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Life Without Mainstreet

Written By: - Date published: 11:28 am, February 15th, 2021 - 36 comments
Categories: auckland supercity, capitalism, supercity - Tags:

Most of us have grown up where at the end of the working week, you head down to your town’s main street and hang out.

What will become of our towns and cities without it?

There are still a few centres in New Zealand where main streets still work, like Thames for their redoubtable Saturday morning market, or on a city scale, Dunedin’s George Street, or indeed the refreshed Napier central network.

And others such as Invercargill will by 2022 recover from their comprehensive city centre reconstruction.

But they are now the exception.

A confluence of factors is removing that downtown experience from everyday life – and it’s hard to see it coming back.

Could Queen Street survive the closure of Smith and Caughey’s, just as the impending closure of David Jones is threatening central Wellington?

Promotional organisations such as Auckland’s Heart of the City work assiduously to bring more of that life back.

If you’ve been to the cinema in the last year, you are an increasingly rare being. Those theatres were marginal enterprises for malls given their floorplate scale, but they pulled in couples and families for dinner and shopping around it. They were a key part of retail viability for all main streets. Covid19 has been a big bang on nails into that coffin. Even those big cinema events like the latest James Bond

and Dune

are now so delayed that they will be the last of a final breed of tentpole wonders released to theatres before the home versions: their downtown impact is now very muted.

This shifting of activity from the Queen Street axis to  the waterfront axis is promoted by events that recolonise other spaces, such as this weekend’s ever-popular Round the Bays run, and next weekend’s great Chinese Lantern Festival, and of course the America’s Cup this weekend, which covers not Queen Street but the Wynyard Quarter precinct.

So it’s not as if the crowds aren’t there to be attracted for major events.

But all that civic boosterism is struggling against big commercial decisions such as the closure of David Jones in Wellington, and H&J Smith in the south.

Last evening, at what will shortly become New Zealand’s last reasonably high end department store, Smith and Caughey’s, I went to their sale.

What used to be a crowded and pretty competitive event was fairly easygoing, the piles of merchandise didn’t go down, and even the perfume sale wasn’t the usual heady scrum.

The effects of major construction in Auckland’s CBD have now gone on longer than World War One, and businesses have felt that hit for years.

Plans to remove cars from Auckland’s Queen Street are due to go into effect in just a few months.

Not unreasonably, advocacy groups like GreaterAuckland celebrate and support this.

And there are also plans to shut traffic out of Wellington’s main CBD streets, with pretty strong public approval.

People do not give up the potential of their CBD experience; they join groups and fight to improve it. And the radiating success of Cuba Street has since 1969 proved to be the most successful model that was never really advanced.

Except that, shutting cars down in one place means the malls in the suburbs with their free carparking gain a massive competitive advantage over the CBD.<

The same applies to that fighting city Christchurch, rebuilt once physically after the earthquakes and rebuilt spiritually after the massacre. But the crowds aren’t coming back. They have some exceptional bars if you’re in town and don’t need to drive home, such as the wayyyy-cool Austin Club.

Christchurch’s centre is still there held up with public services like courts and council and library and art gallery, and cool little things like the antique trams, but it is diminished.

In many of our cities and towns, civic authorities have poured billions and billions into physical regeneration.

But that regenerative spark is now found only with the big civic events.

Will we really miss Friday night down town? What is this melancholia?

Perhaps our main cities are too big for a single civic promenade, and that multicellular world of mall dominance is just the way it is.

Maybe we shouldn’t care that capitalism is just spatially evolving, landlords will survive fine, civic and retail nostalgia is tired futility, and for most of us online shopping is simply more precise and efficient.

I suspect what we are losing is greater than what we are gaining.

36 comments on “Life Without Mainstreet ”

  1. Visubversa 1

    When I was a kid it was a big thing to go to "town" on a Friday night. We were too young to get into the pub, but there were exciting places called "coffee bars" run mostly by Dutch migrants who knew about real coffee. You could get a toasted sandwich as well, and they played the latest music. However we all had to get to 11.30pm bus home to the suburbs.

  2. Sanctuary 2

    Here is a mini documentary on this from Novara Media. It relates to the British High Street but many of the issues touched on are the same.

  3. RedLogix 3

    My daughter reports that Martinborough and Greytown are absolutely booming from this effect. They've created two new courier runs in the South Wairarapa in the past four months just to keep up.

    While COVID is accelerating this trend – it was going to happen anyway as our populations aged. Young adults are drawn to cities, but their elders are typically quite over them and seek quieter more spacious surrounds if they can.

  4. woodart 4

    the big deal with city centres is car access and car parking. its all good for public transport users but the vast majority of kiwis want personal mobility and personal transport . overcharge them for parking of make them leave there cars and ride, and you immediatley loose a large number of customers.

