The sorry state of Auckland CBD - and the plan to bounce back as international tourists return

"It's a mess."
"It's a mess." Photo credit: Getty Images

"Auckland [CBD] is the last place tourists would want to visit."

That's the concern from a central Auckland business as the city begins to welcome overseas visitors back.

At the start of August, New Zealand's border will reopen to all tourists and visa holders - a worrying thought for some who agree the city has seen better days and is dangerous to walk around at all hours.

The CBD has also had its share of business fatalities from COVID-19. 'For lease' signs are hung in windows, shops are empty, and unsightly roadworks litter the main streets amid construction of the City Rail Link (CRL).

But both Auckland Council and the city centre's business association are confident the CBD can bounce back and said there is a plan to welcome visitors to Aotearoa.

'It's a mess'

For about a year, the intersection at Victoria St West and Albert St has been shut while Link Alliance contractors move and upgrade underground utilities, build Te Wai Horotiu (Aotea) Station and its above-ground entrance, and complete streetscape improvements. 

While the intersection is open to pedestrians and cyclists, it will be shut to vehicles until mid-2023.

Colm Cummins' iconic Irish CBD bar The Fiddler is caught up in the construction chaos - they are right outside the entrance.

He said they're hugely affected by the roadworks, and don't believe the state of the CBD is doing them any favours as it's just not a welcoming destination for tourists.

"It's a mess with construction, homelessness, street dwellers, empty shops, and no police. Auckland [CBD] is the last place tourists would want to visit and definitely re-visit," he told Newshub.

"The CRL seems to be on a mission to close my business and my neighbours' businesses too."

Cummins said the city centre has also become a hotbed for unpleasant interactions.

"Last Friday, my staff member was spat on by a homeless man after he was asked to leave the premises," Cummins said.

"This happens all the time for us because we are situated so close to the CRL project … I fear for my staff, my customers, and myself. I especially don't feel safe bringing my young kids to the CBD anymore."

But Cummins is far from the only Auckland CBD business owner in strife. It's a similar state of affairs for Israeli-born restaurateur Yael Shochat, the owner of much-loved Fort St institution Ima Cuisine.

Thanks to the pandemic, she's lost regular customers and has racked up a large amount of debt. 

Like Cummins, she's concerned by how unsafe the CBD has become.

"I worry about my staff when they are on their way home after a shift," she told Newshub.

"We are constantly getting things taken from the back and people urinating by our back door… People sitting on the public benches by the restaurant can be abusive. I've had to call the ambulance a few times for them too."

Shochat still has a positive outlook and is confident that while the CBD will take time to bounce back, the first tourists will understand that some businesses didn't survive and it will be a bit empty.

Cummins too believes the CBD can rebound as a vibrant location for tourists - but said it needs a major shake-up.

The Green Party is calling on Auckland Council to pedestrianise Queen Street (pictured).
The Green Party is calling on Auckland Council to pedestrianise Queen Street (pictured). Photo credit: Getty Images

A major shake-up is exactly what's being called for by the Green Party, who on Tuesday launched a petition alongside the City Centre Residents' Group calling on Auckland Mayor Phil Goff to pedestrianise Queen St. 

MP for Auckland Central Chlöe Swarbrick said doing so would transform the area into a cultural hub that prioritises people.

But Cummins thinks the council should hold its horses.

"The Government needs to calm down trying to turn the city into a car-free zone until A, the CRL project is finished and B, the New Zealand economy has bounced back from the COVID-19 effect," he said.

Shochat too is realistic about the timeframe for transformation. She realises change won't happen overnight, but wonders how the CBD will develop and shift past the struggles it faced during the pandemic.

"I don't think there is a quick fix and I don't know where the money is going to come from for a spruce-up," she said.

"The issues with rough people on the street will not be solved in a few days, but I'm not sure what is being done. More police are not going to solve it, for sure."

While the city remains in its current state, Cummins wants extra support for businesses like his that have been deeply affected by ongoing construction.

"Businesses that are located adjacent to the CRL project should have their rates cut and even back-paid to cover our losses," he said.

"The completion date of the CRL was initially 2021, now we are told late 2024, then the council steps in to do works to meet up with the CRL project. 

"So when can we really say when the Auckland CBD will be tourist-ready - 2027, 2029? Who knows."

How Auckland's CBD will 'bounce back better'

Despite concerns from Auckland CBD businesses that the city centre won't be as welcoming as it once was, Auckland Councillor Chris Darby is confident the city will not only bounce back, but "bounce back better".

