Anyone reading my blog over the past few weeks will have noted I have some antipathy to Auckland’s Central Business District, particularly the rampant, seemingly unregulated, and frankly, hideous construction that blights the city centre, and has done for years. It seemingly never ends; and I’m not talking about the work being done to build the new underground light rail system, which is something the city desperately needs. What the city doesn’t need right now is more commercial and residential blocks.
I absolutely agree with and understand that a city centre needs to move as its demographic changes. The city centre; particularly Queen St, is no longer the primary retail centre of Auckland it was in the 1960s and 70s, and it hasn’t been since suburban shopping malls arrived in New Zealand. As retail moved out to the ‘burbs during the finance boom in the 1980s the centre became further aligned with business and new office blocks and shiny towers to mammon went up almost as fast as the older buildings came down. Buildings by the corporate raider Ron Brierley (jailed for possessing child pornography) and investment bankers such as Fay (accused of tax avoidance and insider trading) and Richwhite (only accused of tax avoidance) were erected to show how important and flush they were with other people’s money.
Admittedly the Fay Richwhite Building completed in 1992 and now known as 151 Queen St or the SAP building is one of the better constructions. I worked in a slightly less lovely office block next door in the 90s and was slightly jealous of its shininess; until someone jumped off the roof in the midst of the financial crash that followed the boom, when other people wanted their money back.
There has long been a move to include more residential living in and around the centre, though the explosion of cheap and poorly built blocks of tiny flats for overseas students wasn’t what most people had in mind. This appears to have changed for the better with more attractive and thoughtfully designed (read more expensive) blocks, such as the one we live in, now being built. However, there appears to be a lot of inner city flats for sale (there are 1198 Auckland City apartments on realestate.co.nz today) and walking around the city I see a lot of apartments that appear to be vacant. Like cities and towns all over the world, absentee and second home owners buy property they rarely use, pushing up prices for everyone else and leaving city centres void of much needed life.
As I wander around the construction site that used to be Auckland’s heart I wonder if the work going on to build new towers for offices and flats is a final attempt by the monied class to remove the last remnants of a working class presence in the city. There seems to be a desire to finish the job started in the boom of new wealth in the 1980s to demolish the last of the small workshops, the warehouses and factories where the less privileged slaved for poor wages before schlepping back home to the suburbs. Each decade sees more of the old working city disappear and I find this monumentally sad. Blandness will eventually reign supreme.
I worked for a Brierley owned subsidiary when I arrived back in New Zealand in 1988 after a couple of years in London. Brierley bought the business, asset stripped it; flogging the good bits to another one of his companies, then making the warehouse and retail staff redundant. The building I worked in just up from the city centre, on Hobson St was demolished in 1991 and is still a small shabby car park to this day.
I walk along Wolfe Street on about 25% of my walks through and around the city because I love this derelict and half demolished building. It used to be Challenge House and was sold in the early noughties to be demolished for some new thing. However, there were issues with the consent to demolish so nothing happened and the first three floors were eventually turned into a very rough car park. The demo of the car park first finally started sometime in 2018 but stopped soon after. This is what it looked like in October of last year. It was graffitied and messy, with dangling plastic secure fencing on some levels, but no razor wire and no scaffold and no work being done.
Almost the entire block is now being demolished to make way for a ’multi-level commercial project planned to maximise gross floor area ratios’ (whatever that means in normal people speak). Naturally the developers are backed by overseas finance with a company registered in that bastion of financial openness, the British Virgin Islands; not that I’m suggesting they are carrying on with the property development and financial standards set by their predecessors (accusations of tax avoidance etc). A couple of the old buildings in the block will have their frontages preserved in a new found rush for facadism in Auckland, though that is as it says, just a façade. Nothing much is preserved and even that small amount is not by choice.
The block includes the building that housed Food Alley a very popular hawker style food centre which I used to enjoy eating at when I was working in the city. it was a good place to meet friends, buy a beer and food from the multitude of, primarily Asian, food stalls. It was the closest Auckland got to Singapore style eating and that has been taken away. Maybe it was too radical for the good burghers of Auckland city.
Weirdly, when I looked the address up on Google Maps, the shadow from one of the older towers casts a darkness over the building site; as if Google or the Gods don’t want to acknowledge the development is happening; or maybe its just the CIA have hidden something.
When I was walking past last week I was shocked to find that the demolishers have come back, razor wire is all around the site and scaffold is now up and work has commenced on pulling this old, and frankly ugly, mess down. I took a few photos over the fence to remember the place as it will be gone when I’m back in New Zealand; possibly, I thought that last time I was here too.
Though I’ve just called it an ugly mess, I am a little saddened by this, this graffiti covered relic of a bygone era was unloved by many but it was symbolic of the rush to knock down the old and rebuild with the new, even if the new had never been planned, financed or even agreed. ‘Pull it down’ they say, ‘once it’s gone it’s too late to protest and they will accept our cunning plan for a replacement. Bastards.
The building on the other side of Wolfe St, number 6, was for sale in 2018, I’m not sure if anyone bought it. Built in 1912 it has been vacant for 23 years, and it still is. I wonder who owned it and whether it had been land banked until the money was right, though why it couldn’t have been repurposed for something and saved I don’t know, surely there would have been some value in restoring a heritage building? Perhaps I’m just a fantasist who longs for days past?
Challenge House was nothing special; so much so I couldn’t find a photo on the internet of when it was built or being used as it was intended. So, given its current state it has to go.
Few of the other remaining early twentieth century buildings left in town are ‘special’ either, but that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of them. There is an excess of commercial and residential property in the city, and now its largely unaffordable, few see the city as a retail destination either. We just don’t need any more large buildings; investment should be made in preserving and re-purposing the last remnants of Auckland heritage, while there is one.
Challenge House is dead. Long live Challenge House.