It's in the hands of the Environment Court now whether Auckland's downtown QE Square should be stopped as road, rezoned for development, and sold to Precinct Properties.
It is getting down to the wire on this now, but issues keep coming up. To begin with many supporters of this campaign to retain public open space focussed on the loss of public open space. They could also see how combined with Lower Queen Street it could form a great civic square for Auckland, and bring it back to what it was two decades ago.
The next issue that began focussing minds opposed to the sale was the width of the laneway proposed running East/West. Urban Design and Landscape Architects I talked with estimated it should be around 8 to 9 metres wide - not just for safety, but for amenity and feel. But Precinct experts wanted a more concentrated retail environment. To me this view was contradicted by overseas experts and experience.
However, the legal challenge mounted by Auckland Architectural Association (AAA) needed focus and while the laneway width was a concern, the major concern was the loss of public open space. So the laneway width faded to the background in the legal action challenging Auckland Council's statutory processes.
Which brings me to the Road Stop proposal put up by Auckland Transport at the request of Auckland Council. QE Square (like Lower Queen Street) was vested as "road" in Auckland City Council by Auckland Harbour Board in the late 1960's. It was also zoned "pedestrian mall" in 1976 by Auckland City Council. (Did you know: Parts of Aotea Square and St Patricks Square are also vested as "road".) Vesting public open space as "road" was a common approach by Councils back in the day. So QE Square being "road" is not unusual. Interestingly, the definition of road in the Local Government Act: "every square or place intended for use of the public generally..."
The fact that QE Square is a "road" and "pedestrian mall" has introduced another important issue which I develop here, but first a bit more on road stopping....
The process for stopping a road is reasonably straightforward and set out in the LGA. Clauses of schedule 10 state:
1. The council shall prepare a plan of the road proposed to be stopped, together with an explanation as to why the road is to be stopped and the purpose or purposes to which the stopped road will be put, and a survey made and a plan prepared of any new road proposed to be made in lieu thereof, showing the lands through which it is proposed to pass, and the owners and occupiers of those lands so far as known, and shall lodge the plan in the office of the Chief Surveyor ...AAA did object, and the objection ended up in front of the Environment Court. It can modify, reverse or uphold the road stop proposal. There have been many legal submissions in the course of the court hearing as to how the Environment Court should assess this particular road stop proposal and the objections. Sitting listening the case law that was frequently cited was to the effect:
5. If objections are received as aforesaid, the council shall, after the expiration of the period within which an objection must be lodged, unless it decides to allow the objections, send the objections together with the plans aforesaid, and a full description of the proposed alterations to the Environment Court.
The central issue is the need for the road for public use (as opposed to the need for the stopping).You can see how arcane some of the discussion can become because of the use of the word "road", when what was being discussed was a civic square. Seems that cases like this are extremely rare in New Zealand. Road stop proposals normally apply to paper roads and similar minor matters. And not Auckland's first civic square.
Which brings me to a critical issue that has emerged as the hearing progressed. This relates to the use of QE Square by pedestrians, and whether that use (need) and amenity will be better when QES is no more, and its pedestrian function is replaced by (substituted by) a 100 metre long 5.5 metre wide laneway.
Garth Falconer (Auckland Council's urban design expert) noted during cross examination, that in his opinion Auckland City needs more data and information about pedestrian movements in the CBD. In fact the study he prepared in 2014 for Auckland Council did contain data about pedestrian movements.
This is the front cover of the Garth Falconer Reset Study that was presented to Auckland Council's Development Ctte on Sept 2014. It was one of the documents used to support the decision to sell QE Square.
At page 13 is a map of data collected and reported relating to pedestrian movements. It also records Mr Falconer's concern that there was not much data recordiing pedestrian movements.
This is a closer look at the Lower Queen Street and QE Square areas in the map. It indicates average daily pedestrian movements. The arrow indicating pedestrian movements along Lower Queen Street (its west edge) is the same colour as the arrow indicating pedestrian movements across QE Square. (NB: throughout the hearing, despite this data, experts in support of QE Square sale stated that QE Square was rarely used and that the main desire line for pedestrian movements was North/South along Lower Queen Street. Not true.)
This section contains the legend for the pedestrian movement map. It describes the movements across QE Square AND along Lower Queen Street both as "Medium" - between 11,000 and 15,000 movements a day on average. Significantly, the map shows as yellow dots the Downtown Shopping Centre (DSC) "Door Count" figures. Thus, the figure 4,125 records the "door count" for the downtown shopping centre door off QE Square. (But this is half the story, see below).
The first major point to note here is that the data presented by Garth Falconer contradicts the statement that QE Square is rarely used. In fact it is heavily used by pedestrians. And they won't all be walking along the arrow. They'll be coming from the ferry - many of them - either to go shopping, or to cut through the DSC. And when these measurements were obtained the Lower Queen Street bus station was still in use and pedestrian traffic across Lower Queen Street wasn't easy. People will also be walking across QE Square to (and from) the Zurich Tower entrance, and to (and from) the Zurich Tower cafe.
And this is where I made a discovery. De Lambert's evidence for Precinct also looked at the use of QE Square. Her measures were NOT for a whole day - whereas Falconer's data reports pedestrian movements for a whole day. But what is especially interesting about De Lambert's evidence is her reporting of the door count data for the DSC. In her evidence (4.2) it is noted "It should be noted that pedestrians are only 'counted' on entering the building....". Thus if about the same number go in as go out the QE Square doorway figure of 4,125 would double to give about 8,000 ped movements across QE Square on average/day due to entry and exit from the DSC. This would account for the lion's share of pedestrian count across QE Square.
(De Lambert's evidence also states: Colliers daily foot count data also reveals that the Downtown Shopping Centre Queen Street entrance is the most used entrance, totalling 2,660,530 pedestrian entries for the period between 1 April 2015 to 30 April 2016, followed by the QE Square entrance totalling at 1,779,524 over that same period.
4.5 I have also obtained, from Colliers, data representing the total door count numbers from pedestrian entrances into the Downtown Shopping Centre from the period between April 2015 and March 2016 (refer Appendix 7).
4.6 In terms of percentages, the Colliers data shows the Queen Street entrance totalling at 37.7%, followed by QE Square at 25.3%, the Airbridge from the PWC Building has 14.6%, Albert Street entrance 13.1%, Albert / Customs Street 7.7%, and the Customs Street entrance 1.6%.)
Which brings me back to "the need for QE Square as a road...". QE Square is a pedestrian mall. It is a public place where pedestrians from many origins walk in order to access (or leave) several destinations.
The consented development (ie without selling QE Square, but with a new office tower, with a 50 metre EW laneway connecting QE Square to Lower Albert, and with a NS laneway connecting QE Square to Custom Street) will result in even more destinations. There will be 4,000 new office places in the new tower (accessed from the base of the tower - many coming by public transport - accessed from QE Square), a shiny new shopping centre (accessed from the EW landway - itself accessible from QE Square), at least one new cafe outlet - accessed from QE Square, and a major bus interchange in Lower Albert Street (accessible via the EW laneway).
Is it an improvement if ALL of those pedestrian movements are squeezed and confined into a single 100 metre long EW laneway? I don't reckon so. It would be a retrograde step for pedestrian movement as it would eliminate comfortable and direct desire lines that presently exist across QE Square. Pedestrian amenity is about comfort and directness. That is what an open pedestrian mall public open space provides - as well as the opportunity to simply sit and pause and contemplate.
A QE Lane is not the same as a QE Square.
It would be a backward step for Auckland's downtown pedestrians.