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Auckland Transport are currently consulting on a makeover for Queen St with consultation closing this Friday. As I wrote two weeks ago, there are some good elements to the plans though we think AT should go further to prevent cars using the street. We also think more needs to be done to accommodate bikes and scooters rather than mixing them in with buses or pedestrians. But while the consultation is still going, the plans themselves could be up in the air with a group of business and property owners taking legal action over it.
A group of inner-city businesses and landlords is asking the High Court to urgently halt council plans to trial traffic restrictions and bigger pedestrian areas on part of the CBD’s main retail strip.
The group calling itself Save Queen Street has described the plan to start work in early May on the more pedestrian-friendly design between Shortland and Customs streets, as a “disgrace”.
It blames a makeshift reduction of general traffic lanes, installed during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, for some of the streets economic woes, with a large number of smaller stores now vacant.
Save Queen Street wants all changes of the past year scrapped, and a new discussion on how to best upgrade the street to begin, and will argue its case on May 4.
Queen St has been hit by the absence of foreign tourists, cruise ship passengers, the loss of foreign tertiary students, and more office workers opting to at least partially work from home.
However, the society argued retaining the temporary changes, had contributed to the street’s economic decline.
“The Emergency Works have contributed to foot traffic in Queen Street declining by almost half since March 2020 because they make Queen Street a less pleasant place to be and make access difficult,” it argued.
“The Emergency Works have contributed to a significant decline in commercial activity in Queen Street.”
The proposed upgrade to Queen St
There is so much about this entire situation, from both sides, that really frustrates me.
First, the suggestion that the current temporary measures are responsible for the downturn in fortunes of Queen St businesses is frankly ludicrous. It’s like these business owners have completely forgotten there’s a global pandemic that is still raging overseas resulting in a changing of work habits and a stopping of international visitors, likely a lot fewer local visitors too. That’s important because Heart of the City data shows that prior to the pandemic just under 40% of spending in the city centre was from international and local visitors. On Queen St this number is probably higher. By comparison, in other ‘competitor’ areas that number is around 10%.
Outside of lockdowns, pedestrian volumes on Queen St were sitting at 60-70% of the same time in 2019, though recently that has been improving and are now typically sitting at 70-80% of what they were in 2019.
While there’s little this opposition group can do about the government’s border settings, what I can’t understand is why none of them have done anything about trying to attract more people to the city to help change their fortunes. Where have been the calls for street events to bring people in or even just the promotion of businesses and the city as a destination? Perhaps they need to set up a business association which could be tasked with doing just that. We’ve certainly heard anecdotal stories of how the constant complaints claiming the city is ugly and hard to get to has stopped people from even considering visiting.
Perhaps also the owners of buildings on Queen St, instead of protesting the council, should be doing what they can to bring some life back to the city such as dropping rents and finding short-term tenants to fill any vacant sites.
Finally on this group, somewhat unsurprisingly for me many of the most prominent members of it were also the most vocal and disruptive at a number of workshops that were held to try and come up with a design, with them frequently trying to derail the process. I wonder what they could have achieved if the money they’re paying to the lawyers was instead spent on coming up with some a vision or solutions of their own.
The council and AT aren’t exactly blameless here either. Both organisations have dragged the chain on making changes and I understand the project has been bounced back and forth between the two a few times. And now they’ve finally produced something, it has been watered down from what it should be.
Part of the problem here is it seems none of the officials want to go out and say the goal is want to get the cars out of Queen St – in part because we hear rumours that a lot of the senior officials don’t want that outcome. It’s like they’re more too worried about what will be said about it on talkback radio than recognising the politicians have said they want this outcome.
And that is what makes me nervous about news late on Friday.
Court action over a planned upgrade to Auckland’s Queen Street may be averted after peace talks between a group of businesses and the council.
Parties are tight-lipped with the Save Queen Street group set to seek an injunction on May 5, but in a joint statement described Friday’s 90-minute meeting as “productive”.
“Save Queen Street, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport had a productive meeting this afternoon and are working together to reach a resolution,” they said in a statement.
Today’s talks were chaired by the Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback, with senior officials from both council and Auckland Transport, but without the mayor Phil Goff.
My fear is that behind closed doors officials will give in to at least some of the demands from these business bullys and further weaken these plans.
If anything, the thing Queen St needs saving from is the Save Queen St group.
This article first appeared on www.greaterauckland.org.nz
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