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That Concrete Canyon: How Did Federal Street Go So Wrong?

Feb 16, 2015 Urban design

How did SkyCity and Auckland Council’s $10 million makeover of Federal Street produce such a poor result?

This story first appeared in the January/February issue of Metro. Photos by Simon Young.


It was when Ludo Campbell-Reid tweeted a photo of people sitting on the blocks of bare concrete with a tour bus completely filling the background that I knew we were really in trouble. “#FederalSt seating working just how it should”, he declared.


Not true, and not good enough. Campbell-Reid is the Auckland Council’s officially designated “Design Champion”, and he’s just been given a new role as GM for the Auckland Design Office. When it comes to the design of our cityscape, he’s the guy. He’s in charge.

His tweet was in response to my editorial last issue, when I complained that the council and SkyCity had managed to cock up the design of the new shared space in Federal St. Despite spending more than $10 million between them, I wrote, the street that’s home to Masu , Depot , The Grill and other restaurants had been “sabotaged by ineptitude”.

Boy did that lead to some finger pointing. I wrote that while Campbell-Reid understands the need for an engaging street-level aesthetic, it seemed SkyCity did not. And yet it was Campbell-Reid who defended the quality of the Federal St makeover. And in another tweet, he called it a “blank canvas” that “will improve” because “we have exciting plan”.

SkyCity told me they don’t know what that plan is. On both sides, clearly, there is considerable frustration. So what did go wrong?


Why does the street still look so inviting for cars?
Campbell-Reid says he wants to change that. He’s keen on an archway at the entrance, a narrower road in for vehicles and a raised “table” they have to drive over. I asked him why weren’t those things done in the renovation, but he couldn’t tell me. He says although the speed limit is 30km/h, he didn’t want a sign up saying so.

However, he says he likes the idea of putting trees in the middle of the roadway, to block the sightlines for drivers from one end to the other and slow the traffic. Again, why didn’t they do that already? He says they didn’t think of it. He wants to put out some big planters and give it a try.

Why aren’t there bigger courtyard areas?
One early proposal was to block the street completely with a plaza outside the restaurants. Wouldn’t that be good? Grand Hotel traffic would enter and exit at Wellesley St, while Sky Tower traffic used Victoria St. The council wasn’t keen: they don’t like blocking streets.

SkyCity still wants to create larger courtyard seating areas outside all the restaurants and bars. But Campbell-Reid says they want to retain a disabled pedestrian route right down the street, especially for the blind. The line of rougher pavers marks the edge of that route.

Because of this, the council has actually asked SkyCity to reduce the courtyard area in front of Depot. SkyCity is resisting this. Campbell-Reid says it is possible some temporary tables and chairs could be sited further towards the middle, outside the line of the walkway.

At Bellota, SkyCity has put out heavy (and therefore permanent) wooden bar tables with seating attached. Campbell-Reid doesn’t like them and doesn’t want any restaurants to erect permanent seating on the street.

He says if they bend the rules for SkyCity, other restaurant owners will want the same treatment. I told him I couldn’t see what was wrong with that either. Why not treat all proposals on their merits?

What about those car parks?
When the Sky City convention centre is built, the current Federal St entry and exit to the SkyCity car park may close. The car park on the other side of the street is the council’s — it now owns and occupies the tower block on the corner of Federal and Wellesley Sts. Campbell-Reid says it’s possible cars in that park will exit back onto Wellesley St.

In other words, the earlier idea for a central plaza may come close to fruition anyway. SkyCity, for its part, is focusing upmarket and therefore has heavily reduced the number of tour buses.

What other plans are there?
I asked Campbell-Reid about the absence of art and colour in the street. He said he’d like to see a big screen showing old movies on the SkyCity wall opposite Masu.

He’s got bigger ideas for the council building. He wants a new, glassed-in debating chamber at ground floor, so we can all watch democracy in action. He also wants to remove the heavy verandah and give the whole large courtyard a makeover.


What just happened? It’s a dull wind tunnel and it’s still a rat run, when it could have been a lively and rather lovely plaza.

I’m not suggesting SkyCity should be allowed to do whatever it likes in public spaces. But the council had a real opportunity here, with a property owner keen to create an exciting precinct and prepared to help pay for it. As the experience with our other shared streets reveals, that’s quite rare. (Why has Smith and Caughey still not taken advantage of the change in Elliott St? Why do the owners and tenants of the Jean Batten building on Fort St appear to have no interest at all in using the wide and pedestrian-friendly paved areas that surround them?)

SkyCity wants to enliven Federal St, but Campbell-Reid says what SkyCity wants to do isn’t always appropriate.

There’s a dynamic in play here, and in my experience it’s not uncommon. All over Auckland there are retailers and other business owners, property developers and other entrepreneurs, artists and cultural sector groups who have stories to tell about how, in their view, the council has been a barrier to their ambitions.

Sometimes there’s good reason for it — the council, after all, is there to protect and advance the interests of all of us. But at heart, there’s a question of council culture. When citizens and businesses take their bright, city-enhancing ideas to the council, what happens?

Does the council say, “How can we help?” Or does it say, “Let’s put some limits on that”?

Does it see itself as an enabler, there to help Aucklanders prosper and enhance the city? Or does it believe it knows best about what should be done, and therefore react with suspicion to the ideas of others?

And think about Campbell-Reid’s tweet for a moment. Yes, there is seating in Federal St, and therefore people sometimes sit on it. But that’s a very low bar for a $10 million spend. If sitting bleakly with the buses is a measure of success, that speaks to me of a lack of imagination for what might have been.


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