary changes, made by AT, used 'plastic sticks' and cones to extend the footpath. If you want to learn more about the tortured debate in the past year, then veteran council-watcher Simon Wilson at the NZ Herald has you covered.
Zooming out, pedestrianising Queen St is just one of several projects listed in Auckland Council's ‘city centre masterplan’, which proposes a 20-year long-term plan for how the CBD will change.
All 22 listed projects have a focus on making it easier to get around on foot, on two wheels, or by public transport in the city centre.
For students, one of the proposals could see Symonds St changed into a pedestrian and bus-only street – with safer pedestrian crossings and new continuous cycling lanes to Britomart. AT is separately planning a new bus interchange facility to alleviate bus congestion in the universities precinct.
Another project underway will see parts of Wellesley St converted into a bus-only section between Albert St and Queen St. In the past, AUT has voiced concerns about the potential of Wellesley St becoming entirely bus-only.
Linking many of these projects together is the City Rail Link, which is by far the largest and most expensive transport project in Auckland’s history.
Contractors are currently digging a 3.5km tunnel for trains directly underneath the city centre, which when finished will create Auckland’s first underground train stations. Connecting Britomart to Mt Eden, the tunnel joins the Western Line directly to Britomart, resulting in a doubling of the rail network’s capacity.
For city campus students at AUT, that means a 400m walk from the new Aotea station entrance on Wellesley Street to get to campus. Train lines will also now run through Britomart, instead of terminating there, with another new underground station on Karangahape Road.
However, construction on the project won't be completed until 2024 and in the meantime, it has significantly disrupted business along the tunnel's construction route.
Construction of the stations and tunnels has resulted in the temporary closure of several parts of Albert Street, sparking controversy with local shop owners who say the project is driving them out of business.
Stuff reported that at least six businesses closed due to the construction, with other owners traumatised by the effects of the construction, some of whom were on antidepressants. As a result, the Government and Auckland Council created a $12 million hardship fund last month to compensate businesses for lost business during construction.
Why though? What was wrong with getting around the CBD before?
It’s all about space, and it’s the primary factor that’s driving every change you see. The CBD is simply running out of space for more people to drive – as is the rest of urban Auckland.
Stats NZ says Auckland's population is predicted to grow to nearly two million within a decade. With that, urban planning experts have concluded that it’s impossible to accommodate that growth through more suburbs, motorways and parking lots.
In the city centre alone, the area is now home to more than 57,000 residents, according to Auckland Council. That’s more than the resident populations of Taupō, Huntly, Kaitaia, and Queenstown put together.
Instead, planners see a future where many Aucklanders live in denser spaces instead of further afield, and mostly travel using public transport, cycling or walking – while car usage per person would decline.
Some of this is already happening. For example, the number of cars entering the city centre at rush hour hasn’t grown at all in the past twenty years. That’s because buses and trains have absorbed the extra 20,000 people who are getting in with the help of new infrastructure like Britomart Station in 2003 and the Northern Busway in 2008.
At the end of it, the city’s politicians hope that they’ll end up with a city centre and an expansive city that’s truly fit for purpose. But right now, it’s whether you buy that they can do it – especially when you’re still sitting in traffic because you have no alternatives.
Consultation on Auckland Council’s newest proposals for Queen Street are open for submissions until October 20th.