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When is a square no longer a square?

  • 18 November 2015
  • Author: Graeme Scott
  • Number of views: 1472
  • 0 Comments
When is a square no longer a square?

Extract from the statement by Graeme Scott:

The disposal of publically owned land

1. The disposal of public land for development in the expectation that good urban design will be the outcome has a disastrous history in Auckland.  I consider extreme caution needs to be exercised when agreeing to any such proposal.

2. A few examples will suffice:

The subject site is a result of the Council selling Little Queen and Sturdee Streets for a development that we are only now, some 50 years later, starting to shape into something approaching good urban design.

The 1980’s sale of Warspite Street and Bacons Lane to development interests associated with NZI has blighted that area ever since, with no sign of any urban repair measures beyond the Chancery development evident after almost 30 years.

The sale of the airspace over Durham Lane to Chase Corporation around the same time has forever ruined a potentially treasured piece of Auckland’s laneway network.  This was explicitly allowed in return for public space benefits elsewhere in the development which have long since been removed.

3. Conversely, the defeat of the 1996 Britomart scheme, (which would have swept away all streets within the precinct) in favour of the current design which has retained the public street network, was a significant victory for urban design.  That philosophy of a retained and enhanced public realm has been a key to the success of the Viaduct and Wynyard developments further west.

An alternative proposal

4.  As an illustration of one optional way to configure public space in the Downtown block, I have prepared the attached diagram (B).  I emphasise that this is just one option, but it does perhaps shed some light on the issues being considered here, not the least of which is the importance of considering options.

5.  The first and most important consideration, in my view, is the nature of squares in general, and I then consider the nature of Queen Elizabeth Square in particular.  Perhaps an obvious observation: squares, while not necessarily square in plan, are centered spaces rather than linear spaces.  Often they are enclosed on more than two sides by buildings, and they often have a dominant or important building along one or more sides.  There is a strong sense of place.Thinking about Queen Elizabeth Square, it is completely open to Quay Street to the north and mostly open to the south, so the space ‘leaks out’ to a large extent.  To work as a square, the other attributes of a square therefore need to work harder - the sense of place generated by the form of the square has to overcome the lack of enclosure.  This can be done by, say, emphasising the dominance of the former Chief Post Office on the space of the square, the architecture of the buildings on the western side, the surface treatment of the square itself, and other landscape treatments. The proposed laneway opening off the square to the west, centrally aligned on the facade of the former Post Office will also assist.

6.  However, this distinction as a square gets very hard, if not impossible, to sustain if the space is nowhere near square in plan, and is reduced to just a section of pedestrianised street. I accept that the pre-1965 condition of this space was as a street, with a generous width, which performed as a civic gathering space on many significant occasions.  But our forebears at that time decided that the space deserved to be a proper square for all the reasons set out in Mr Farrant’s memo and, notwithstanding their seriously flawed implementation of the idea, I agree with them – a square is appropriate in this location.  

7.  Specifically, I consider the square needs to have an east-west dimension that matches the north south dimension set by the façade width of the former Post Office building, which is around 54 metres. This is shown as the green square on the diagram.

8.  This size and shape of the square is necessary to maintain the space as a genuine square, to give the former Post Office the generous setting it deserves, and to maintain as open a vista as possible to the Ferry Building. The visual strength and character of the former Post Office façade demands a forecourt of this sort of dimension.

9.  Keeping the western edge of the square that distance away from the façade of the former Post Office has the added advantage of keeping a higher proportion of the square in afternoon sun in the summer months.  From the Warren and Mahoney shading diagrams attached to the application I note that, at the end of September at 2pm, the shadow of Number One Queen Street covers less than the northern half of the former Post Office façade, but the proposed 19 metre high façade on the western Queen Street boundary casts a shadow almost half-way across Queen Street.

Constructing that proposed façade further west on the line I suggest, would more than double the extent of sunlit square at that time.  Further analysis of this is called for.

