Finding Auckland's mojo

Finding Auckland's mojo

The CloudAuckland has long been a target of national ridicule. Accusations of a latte-quaffing, rude and self-absorbed culture fly when the A word is mentioned. But is Auckland really the trash hole it once was? A year on from amalgamation, has anything changed?

When an earthquake measuring a miniscule 2.9 hit Auckland on July 1 last year, it wasn't just Mother Nature sending tremors through the city.

While many punters cracked suitable Auckland jokes about upset lattes and feeling the Remuera tractor shake while parking, there was a distinct undercurrent of hate directed at the largest city. Who are you, the rest of the country demanded, to talk about a tiny shake when your brothers are still bleeding in Christchurch?

Even affable weather guru Philip Duncan was taken aback by the outpouring of anger and the message of how-dare-you that followed the media coverage of the event. Duncan made the point in a blog that while Christchurch residents feel it belittled their experiences, it's not a competition – merely news. Moreover, for Aucklanders, the chance of volcanic eruption, which comes hand in hand with shakes, is a real but distant threat.

"I've lived in Auckland for 11 years and most of my friends from this city weren't born here," Duncan wrote. "In fact, the majority of my Auckland friends are actually from Christchurch, so I kinda get tired of people slagging off Aucklanders. I was born in Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, and now I live here."

Duncan isn't alone in being tired of anti-Auckland sentiment, but it's not something that's likely to stop of its own accord. But in a country seemingly committed to Auckland-bashing, and given the undeniable progress the city has made over the past few years, perhaps it's time for Auckland to push back. After all, standing up to a bully is often the best way to make him back down.

Neither Connal Townsend nor Alex Swney are native Aucklanders, yet both are curiously now in positions of cheerleading for the city, in one way or another. Townsend is chief executive of the Property Council and hence concerns himself with the physical presence of Auckland city and its property. Swney heads up Heart of the City, Auckland's city centre business association, promoting and representing CBD businesses in the drive for economic success.

Swney admits the attitude is "a problem". He's from Morrinsville and moved to Auckland many moons ago, and while he still admires the rural and the provincial, he notes a "very strongly held view" that farmers are still the backbone of the New Zealand economy.

"Why we don't back them more and why do we spend so much taxpayer money in Auckland?" says Swney. "They think we're flash, we drink lattes, we drive European cars, and they don't seem to be able to please us, you know? That's a widely held view."

Before you start waving two-litre bottles of milk and crying, "But what about Fonterra?", Auckland is home to more than 60 percent of the country's top 200 companies, the region has 31 percent of the country's business sites, and 32 percent of its paid employees.

Townsend describes Auckland as "the economic powerhouse". One in every three New Zealanders lives within Auckland and one in every two New Zealanders live within a couple of hours' drive of Queen Street.

"Think about the golden triangle of Tauranga, Hamilton and Whangarei, it's overwhelmingly the economic nerve centre of the country."

Swney points out that animosity towards a country's biggest city isn't exclusive to us; the same sentiment exists in the UK towards London, and in France towards Paris. When Coca-Cola in the US moved its headquarters from New York to Atlantic City, they said the only difference was that they'd employ fewer New Yorkers and more Americans.

"It's probably a little bit extreme here in New Zealand," Swney concedes. "Auckland dominates New Zealand like no other city in the world."

The closest comparison is Greece, where 28 percent of the population lives in Athens; here a whopping 32 percent of our population lives in Auckland. That's not going to change: projected growth shows we'll add the population of Wellington to Auckland within the next 20 years, to comprise 40 percent of the nation's population.

"Auckland is New Zealand's only chance to have an international city, and that's likely to aggravate them also," Swney says. "They probably know that and it doesn't endear us to them any more. The thing that infuriates them even more is that we sort of don't seem to care about it. We're slightly amused that they think we like coffee. Well, we do. And you know, they spend just as much money on a Holden Commodore as we might on an Audi. It's sort of like 'vive la difference'."

