Albert Street: work in progress

Heading into Auckland’s city centre without your car these days is a matter of playing public transport roulette, followed by pedestrian jeopardy. It’s High Vis City, a CBD split down the middle as Albert St is dug up for the City Rail Link. At the same time the Commerical Bay project proceeds apace where the Downtown Shopping Centre once stood. 

North Shore buses that once plunged into the heart of the city now sneak along its fringes, dropping passengers within easy reach of the waterfront - but a rubble-strewn climb from uptown.  

Don't bring your car. Sudden blockades, no turning signs and heavy vehicles abound, bus drivers hunt for their mobile bus stops and there's some serious horn action going on. 

A motorcyclist stops in the middle of his compulsory left turn to ask a construction worker how to get across the road. Answer: you can't get across the road. 

For the last year, southbound traffic has been diverted off Albert Street after the Auckland District Court building while excavation and backfilling operations take place. From this week northbound traffic has also been diverted (although only for three months) via Swanson St West and Federal St for more excavations and the installation of large steel struts and slabs of pre-cast concrete. 

When it comes to the road surface, orange is definitely the new black. Barriers snake up the road as far as the eye can see. 

CRL has appointed a liaison person to help suffering retailers, who is working on promotions such as "Cheap Eats", aimed at getting customers back into shops that have been barricaded by temporary construction walls. A map of places to eat for under $15 has been developed. Its immediate focus is on Albert Street, north of Kingston Street but will shift over time as construction moves south towards Aotea Quarter and Karangahape Rd. The campaign's Facebook page optimistically understates: "There’s quite a lot of construction happening in the city – both private and public, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying what’s on your doorstep!"

A CRL spokeswoman told Newsroom; "Business owners along Albert Street have been very generous with their time and creativity, letting us know what would be helpful to their business, and we have worked with them to pull together a package to be of assistance. Whether it’s wheelie bins moved off the street, cleaner footpaths, better signage – we’ve been able to help quickly. 

“Our biggest commitment is to spread the word that Albert Street is open for business. We’re doing that through multiple media channels and adding a playful dimension by hosting a number of events with Albert Street businesses – Eat Albert Street and Late Night Art are the first ones lined up for this year.”

The owners of the Madang Korean Restaurant in Wellesley St know nothing of this. Their premises, shaded by a large blue wall on the footpath outside, is empty. Foot traffic is well down as pedestrians cross the road to walk on the unaffected side of the street. The noise and the dust is getting to them, but it's another injustice which is concerning the manager today. 

Her son, the owner, keeps getting ticketed when he's trying to make deliveries. Construction workers call the parking wardens, she says, even if he's only been there for three minutes. He is dropping off heavy goods - 20 kilo bags of rice and tins of oil. There is no backdoor access. He has tried to get the tickets cancelled but has had no success. 

"When this started the council came to our shop and explained it would be all right," she says through her translator/waitress. "There would be a path still and the council said it would be all right. It's been almost a year now - we've lost a lot of customers."

At City Photo Services in Victoria St the owners had plenty of time to talk. There were no customers. They too have been boarded in, their view is one of blue plywood instead of grey skies. 

Orange barricades as far as the eye can see. Photo: www.cityraillink.co.nz 

"Nobody can see our shop," says owner Melina Lam. Normally they have a thriving trade in passport photos as Internal Affairs is just across the road, but the few customers who do come in say it was hard to find them. "We seem to have disappeared," she says. "People are detouring down Queen St." They too mention the noise and the dust - and the "underground" smell. The Lams have been there for 20 years and now find their landlord also seems to have disappeared. "There's no rent reduction, no tax reduction, the landlord won't come - he doesn't want to see me!! It's very bad." Work has been going on for a year and she is pinning her hopes on this section being done by September. They heard that "on the news"; no one from the council has visited. 

Further up at the Victoria Street news agency Jaydee Patel seems to be getting more trade, but he tells Newsroom his revenue is down by 30 - 40 percent. A year ago buses used to leave from outside his doorstep. Now they've been moved to the bottom of Albert St. He has had to reduce the hours of staff, and says everyone else in the block has done the same. He has been there for 15 years and plans to stay: "We're all just hanging in there." However he has had to increase his security measures - once highly visible from a bustling road, the construction hoardings now provide cover for burglars. In April he had $15,000 worth of cigarettes stolen after being broken into via the Mexican Cafe next door. "We had an alarm system front and back, grills, cameras - they crawled along the floor with their faces covered," he says. "No one could see them from across the road."

The Auckland District Court is doing business as usual. 

On the next corner the Shakespeare Hotel and Brewery, which was dealt a severe blow when the Herald's journalists moved from across the road to their fancy new digs in Victoria Street, is blocked in on both sides. You wouldn't want to negotiate the paths outside in high heels after a couple of special brews. They are patchworks of bumpy repairs under leaking scaffolding. 

Four well-lit souvenir shops spaced along Albert St are bursting with sheepskin toys and All Black merchandise, and look warm and clean. The spaciousness is accentuated by the absolute lack of customers. 

The Albert St operation is expected to be over by October, but the road works will pop up elsewhere as this massive project continues. City Rail Link has a website that provides updates. 

In the meantime, business owners may be reassured that there is a plan. (Objective number four: "Instill some joy into the human experience at street level".) While acknowledging that trade for food outlets has dropped off significantly, the CRL wants to encourage people back into the area who've put it into the "too hard to access/navigate" basket. There are serious challenges - bluntly listed in the Albert Street Development Response Plan. They include an "inhospitable environment with major construction works taking over most of the area", very little public space, derelict and vacant buildings, and getting around the pedestrian maze of hoardings. 

The Auckland Council’s own 2012 City Centre Master Plan says this: “Albert Street is perhaps one of the city centre’s most disappointing streets. It has been marred by several poorly designed late 20th century developments that have prioritised cars [over pedestrians]” and it is very utilitarian and inhospitable, particularly now that the CRL works have begun above ground. There are glimpses of beauty and wonder, including the uninterrupted views directly down to the Waitemata Harbour, but much of this is overshadowed by the austere streetscape and development works."

Business owners along the CRL route have been offered a mentor for a year and online resources through the Chamber of Commerce, along with business workshops, seminars and social media training. 

However, all the Facebooking in the world isn't going to help the Madang Korean Restaurant, which would just like some way to get rice delivered to its kitchen without copping a parking ticket surcharge. 

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