Walk from Karangahape Road to the waterfront and Queen Street will give you a view into the soul of Auckland. Alice Webb-Liddall explored the street’s history and how it has shaped the city.
What connects all significant streets is their ability to bring people together. On Queen Street, heritage buildings like the Town Hall, grand arts centres like the Civic Theatre and shopping destinations like Commercial Bay provide diverse reasons that draw people to this area. Looking towards the water from the top of Queen Street, it’s easy to see why this central Auckland location has become such an iconic part of the city.
Despite Covid-19 setbacks the central city population is forecast to increase, and the number of people that will be able to easily access the area is set to grow exponentially when the City Rail Link opens in 2024.
Henry Crothers is a landscape architect and urban designer who has helped shape Auckland’s vision for its built environment. He’s been key in realising Te Ara i Whiti, the fluorescent pink cycleway, opening up the city’s waterfront with the Westhaven Promenade, and the transformation of the industrial area in the Wynyard Quarter into one of Auckland’s most vibrant districts.
He worked on the 2006-2008 Queen Street upgrade that created more space for people with its widened footpaths, iconic nikau palms and public artworks that help tell the story of this unique part of the city.
Crothers sees Queen Street as the backbone of Auckland, the spine of the city that connects the harbour with the business district. It links the retail offering to the arts precinct in midtown, all the way up to the nightlife of Karangahape Road. This connection makes Queen Street essential for the various communities that use these spaces.
“It’s the heart of the town. It holds everything together in the city centre, connecting together all of the key places and you’ve got to use Queen Street or parts of it to find your way around,” says Crothers.
“The city grew up around Queen Street. Particularly for Aucklanders it’s special because our typography with the valley and the connection from Karangahape Road to the wharf means you naturally use Queen Street as a way to get around the city.”
Queen Street was built shortly after the development of the new town of Auckland in 1840, when the capital was moved south from the Bay of Islands. It originally ran alongside the Waihorotiu Stream that formed a swamp where Aotea Square is and led into the harbour. The stream was the home of the taniwha Horotiu, who now lives near the Town Hall after the stream was diverted underground in the 1870s. The slight bend in the lower end of modern-day Queen Street is the only current reminder of the stream that once split the city in two.
North of Shortland Street, the city is built on land reclaimed from the sea in the late 1800s, and paving stones on Queen Street now mark where that shoreline historically sat. Two public artworks – Kaitiaki II and Te Waka Taumata o Horotiu, by Fred Graham – sit opposite each other at the intersection of Shortland Street and Queen Street, symbolising the original foreshore and former waka landing area before this area was reclaimed. In 1902 it was the first street in New Zealand to be asphalted.
The upgrade in the 2000s made it easier for people to utilise the central city, but it didn’t go as far as Crothers wanted. However, he believes now that it could have been too much, too soon; cities take time to develop as culture changes around them. Today he hopes Queen Street will embrace a future that prioritises pedestrians.
“The next iteration of Queen Street needs to be one that puts people first and transitions from being car focused, something that’s about people and the human experience of the street.”
Aucklanders need to treasure Queen Street’s heritage along with its commercial, civic and cultural role in the city, says Viv Beck, CEO of Heart of the City. She is a passionate champion for Queen Street and is determined to ensure its importance remains while it evolves in the coming years.
“Looking beyond the immediate challenges, Queen Street is unique. It is home to thousands of people working and living nearby, it carries high-end international brands, small boutique offerings and great New Zealand retailers. Some of our city’s oldest businesses are located here and they sit comfortably alongside new businesses and the creative and entertainment sectors that are major attractors for the night-time experience. The Queen Street area generates about a third of our city centre’s spending, and when things are going well, brings in more than 15 million people a year.”
Over time, with the help of outside investment, Auckland city centre spaces have been reorientated towards the people who use them. In the 2000s, Queen Street was a major recipient of this investment. The first international luxury brands entered the New Zealand market at the bottom of Queen Street when the Imperial building was redeveloped and later, Auckland’s Tower Building at 45 Queen Street.
Reflecting on the past investment helps set the scene for future changes and highlights the importance of getting it right for Queen Street, says Beck.
“We have a great opportunity to evolve the city centre to make it a place people want to come and spend more time, and this is more important than ever given the added challenge of Covid-19 which is also raising debate around the future role of cities.
“For Queen Street, its evolution needs to be done with care and thought, and to a quality that befits its role for the city. This will also ensure we have a place that is appealing, that attracts ongoing private investment and that is easier to get to.”
The City Rail Link (CRL) is one of the projects that both Crothers and Beck say will have the biggest impact on Aucklanders ability to access Queen Street. The Aotea Station, at midtown with entrances on Victoria Street and Wellesley Street, is projected to be the busiest in Auckland when it opens. Projections estimate that by 2035 up to 54,000 passengers will be using the CRL every hour during peak times. The increase in foot traffic from the CRL will have a positive knock-on effect for the city centre.
With its towering glass windows and concrete facade on its heritage building, the flagship Smith and Caughey’s store on Queen Street is the oldest department store in New Zealand and a famous downtown destination. It began as a drapery established in 1880 by Marianne Smith (nee Caughey), a groundbreaking female entrepreneur. She was joined in business a year later by her husband and then her brother, the humble store expanded into one of the country’s premier shopping destinations.
Edward Caughey is the merchandise director at Smith and Caughey’s, and the great-great nephew of Marianne. For Caughey, it’s important that Auckland’s heritage is nurtured even as Queen Street looks towards the future.