    • Sabine 4.1

      most of the inner cities in Europe would disagree with you.

      you don't need cars to get there, you need good and cheap public transport, bicycle parking (fietsen bestalling as the dutchies call it) and park and ride option.

      • woodart 4.1.1

        thats the big elephant. we are NOT europe . they have a long history of low car ownership and high public transport use. we dont. check out our car ownership figure. one of the highest in the world, and that will NOT change in a hurry, whatever the powerplant under the bonnet. sure, car free zones are popular here with the public, but when they happen, those areas slowly die . they end up needing festivals etc to bring back the crowds. those crowds mostly arrive in private cars , funny eh?

        • McFlock

          But the only reason they can run festivals is if they lower the number of cars.

        • Sabine


          the same stuff you said was said in europe in the late eighties and early nineties. The reason in NZ everyone and their kid plus dog needs a car is because people like you preach that in NZ if kiwis where to have to walk, or use a bus they would instantaneously combust. But they don't.

          the reason people arrive to festivals in cars is because of the utter failure of local and regional government to provide public transport to and from festivals. Maybe that is the problem.

          And fwiw, with all the cars that kiwis have, have a good look around, all the centres are dying, due to high cost of parking, high cost of doing business i.e. commercial leases, really crappy access to foot traffic and all the other crap.

          Funny ey?

          • woodart

            "people like you" what ? realists. living out here in the real world, and NOT trapped in a keyboard, I can tell you that europeans have never had a car culture . centres are dying mostly for two reasons, internet shopping and car parking problems. dont get me wrong, I hate malls with a passion, souless, overpriced, cookiecutter shops. if I am going out to spend, look for funky standalone shops with personality, and car parking. I dont want to have to carry my purchases hundreds of metres, possibly onto a short hop bus, then transfer possibly expensive purchases, and take chances of damage. who would? anather post on here has mentioned how small towns like martinborough are booming, one very big reason, and its NOT public transport. however, if you want to ride a bus, I am all in favour of that. means one less car on the road . given your history of continuely moaning, I pity the person in the seat next to you.

        • Incognito

          thats the big elephant. we are NOT europe .

          That’s as meaningful as saying that Kiwis don’t like garlic and spaghetti wink

          We don’t have to mimic or copy Europe but we and particularly our city planners can at least learn something from the good, the bad, and the ugly of other cities across the world.

  5. Incognito 5

    Except that, shutting cars down in one place means the malls in the suburbs with their free carparking gain a massive competitive advantage over the CBD.

    When you have a chance after Covid, visit Europe and tell us about the car-free city & town centres and how dead & deserted they are because everybody is in the malls in the burbs.

    Kiwis love the outdoors at their doorstep but they have no clue on how to make city life interesting and attractive. Tourists don’t come here either for our bustling cities, they come for caves and hobbits and long rubber strings and the great outdoors if you don’t mind the human turds & floaties.

    I do miss the life that once was and I do get your feeling of nostalgia and melancholy; certain music and a drink or two deepen it almost to a perversely pleasurable trip down memory lane. The next generation won’t miss it because they never experienced it here in NZ; no wonder so many young people are keen on their OE and then stay. But I cannot talk …

    • Sabine 5.1

      not sure this is truly the fault of 'kiwis'

      Kiwis love the outdoors at their doorstep but they have no clue on how to make city life interesting and attractive.

      the thing is you need cars to get to the outdoors too depending on where you live.

      And the sad inner cities can be laid straight at Councillors and their supporters. Thus you can't have outdoor seating, you can't have decent public transport that works for those that need, and anything older then 5 minutes needs to be destroyed because renovating and preservation is not something "kiwis' do.

      It is the mindset of the quarter acre back yard, something that most people in Europe don't have. But they have decent public transport, they have bicycle lanes that allow them to go even to other towns safely and not on the motorway, they have town centres that are public and not private property of a large business, etc.

      They have accessible areas called 'the commons'. Something NZ does not have in many places.

      And the more kiwis end up in little square boxes called 'dwellings' the more 'the commons' will become important. So i hope for the next generation who will not and in many cases never own a quarter acre or even just a handkerchief of land.

      • Incognito 5.1.1

        Yup, although laying fault & blame won’t undo what’s done. I can’t understand the new housing areas with their tiny surround strip of grass and 6-foot high wooden fences as it such a waste of good space to create an illusion of privacy. Kiwis seem to have an aversion to apartment-style flats and terraced houses. I can understand that to a degree with flimsy gib or wooden separating walls cheeky

        • Sabine

          not sure where there is laying fault and blame.

          In europe owning a house with garden as it was the nature in NZ is something akin to paradise. At best people rent a place in a nice enough area with parks, inner city close by via local transport and good schools easy by to either get there by foot or bike, or the tram/bus.

          In NZ at best people get to buy a house in a nice area with a garage and a drive way.

