Shale Chambers address  to the Urban Design and Planning Forum

The Waitemata Local Board has decision-making responsibility for local place shaping and have been asked for our response to the Sky  City proposal for redeveloping Federal Street.  We have made that decision and I am conveying that decision to the Planning and Urban Design Forum and the Future Vision Committee of Auckland Council.

We unequivocally support the reconfiguring of SkyCitys ground floor on their Federal Street frontage to accommodate a mix of restaurant and retail units which will activate the immediate edges.   In addition the redevelopment of Federal Street as a quality pedestrian friendly street between Wellesley and Victoria Streets so that a wider range of activities and events can occur both day and night has our wholehearted support.

We looked to advice on our decision from Ludo Campbell-Reid, the former urban design champion of Auckland City Council who articulated conclusively that Federal Street is an uninviting pedestrian environment, poorly landscaped and unattractive. Street frontages are dominated by car park entrances, there are inactive concrete facades, large pillars and the street was is used as a rat run taxi rank and coach drop off point.

It marginalises pedestrians and is not worthy of an international city centre.

All credit is due to SkyCity for recently announcing the official start of the first of three new signature restaurants and bars located on Federal Street,  These three new restaurants and bars will add to its existing nineteen venues and be adjacent to the renowned ‘Bellota’ and Sky City Grande Hotel.    SKYCITY CEO Nigel Morrison can rightly boast about the $50 million revamp ahead of the Rugby World cup 2011.

SkyCity’s economic interests must be best served by tidying up an uninviting street that its existence created.   Auckland, the public, and Sky  City wins by this investment in our city centre.

However it is the proposal for the airspace over-bridge that the Waitemata Local Board has a difference of opinion on with the present Auckland Council planning staff.  While it is Auckland Transport not the Waitemata Local Board which has the delegations to make the decision on the over-bridge, our Boards resolution follows closely the advise of the former Auckland City Councils Urban Design Panel.

The Urban design Panels professional advice makes compelling reading.

Their opinion was that regardless of the external treatment of the overbuilding, it would have a significant negative impact on the public realm experience within the street.  To put it bluntly it could create a ‘tunnel effect’, with an adverse impact on solar access to the street.  The size of the overbuilding would effectively divide the street into different spatial zones, thereby undermining its integrity as a street space.

They conclude that the air-bridge could lead to the creation of a space that people did not want to linger in, thereby defeating the purpose of the shared space environment.

The Public Art Panel also advising the former Auckland City Council were of the view that the proposed architectural form is an obstructing intervention in public space which would obliterate open sky-space and block views of St Patrick’s Cathedral from the Wellesley   Street and Mayoral Drive ends of Federal Street.   In all their advice to use was that the air-bridge would diminish the quality of the public domain, and effectively privatise public space and set a very uncomfortable precedent in the city.

We noted that the proposed overbridge does not comply with the former Auckland city Council’s Airspace Lease Policy.

Christopher Dempsey one of our Waitemata Local Board members whose study of public plazas was part of his M.A. thesis, made some very interesting observations that he wishes to share with Auckland Council.

He undertook a study of public plazas in the CBD area. One of those studied was the ASB plaza, at the southern end of Federal St. Among all the plazas he studied  this plaza had the least amount of people using it. The reason lay in the design, which gave the area a heavy weighty feel, with large expanse of canopy shadowing it. He found out through property records that the architect was Brisbane based; the plaza as designed would work extremely well in a Brisbane climate, but it doesn’t ‘translate’ to an Auckland climate. From this observation he concluded that while shade is a critical component in plazas and inter alia public places, to enable people to seek relief from the sun, too much shade drives people away. People are extremely responsive to their environments.

Examining the SkyCity proposal, he noted that Federal St is somewhat lifeless. With its large blank walls, dominating vehicle entrances, and weird planter boxes there is the feeling of ‘nothing’ there. He noted also that the street is somewhat shady for the majority of the day. This situation was created at a time when the vehicle dominated, and pedestrians were regulated to the bits left over.

The Waitemata Local board’s role in this matter and our allocated responsibility under the new model is local place-shaping, and hence the concentration on urban design and public art issues.

The local Waitemata Board does not support Auckland Council and Auckland Transport progressing extending the existing SKYCITY conference facilities into airspace above Federal Street.  We ask you to heed our decision and advise that the upgrade of Federal Street should not be tied to any agreement for the Council to permit an airspace licence.

Contact:  Shale Chambers, Chair, Waitemata Local Board, 027 476 5284