Townsend doesn't buy into either Auckland bashing or a sense of guilt for coming from a city the rest of the country despises. As an Auckland import – Townsend originally hails from Christchurch – he's only got platitudes for his adopted home. It's beautiful, he says, and an incredibly friendly city. It's easy to meet people, it's an easy, mellow, happy sort of city.

But he does notice a certain amount of antipathy still towards the big A when he travels to Property Council branches beyond the Bombay Hills. Increasingly, the anti-Auckland sentiment is coming less from the South Island and more from Wellington, as – in size, at least – Auckland's nearest competitor.

"Wellington always feels a great sense of fear about Auckland getting too big for its boots," Townsend says. "Well, the problem is, Auckland is massively larger than Wellington and that's just a statement of fact. For years Auckland has sucked an awful lot of economic lifeblood out of Wellington, which has suffered because businesses have shifted to Auckland."

It's a case of misunderstanding, Townsend believes. Aucklanders don't understand the Wellington vibe, and vice versa: "Wellingtonians don't understand, and [they] mistrust, the Auckland vibe."

Words such as short-term, materialistic, and uncultured spring to mind.

"We're all full of people who have barbecues and sit on boats in the sun and have frivolous lives, rather than being serious," Townsend says of the perception. "If you listen to the dialogue in Wellington, it's always 'we're the cultural capital and we've got music and the arts', of course the irony is, Auckland has as well, on just as great a scale. But it's blended in with a whole lot of other things."

It's a common trope. But Auckland's cultural offering is increasing, according to the Macro Auckland report released recently, which cited multicultural events such as the Diwali Festival, Polyfest, the Lantern Festival, Semi-Permanent and the Waitakere Moon Festival, to name a few.

Shaking up perceptions

While Wellington exists in the throes of angst over its cultural capital status rapidly slipping away, attention is being turned to Christchurch. Townsend has seen a step change in the Cathedral city post-earthquake, and one for the better for Aucklanders.

"Christchurch has always been marked by a great deal of antipathy to Auckland," says Townsend. "But I think an awful lot of that has changed since the earthquake.

"What's actually impressed me has been the attitude that Aucklanders have taken towards Christchurch. It has been one of huge genuine concern and a vast amount of materials and people and skills and capital has flown from Auckland into Christchurch willingly and genuinely from Aucklanders determined to help their sister city out.

"I think Christchurch people are beginning to appreciate that Auckland's being selfless in its support. I'm not hearing those grizzly comments in Christchurch any more, the way I used to. You still get the odd comment but it's a lot better and certainly from an Auckland point of view, when you talk about Christchurch, there's unquestioning 'what can we do to help?', which has improved things greatly."

As for Auckland being gripped with the news of its own earthquake, Swney says he'd be laughing too if he were in Christchurch, and asking what Aucklanders are on about.

"But we weren't on about it," he says. "All that happened was there was a very small earthquake and I think we even acknowledge here that it was such and it was just what it was. I felt personally that they were making more of a deal of it than we were."

On another front, how does someone from Morrinsville come to find himself in a position of essentially fronting as the unequivocal cheerleader for Auckland?

"The great irony is, if you go to a dinner party and ask who was born here, less than a third of them were. We are that quintessential melting pot- 180 ethnicities and a huge migrant population, 20 percent of us speak English as a foreign language. I'm not just talking about international migrants – I'm talking people who were born in Dunedin or Morrinsville.

"When someone chooses to live here in Auckland rather than living here because they were born here, Aucklanders tend to respect that because we're here by choice, we've made a conscious decision to be here. We've come across the Bombays and chosen to be here. That's pretty hard for Aucklanders not to like, isn't it? They've been doing it for centuries now, attracting migrants, and they do it so readily."

Basket case

The question is almost rhetorical, Townsend claims: Does the rest of the country still hate Auckland – as a physical city – as much as they did?

"Without a doubt they did and they were probably right to, because it was a bit of a basket case, really."

Townsend regularly visits branches around the country and he says it's "quite intriguing" to look at all the other cities "in their particular little foibles and biases". But ultimately Auckland really was a "ghastly" sort of a city – certainly before the amalgamation in 2010. In fact, Townsend reckons it had been a pretty awful shambles for almost a generation. The breakthrough was persuading the government to set up the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance back in 2007, and the city's never looked back.