“Smith & Caughey’s has always been inextricably linked to Queen Street and its changes over our 140 year history here. Over the years we’ve evolved in tandem with the city centre, through good times and bad,” he says.
The beautiful building the department store is housed in was designed by prominent architect Roy Lippincott; to this day it remains one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city. Its origins lie in the 1927 fire that destroyed the Fullers Opera House near the original store. Smith & Caughey’s purchased the site and started work on a new building that would allow the company to grow for years to come.
Covid-19 has had a huge effect on retail business worldwide, but Caughey is confident Smith & Caughey’s has the endurance to make it through this period. In fact, he explains, the community of loyal shoppers the store has fostered over the years has helped the store stay relatively unscathed by the pandemic so far.
“There is no doubt that Covid-19 has caused problems for many retailers in Queen Street, particularly those geared towards the tourist market. However, the emphasis on ‘buy local’ and supporting New Zealand businesses will be very important to help the retail recovery and get Queen Street back on its feet.”
He hopes that trend remains a long term shift, as New Zealanders realise the power of their purchasing decisions. And he thinks the potential for retail in the city will only grow once people have an easier way to get into the central city.
“Queen Street has at many times throughout its history been regarded as the premier shopping destination in Auckland. Over time, with the rise of malls and online shopping this perception may have changed. However I believe there’s a golden opportunity for the city centre to recapture this title and for Queen Street to reclaim its mojo.”
The second half of the 20th century saw a number of the older buildings ripped down to make way for large office buildings to cater to the expanding population of workers in the central city. Fortunately some of the original buildings remain, including the current Britomart Station building, built in 1910 as the Chief Post Office, and the Bank of New Zealand building, constructed in 1865, of which only the facade remains. The Imperial Buildings at 44-48 Queen Street, built in 1911 and now home to the Gucci store, underwent an award-winning restoration in the early 2010s as part of the construction of Imperial Lane. These heritage buildings are a crucial part of Queen Street’s value, a peek into what the street looked and felt like a century ago.
“There’s not as many heritage buildings as there should be – it was ripped apart in the 70s and 80s. There are landmarks like the Town Hall and the bank buildings. But the heritage is a key thing for the street and a big part of what makes it important,” says Crothers.
At 246 Queen Street, a new retail, hospitality and office redevelopment is a tribute to the glory of midtown in the 1960s and an investment in the potential of the street’s economy. Developed by Wilshire Group, the building has now opened with the first tenants in place, and sales and operations GM Christie Wrightson says she wants the revitalised building to highlight the often neglected heritage of modern New Zealand architecture. The building was opened in 1964 by the late cinema proprietor Sir Robert Kerridge. It housed many high-end stores and hospitality offerings, including the exclusive Christian Dior boutique El Jay Chapeau.
As important as it was for Wrightson to create a space suitable for the future of Auckland, it was also crucial that the space honour the heritage of the site. Reimagined by Fearon Hay architects, the building has been stripped back to expose the original structure, while new elements – including a stunning glass light-well – build on the original design.
“We saw it as an opportunity to reinvent the building into a leading space for Auckland as it had been in the 60s, then it had kind of been forgotten. Mum tells me that in the 60s it was the place to come and hang out on a Friday night,” says Wrightson.
Developments like 246 and Commercial Bay are helping to get people back into the central city to shop the many laneways and developments cropping up along Queen Street. Wrightson thinks the central city is creating an experience that will continue to compete with the big chain malls.
“Commercial Bay kicked that off with their vision of creating a shopping centre downtown and I think that revival will create a more vibrant shopping district throughout Queen Street as well,” she says.
Queen Street is so much more than a central business district. Its mana and place at the heart of the city make it integral to Auckland. Every year the street space is utilised to celebrate, protest and commemorate. Spaces like Aotea Square and the soon-to-be-completed Lower Queen Street Plaza provide public meeting locations, and the flow onto Queen Street is inevitable when crowds pack into these areas for marches or victory parades.
One of the best ways for the city to reflect the people who live in it is by ensuring there is space that can be shared, and that considers changing needs. Viv Beck says this is an important aspect of Queen Street’s role in the city.
“A wide range of community celebrations are held here, from Diwali to St Patrick’s Day, and last year it was great to see New Zealand Fashion Week back in its original home in the Town Hall. We can’t exactly accommodate every need, but we can create a space that’s usable in a variety of ways,” she says.
The annual Farmers Santa Parade is still much loved after 86 years, with thousands lining Queen Street to watch the community-led floats sail past. When Albert Street was dug up for construction on the CRL, it took some significant logistical rearranging as the floats would usually use Albert Street to head back uptown, but it was important to retain the Queen Street location.
Visitors to Queen Street over the Christmas period will likely have stopped to watch the iconic Christmas displays that take up residence in Smith & Caughey’s windows each year. It’s a tradition spanning decades that’s gained international recognition, and Edward Caughey is proud of the way the department store has come to represent an essential part of Christmas in Auckland.
“Our Christmas Santa’s Enchanted Forest draws in thousands of visitors every year and has created special memories for families over many generations. As a department store in today’s world, it is imperative that the store must be a destination in itself and have a real connection with the community.”
Queen Street, says Crothers, is the “lounge room” of the city, where people from every walk of Auckland can find familiarity. Whether they’re working, living, or out for a visit, the three kilometre stretch is an anchor to all who call Auckland home, and welcoming to those who are stopping by.
“Queen Street is so fundamental to Auckland, it’s always going to be the most important street in the city. You can rearrange the furniture every now and again but it would be hard to make changes that would change that.”
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.