Mt Albert was promised a town centre upgrade to be proud of. Instead, it is left with a concrete wasteland and, three months after the “opening”, Auckland Transport is still fiddling around. In the first of a series of perspectives to be published this week, Mt Albert Inc editor Bruce Morris argues it’s time the council-owned agency kept its word.
OPINION: When Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy told a Mt Albert audience back in May that he hadn’t been happy with the way the village upgrade was handled, there was some optimism the future would repair the wounds of the past.
Dr Levy was at the official “opening” of the upgrade and shared the podium with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The PM, with Mayor Phil Goff nodding at her side, was quite effusive about the upgrade, elegantly side-stepping the 1001 complaints over everything from the time taken to complete the project to the harm to businesses from the loss of parking and intrusion of cycle lanes.
But Dr Levy was very direct. He said he had instructed his new CEO to find a new model for future town centre projects so they could be completed more quickly and with less upheaval.
As he was talking, the Saturday morning traffic was banking up in all directions, but there was hope in the late-autumn sunshine that everything would work out well.
Just remember the project promise on the AT website, presumably on behalf of Auckland Council: “Mount Albert town centre upgrade will revitalise the heart of one of Auckland’s older suburbs, celebrating its unique character while creating a safe, pleasant, lively environment that locals can enjoy and take pride in.”
So much for all that hope.
As the autumn morphed into winter, local disquiet began to grow, with the achievement gap between concept and application widening. The trust placed in the offices of Auckland Transport and the council to produce an upgrade Mt Albert could embrace became more eroded as each week passed.
Dr Levy’s scalding words at the performance of his own organisation should at least have brought a commitment from AT that it would leave Mt Albert in the best possible shape before moving to its next local project.
But three months later, even under a relatively new CEO promising to change the aloof culture of the rambling organisation with a million balls in the air, the performance of the council subsidiary continues to cause dismay.
The naysayers can now bray, ‘I told you so’, and point accusingly at those in the community who accepted the town centre design laid before them.
Is that fair? Was it naïve to simply believe what we were told by the experts? Maybe, but don’t we have the right to expect that a council agency using ratepayer money can be trusted to do the job well on behalf of the citizens who elect their political masters?
When we look back, there was some community and business challenge to cycle lanes and trying to turn Auckland into the Copenhagen or Amsterdam of the South Pacific. Personally, I would have preferred canals. But we let that go in the face of a strong cycling lobby and AT’s own philosophical direction, accepting the argument that cars wouldn’t rule the future as they had the past.
There was also deep concern from businesses over the loss of parking spaces, outcry at the proposed elimination of the right-hand turn into Mt Albert Rd from New North Rd, and worry at the single straight-through east-west lanes that were forced on the plan by the drive to accommodate cyclists.
But we went with the “trust us” message, not really understanding that small-scale design drawings and nice artist impressions gave no real understanding of how wide those footpaths would be — and the sacrifices needed to accommodate them.
In the end, we did put our trust in the experts. Without private expert analysis and legal challenges — all costing big money that no one would want to spend — what else could be done to finally get the upgrade moving?
And lest we forget, something had to be done. The town centre was becoming a disgrace, having been slowly decaying over 20-odd years, and the project — more than 10 years on the drawing board — was really a design for the future.
Overnight, it wouldn’t change some of the shoddy shop frontages or retail mix, but the idea was to smarten up the basics to create a more inviting precinct, encouraging private enterprise to then step up and make it really work.
It may be hard to imagine now, but multi-storey apartment blocks with (hopefully) quality business and retail outlets below will probably dominate the village in 15 or 20 years. That’s a Unitary Plan aim and part of the way forward for the supercity: high-density housing alongside railway stations and main roads.
When that happens — and when shared driver-less cars, light rail and cycles join buses and trains as the dominant ways of avoiding tolls and getting around the city — those wide footpaths will be welcomed.
But life is not all about tomorrow and AT can be accused of failing to grasp that as it progresses its philosophical perspective. While we wait for the Unitary Plan to do its thing, there needs to be an acknowledgement and understanding that life goes on.