          And because of that, parks, access to public transport, car free cities to allow for free roaming etc have never been in the forefront of planning. If you look at images of old wellington/akl/chch you will see busy streets, and busses etc. People would make it a day to go to town for shopping, doctor visits etc. Now the downtowns the country over are dying, falling apart, and serve nothing more then land banking and speculation.

          • Incognito

            There’s nothing like a big city park or car-free square on a nice day. Or botanic gardens. If you ever visit Glasgow in Summer, I can recommend the Botanic Gardens there.

            • Sabine

              Have not been to Glasgow, but did Edinbourough and a several week long jump of jump on bus tour. Germany has some good gardens and one of my favorite place is the Le Chateau in Nice…just really lovely and an excellent venue for concerts. As are the open spaces in Juan les Pins for the Jazz festival.

  6. Honestly, who cares! Mainstreet/ Mall, they are all under pressure from the on-line stores that undercut them anyway. I am male and the last thing I would consider to be fun is shopping. I try very hard, when I need to buy something, to go to one shop, buy what I need and get out quickly.

  7. mpledger 7

    Banks hog a lot of space on main street and yet they are becoming less and less people-places as people do more of their banking online. They just create a desert between interesting places. Banks should be encouraged to hop off main street onto a secondary street – they are only on main street for the brand advertising anyway.

    If they close down Lambton Quay to traffic including buses then the new bus route will become the new Lambton Quay. People get off the bus and want stuff and, all other things being equal, they'd rather get it where they are then walk for it. First the small-sales shops will migrate, then the food places and then the fashion shops. Lambton Quay will just become like The Terrace as government depts move in to capture the plummeting rents and there is noone around except courier drivers running around to find the right building.

  8. Byd0nz 8

    The nature of dog eat dog Capitalism dictates what will be what and what's good for the people, it definitely is not.

  9. Tiger Mountain 10

    Queen St died for me first in the early 80s after a great and free “V8 70s” with one way streets and parking restrictions designed by ACC to end my kinds after dark four wheel fun. In the mid 80s the mirror glass developer vandals took over, His Majesty's Theatre, various arcades and special places literally crushed.

    Shame, Queen St and surrounds were alive in the 70s, Vulcan Lane, public art, Dealer and City Art Galleries, West Plaza building and Downtown development, new Library and cinemas, endless live music venues, free and “buck a head” concerts in parks, Auck University was fun, before bums on seats, new food styles and fashion, quaint now perhaps that analog world.

    People are prisoners of their times to some extent, and many seem fine now with their screens and online shopping.

    I guess diversity and “Events”, always branded events–those Event Management grads have to do something! is where “it” is at for 2021. We organised our own fun, recall one night in 1980 phoning Mayor Colin Kay up at 2am to complain about ACC traffic thugs having taken the steering wheel off my ’58 Ford Custom 300 car to immobilise it!

  10. Gosman 11

    The nature of retail needs to change. The retail stores should be focusing on what they offer over and above what the customers can get from shopping online. The landlords of retail shops also need to change their views on what benefits they get from renting to a retail shop. That could radically re-orientate retail shopping.

    • Incognito 11.1

      Agreed. My answer: experience and experience.

      • Sacha 11.1.1

        And instantly-available taste and expertise for some sorts of business like book shops.

        • Incognito

          Book shop and/or quiet (!!) coffee shop with seating area with comfortable (!!) chairs to read a magazine, or newspaper, or book …

          No mobile phones allowed, of course.

          An introvert’s dream.

  11. Sacha 12

    What I miss the most is having a place to hitch my horse outside the general store. And shoe-shine boys. Whatever happened to those cheeky urchins?

  12. McFlock 13

    Retail needs foot traffic that has disposable cash.

    The box stores take the lower income levels. The internet takes items people go looking for. But then the one that went under in Lampton Quay (David Jones?) seemed to be aimed at the significantly higher income bracket – wandered around there once when on a trip.

    So the retail sweet spot seems to be either tourists (if the locality has that market, especially cruises and package tours if you kickback to the operators) for 3-6months a year, or the middle to upper secure income class.

    That means putting "business" in the "CBD". The $5 coffee crowd.

    As well as splitting the trade between the shop and online sales (either delivery or pickup from the store).

    • Graeme 13.1

      Retail needs foot traffic that has disposable cash

      Got it in one.

      Partner has 50 years in retail, I've only been poking around the game for 30, best times are when Labour is government, hardest are later part of a National government. And it's right across the social spectrum.

      Being in a tourist area gives you a much broader market, you can be selling to people from all over the country, or world. Kind of like on online but tactile. But you have to have something they can’t get at home, or online. The sense of discovery is a great selling ploy.

      What killed retail was when all the shopping strips became the same with chains having a branch in every town, convenient, but bloody boring.

      • Sabine 13.1.1

        but this applies to online and meat space retail.

        no cash, no shopping. And shipping costs don't help with the retail therapy.

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