"The process that's flowed out of that, the incredible speed of change- the new government just grabbed it and drove it through. It's been a breathtaking amount of change, and overwhelmingly it's been change for the good."

For Swney, it's this recent change in thinking that gives him hope. He's part of a business advisory group of "no-nonsense, hardnosed" businessmen, who were heading the roads-before-rail debate five years ago but are now fully behind the idea of a CBD rail loop – in fact, at a recent meeting they not only passed a motion in favour of it, but actually wanted it advanced ahead of the mayor's timetable.

"Go figure on that one," Swney says. "Things have changed."

Of course, such aspirational projects demand a lot of taxpayer money, which ultimately means you're asking people from Dipton and Wanganui to understand – and accept, and endorse – why it has to be done differently here. That requires walking a few laps of Queen Street in another man's jandals.

The changes are many. Swney reckons he hasn't found anyone recently who's defended the Eden Park expansion, but it was only a few years ago we were having that hot debate.

"I think if we had that debate today, there'd be no question where it would be; we'd be saying we don't need to move containers on so much of our waterfront, we should build a stadium, on Bledisloe Wharf, across the road from Vector Arena, validating Britomart, and creating another anchor in the centre of everyone's city."

Finding its mojo

For all its past faults, Townsend reckons Auckland is beginning to find its mojo: "That's a technical commercial property term, you understand." He believes – hopes –that if we're careful, Auckland can soar ahead.   

"The Auckland Plan is setting a cracking vision, and in my organisation we may have some grizzle about details on all these points, but fundamentally it all sits pretty well and there's a sense of overall vision and passion and energy going forward."

Townsend halts.

"I'm just still worried about the capital."

Wellington is faced with building stock that's increasingly ageing and a huge whack of it is character building and heritage building.

"With earthquake concerns these days there's going to be really crunchy issues in Wellington that are going to have to be faced. My branch down there is concerned about the nature of that ageing stock and whether or not it's going to meet the needs of the public service. I don't know if Auckland's really the focus. I think the city for concern is actually Wellington, in some ways."

A sizeable chunk of Auckland's rise can be laid at the feet of developments such as Britomart and Wynyard Quarter.

 Waterfront Auckland chief executive John Dalzell reckons the revitalisation of parts of the inner city waterfront have changed the way Aucklanders look at the city.

"It's about bringing back an element of civic pride and getting stakeholders to engage with their city more than they have in the past," Dalzell says. "Convincing people on how you do that is another story, as one of the challenges with development is communicating ideas with key stakeholders and the public."

Waterfront Auckland's Jellicoe Street design process was an interesting case study, says Dalzell, on how they drew upon international exemplars and developed site cues, "with all of this underpinning an early concept plan which was floated out to the public with the specific aim of getting them on the bus early".  

But it wasn't until Wynyard Quarter was finished, and punters could touch, feel and experienced what had been visualised in that early concept, that they truly understood and appreciated the significance of the opportunity the precinct holds- not only in terms of city building for Auckland but also for the rest of the country.

"We are still constantly humbled by the feedback that we get on Wynyard Quarter. We never, in our most optimistic moment, imagined that Aucklanders would embrace their new waterfront to this extent. We always knew it would be big, just not this big."

Britomart – the alluring brainchild of developer Peter Cooper – is home to not only a plethora of trendy bars, eateries and cafes, but also a gloss of boutique hotshop advertising and marketing agencies. That the likes of Shine, Big Communications, Generator and Kea have chosen the precinct for their home speaks volumes about the fancy facade group's cutting-edge nature.

Places like Britomart are driving change, says Big Communications owner Ant Salmon, who's been nestled in the historic Levy Building – former party home of snazzy vodka brand 42 Below – for more than a year.

"Not that long ago people would say that the best thing about Auckland was that it was a really good portal to other places-easy access to skiing, beaches, Waiheke and so on," Salmon says. "That's certainly changed now, and it's areas like the Britomart precinct that are driving that change. We moved here in mid-2010 after seeing the Levy Building and hearing the Britomart vision firsthand. It's a great mix of transport hub, offices, retail and nightlife all in one dynamic, thriving area."

