St Lukes Expansion Reprieve

I was pleased to read a few days ago that the Auckland City Council has deferred a decision on whether to approve a proposed expansion of the St Lukes mall in Mt Albert. I grew up in Mt Albert so I know the place well and I’m not impressed at all with what is being proposed. It involves significantly expanding both the size of the site and the height of the buildings, resulting in a doubling of the overall size of the mall, which is located in the middle of a residential area. I think the proposal would have an undesirable visual impact on the area, especially for nearby residents, and I have concerns about the likely impact on traffic. Particularly disturbing to me is that a residential side street that is currently completely separate from the mall property would become an access street bordering multi-level mall buildings.

The proposal was initially filed with the Council in April last year, so I am pretty late to the issue, but it does not appear to have been covered very much in the Auckland press, so perhaps I have an excuse. The NZ Herald ran articles on two consecutive days in late April ’09 (here and here) and followed that the next day with a reader comment page. The overall public reaction was strongly negative.

As far as I can tell, the next report in the Herald was on June 26 this year, when they noted that independent commissioners had begun hearing submissions on the proposal. On Wednesday last week, they reported that the commissioners had recommended the proposal be approved, but on Friday reported that Council had declined to make a final decision.

There are two satellite images below showing the current site and the proposed expansion relative to the surrounding area. Following that are four images provided with the application that show the proposed new building limits superimposed on photos taken from different locations around the mall (this just represents an overall envelope – no specific building plan has been released). The square red labels on the second map show where those photos were taken from.

Having lived for six years in Sydney, where St Lukes’ Australian owners, Westfield, dominate the retail property market, I don’t find this proposal entirely surprising – it seems to represent a design ethos that’s very similar to what I’ve experienced there: place as much store space into a given site area as legally possible. With the current proposal, they are seeking to get the zoning rules changed to allow them not only to increase the size of the site but also apparently to increase floor space significantly relative to land area.

Just by way of comparison, a suburban mall like this in the Chicago area where I now live (and there are many) would differ in at least three respects –

  • The site would be located within a much broader commercial area, surrounded for example by other retail and office buildings.
  • Access to the site would be from major roadways only.
  • The majority of the parking would be at ground level surrounding the mall, creating a visual buffer between the road and the mall buildings.

Obviously different communities in different countries have different sets of assumptions and expectations about what constitutes reasonable parameters for urban design. Apart from the impact on the local residents, it’s possible that many in New Zealand may not object to the general appearance of the proposal. However, all I can say is that having lived both there (Mt Albert) and here (Chicago), my own subjective feeling is that the urban planning philosophy here results in a much more livable environment than I see there.

The Auckland City Council will eventually make their own decision, no doubt. One of the realities of the modern world that I am personally grateful for is the mobility of labour. As an expat kiwi who has made a personal choice to live outside New Zealand, I do hope one day to move back to New Zealand – it is truly a great place and it will never stop being home. But when I see the kind of approach to urban design evident here, if Auckland’s leaders were to ever think it might be desirable to attract people like me to move back to NZ from overseas, and if they thought that this kind of thing would encourage me to live and work in Auckland, all I can say, with respect, in the words of Darryl Kerrigan, is “tell ’em they’re dreamin.”

I may yet have more to say about this, but this will do for now.

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