While the number of people employed in the CBD has dropped 7 percent in the year to March 2021 to 115,550, it is still an "economic powerhouse" and Auckland Council is certain it will recover.

"The city centre will find its new equilibrium after this current wave of Omicron has passed. It's unlikely the city centre, and especially Queen Street, will be the same as it was," Darby told Newshub.

"That's because COVID has hastened a change in work, commuting, education, and shopping patterns. There is a huge opportunity before us to reimagine the city centre.

"If we grab that opportunity, we can set ourselves up well for the next 10 to 15 years."

But some businesses in the CBD have had to shut thanks to COVID-19's unforgiving grip. With this came the swathe of empty shop windows and 'for lease' signs.

However, even vacant shops were given a new lease on life thanks to a recent CBD-wide art installation. Works were placed across the city to attract people to the CBD and many were placed in vacant storefronts, Darby said.

"We saw more than 120,000 people heading into the city centre during the weekends of City of Colour, but we have a long way to go," he said.

There's also more work to do in responding to the myriad of safety concerns that have been raised.

To help address safety issues, Darby said Auckland Council has put more money into visible security in key hotspots to help keep the city safe.

They are also looking at investing more into the city centre community safety task force. This provides operational oversight of response across the police, council, academic institutions, residents and business groups.

"We have also increased our outreach funding for those experiencing homelessness through our partners City Mission and LifeWise," Darby said.

"Safety is a key strand of the city centre recovery plan led by Eke Panuku. It includes a 'perceptions of safety' project which is developing a hub on Auckland Council's website for people to get information and take action on safety issues. A close relationship with police is already established."

Also announced in September last year was a $133 million cluster of projects to regenerate midtown. The projects include stage one of the Wellesley St bus improvement project, refurbishment of Aotea Centre, and a number of street upgrades, including Federal, High, Hobson, and Albert streets.

Auckland Council has outlined what it wants the CBD to be like in its City Centre Masterplan: it's aiming for a city that's accessible, sustainable, a good place to live, retains its heritage, and is prosperous.

How tourists will be welcomed

Heart of the City is also confident the city centre can rebound.

Tania Loveridge, head of advocacy for the Auckland CBD business association, said there is a lot planned over the coming months for tourists to enjoy, including exhibitions at the Auckland Art Gallery, concerts, film festivals, shows, and restaurant month.

"Tourists have been sorely missed for two years and we're thrilled to be seeing them here again," she told Newshub.

"International tourists are very important customers for many city centre businesses and the full opening of our border is a significant milestone ahead."

She said COVID-19 has been a "major disruptor" and brought challenges, including an increase in vacant buildings and safety issues.

Businesses have contacted Heart of the City about their concerns, especially on safety - and they're working with police, Auckland Council and others to address them.

"City centres around the world are recovering from COVID and we are seeing numbers increase here again, and some new businesses opening. There is also ongoing public and private investment, which shows confidence in the future," Loveridge said.

"COVID has been a major disruptor and it has brought its challenges including an increase in vacancies and safety issues. There is a concerted effort from a number of different agencies including police to address and improve the issues around safety."

Loveridge admits there's "a lot to get on with" to help support and shape Auckland as it moves out of COVID-19.

Key areas of focus include making the CBD safe with increased security and police presence, improving access, making it a great place to be day and night, growing the number of people living there, and supporting ongoing investment.

Work 'ongoing' to keep CBD safe - police

Police too say they're committed to doing their bit alongside other agencies to make sure people heading into central Auckland are safe and feel safe.

Even prior to COVID-19, there had been a problem with excessive drinking in the CBD, relieving area commander for Auckland central Inspector Grae Anderson said.

This has been an "overarching factor" behind a significant amount of offending in the city centre.

"There is ongoing work in place with police alongside other appropriate agencies and bar owners to address this," he told Newshub.

The public can expect to see a highly visible police presence in the CBD, patrolling both on foot and in cars.

They'll be particularly visible during busy periods when there are a lot of people coming into the city from outside the area, Insp Anderson said.

"Our focus is to ensure people feel safe and enjoy themselves. For those heading to the city to enjoy the nightlife, police want you to have a good time.

"Our advice is to know your limits with alcohol intake and have a plan to get you and your group home safely.

Police encourage anyone who is in an unsafe situation or witnesses offending to call them on 111 straight away. Other matters can also be reported through the non-emergency number, 105, or at the front counter of the Auckland City Police Hub.