Part of the attraction is that there's always something happening, and it's become a party place: "Now that Britomart connects through to the Viaduct and on to Wynyard Quarter, Auckland feels like it has a waterfront soul."

Growth trajectory

Swney is, predictably, ever optimistic.

"We can but hope, can't we, that this trend will continue," he says of the trend towards creating 'human spaces', such as those in Lorne Street, Fort Street and Elliott Street.

"They're places that say pedestrians have as much right as cars. We see that down at Jellicoe Street in the tank farm and we see it in Britomart in abundance too. That's a new style of thinking that pushes back against the transport planners, and people are responding extraordinarily positively to it. That's a different way of developing a city but it's a recent realisation."

It's bedazzling, alluring and sexy. The plans are in place and Auckland is on a growth trajectory, heading off into the stratosphere whilst excitedly clutching its nipples. Somewhere between 320,000 and 400,000 new homes will need to be absorbed into the city in the next 30 years. There's only one fly left in the very trendy ointment: Who the hell is going to pay for all of these grand plans?

Townsend admits it's set to be a huge issue for the council, and that while there's some great aspirational plans- such as the city rail loop- there's a spectacular absence of any evidence of any money at all to pay for it.

"That's just a hard crunch reality we're going to have to face. An awful lot of the aspiration is not all that viable because it's going to be pretty hard to fund. A lot of the new Auckland Plan is unfunded and that's kind of worrying. That's not to say we shouldn't be setting the vision. The mayor and council are doing a great job in setting the vision, it's what we all called for, it's great. But where there's going to be tears is where the money is going to come from."

Do you put up rates? Increase fees and charges on new property developments, which in turn make the cost of housing and buildings even more unaffordable than they already are?

Councils' lax approach to showing a causal nexus when charging development contributions is something of a Property Council bugbear. Townsend has no problem with development contributions per se, so long as there's an appeal right and transparency: "And the city making an attempt to obey the local government act, we'd find that quite a refreshing change.

"We're always agitated that people will look at commercial property and say, oh well, big listed property trusts, big rich funds, but those are largely KiwiSaver and superannuation funds, and if you start dogging them, you're providing disincentives for saving."

Townsend says it's all about getting things in the right balance.

"We probably need to tone our aspirations down to a slightly more affordable and practical way, but that's not to say that Auckland is not doing the right thing by setting some plans and aspirations."

Swney sees cost as a significant hurdle – particularly as Auckland's rated fourth in terms of the most livable city in the world but a distant 48th when it comes to infrastructure.

"That tells me that the human touch here in Auckland hasn't been a particularly progressive one. We've got a lot of catching up to do and invariably that comes with a substantial price tag attached to it. If we're looking to build a roading tunnel in Waterview or a third harbour crossing for rail, or put some revolution to our waterfront and the relationship we've got to the ports, we've got to go to government to get funding or contribution for these things, because rates clearly can't pay for them."

Rates as the sole tool for funding local infrastructure is systemically flawed, Swney says. That's not just an Auckland issue, but it's one that hits the city harder.

Dalzell believes banking on the image of a beautiful, natural environment to draw people to the city could be shaky, while the challenges we haven't really risen to in the past 50 years relate to city building and developing urban areas in a sustainable and attractive way.

"Far too often we have settled for second or third best, or in some cases even worse," he says. "The Waterfront Plan, in concert with the other Auckland plans, set us on a different path for the future; one that builds upon the experience of Wynyard Quarter, its successes and lessons learned."

As to the future? Dalzell wants bold steps, but not to be too proud to change course when change is needed: "Start off with a vision then plan properly, consult properly."

And while Auckland has a tough job ahead of it to compete with other cities in the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world, at the same time its economy, compared to other countries, is in relatively good shape, says Townsend.

"As a city we're blessed with a lot of wonderful natural features and the future, if we don't drop the ball, is really rosy. I'm quite an optimistic wee soul."