The growing cynicism towards the upgrade we suffer today is no surprise. After the initial optimism, laced with business anxiety, we are left with a starkness that demands the inviting design touches of a decent modern urban development.
It should be attractive and vibrant. Instead, it is austere and unwelcoming, though perhaps the winter has something to do with that.
In the three months since Dr Levy had his say, we might have expected a sense of urgency and willingness on the part of AT to polish the project, add some nice touches and turn around the public perception.
But since that late-autumn day, with the mopping-up work dawdling on, the agency responsible for $19 billion in public-held assets — our assets — shows no great concern for local feelings on what, in the greater scheme of things, was a tiny undertaking.
In their cocoon, Dr Levy’s team and the wider council will wonder why the community is still banging on, months after the last of the orange cones disappeared. Bombarded with more complaints than on any previous project, their view seems to be, “What on Earth are they moaning about?”
Well, here’s a short list: Why did it take six weeks to start policing the clearway zone? Why were the signs inadequate from day one and flawed in a legal sense – and why is that still so? Why are the clearway signs not more prominent? Why is the pocket park such a cold, bleak corner when it has so much promise? Why are the wide footpaths so drab and lonely when we were seduced by the artist impressions of some Mediterranean idyll? Why are the rat-runners not being deterred? Why are the two bus stops on the city side heading up to the village not merged to provide an extra couple of car parks? Why is the bus stop outside Albert’s Post still not completed? Why is the carpark behind the ASB still laden with park-and-riders? Why are the P60 signs not being policed? Why are there not short-park zones providing a space for 10 minutes to pick up takeaways or drop off dry cleaning? Why aren’t the lighting and security measures in the tennis-club carpark and behind the ASB better? Why are the illegal (and potentially lethal) right-hand turners from Lloyd Ave not being hammered?
The list could go on and on, yet everything should have been ticked off months ago. No doubt AT and the council would argue that businesses need to step up, and that some items do not fall within the project budget or its responsibilities.
But businesses are really struggling; some are on their last legs, having had no council help during the past 18 very punishing months.
Anyway, signs, lights, flowers, boxed shrubs, lattice work, hedging, hanging baskets, extra seats, rubbish bins — these are not high-expense items, and landscapers could lift the area almost overnight.
Then, of course, there’s the traffic.
We now have serious peak-hour congestion. Yes, we know the upgrade wasn’t designed to improve traffic flows, but it wasn’t intended to make them much worse either. It is disingenuous for AT to suggest volumes are less than before the upgrade and the arrival of the Waterview tunnel, as if the changes are miraculously responsible. Volumes are down because everyone is rat-running through previously peaceful side streets to avoid the clutter.
AT has stuck rigidly to its view that there is no merit in a proposal put forward by this website, dealing with the east-west flow between Carrington and Mt Albert Rds.
On the surface, that suggestion could deliver a near-doubling of the east-west movement when flows are at their heaviest. It would allow the right-hand-turn lanes from both directions, which carry very few cars, to share the same — short — phase; the through phase would also be shared, giving double the present flow in the same overall time.
The agency’s officers will not explain why it wouldn’t work, saying only that “initial traffic modelling suggests little to no benefit”. When as few as four or five vehicles slip through on a peak-hour phase, leaving a 200m or 300m backlog, the benefit seems clear to everyone except AT’s engineers. Besides, isn’t the promise of even a “little” help worth a go?
We always wondered about the loss of carparks, and may now have some reservations about the reduced traffic lanes and wide footpaths as we wait for cyclists to put their wheels where their mouths were. Still, there’s no going back, and when the apartment buildings start to rise, they will be appreciated.
In the meantime, it’s the starkness that really gets to me, and it doesn’t need to be that way. Of course, winter doesn’t help, and a few tables out on the pavement in front of the restaurants when the sun starts shining will make a big difference, even if Auckland’s weather will limit that appeal.
But AT and the council itself need to step up — to finish off with urgency the work that should have been completed back in May, and then to find some extra dollars to “pretty up” the stark concrete wasteland it has created.
The promise of an upgrade that would rejuvenate the town centre and make Mt Albert feel good about its heart has been broken. It’s time now for some professional pride to win late goodwill from a hurt community whose patience has run out.