10.  The intrusion into the square by the footprint of 21 Queen Street is not a negative aspect of my proposal.  Public spaces rarely have pristine plans shapes, and historic disruptions around the edges can provide welcome smaller enclosures and shelter.  The northern face of 21 Queen Street, being in sun most of the day and providing a vantage point for views out to the harbour, presents such an opportunity.

11.  As Mr Farrant has commented, given the generous extent of Queen Elizabeth Square, “it has been possible to create a genuine sense of public open space distinct from the co-opted street nature of most shared spaces.”  I consider it would be hugely negative in urban design terms to let this space revert to a pedestrianised street.

12.  Now thinking about the proposed east-west pedestrian lane, I note the submission from Cooper and Company which calls for “a high quality building and urban environment which is in keeping with the character of the overall Britomart Precinct”(page 49).  Britomart is hugely porous, from a pedestrian viewpoint, particularly in the east-west direction where not only Galway and Tyler Streets have been retained in their entirety, but the central pedestrian lane, Te Ara Tahuhu, has been added.

This pedestrian porosity is important to the character of Britomart, and I support the Council’s efforts to extend the laneway connections further west to connect eventually with the north-south Federal St lane route, and with Viaduct Harbour.

13.  In this regard, I consider that the single east-west proposed laneway through the Downtown block is too narrow.  While the 12 metre width shown on my diagram in red may be judged excessive, the width of Te Ara Tahuhu is around 11 metres, and the Downtown block will have more pedestrian traffic than Britomart, given its location between two major public transport terminals.  At 12metres, there is the possibility of an open lane with pedestrian weather protection along its edges, and potential spilling out of retail activity into the lane.  This requires further investigation.

14.  Given satisfactory arrangements being settled for the square (green) and lane (red) components of the Downtown block, it may be acceptable to rezone the blue areas to allow for buildings by Precinct Properties.  

Conclusions

15.  A modified allocation of space in the Downtown block that results in an improved quality of public space, and also provides a commercial benefit to Precinct Properties should be possible, but various matters need to be worked through for this to be finalised. 

16.  I have not commented on the financial aspect of the arrangements between the Council and Precinct Properties, as it is outside the area of my expertise.  However, common sense would suggest that a public benefit obtained as a part of the development works and concurrent with them will be a better outcome than a promised future benefit on a separate un-specified piece of land which furthermore is already in public ownership.  This is especially true when those entrusted to deliver on the promise in 2018 have not yet been elected to office.

17.  In any event, major upgrading of public space is something that seems to be needed every 25 years or so.  Trading ownership of land for what is essentially a repairs and maintenance type of expenditure is short-term thinking, and should not be how we think about the city at this critical time.

18.  The sale of public land to private interests, especially where that land is in the central city, should only proceed where the public benefits in doing so are clear and obvious to all.  

I do not consider this application meets that test.

19.   Once this land is sold, it’s gone from the city’s public space forever.

 

Download QEII Square - Diagram A


Download QEII Square - Diagram B

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Categories: Auckland
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Graeme Scott

Graeme ScottGraeme Scott

Company: ASC Architects Ltd

Core Discipline: Architecture

Professional Affiliations: FNZIA, Chair Urban Design Forum NZ

Qualifications: BArch(Hons) Auckland 1973

Areas of expertise: Architecture and Urban Design

Other posts by Graeme Scott

Full biography

Full biography

Company: ASC Architects Ltd

Core Discipline: Architecture

Professional Affiliations: FNZIA

Qualifications: BArch(Hons) Auckland 1973

Areas of expertise: Architecture and Urban Design

Graeme Scott has been a Director of ASC Architects since 1981, playing a leading role in establishing the company’s design reputation. He has designed numerous public and corporate buildings over that time, and has won awards for many of them, including four from the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Graeme has a strong interest in design in a New Zealand context and was Convener of the National Awards for Architecture for the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1994 and 1995. He was a member of the NZIA Council and the Honorary Secretary for four years 1996 to1999, and currently chairs the design panel for Hobsonville Point.​​​

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