When I came to Tauranga in 1998 State Insurance occupied almost 1,200 m² of office space. By 2000 this had fallen to around 140 m² – nearly a 90% drop. In recent times they have announced that the Tauranga office will be shut down. Is this a symptom of an irreversible trend? Who will replace the likes of State Insurance within the CBD? These are relevant and engaging questions for the business community and our larger society.
This dilemma is being faced by CBDs across the world and is by no means unique to New Zealand or to Tauranga. So what is the place of a CBD in the 21st century? Perhaps to answer that we need to look back. Way back . . . to medieval times. Traditionally in Europe the centre of a town had several functions. It was a market place, defensive citadel, location of the church or cathedral and it had the ubiquitous central square. Often a market was held in this square, but it was also a place of discourse amongst citizens. Ideas where shared, people met and attended festivals – perhaps the odd hanging or two. Fast forward to modern times in New Zealand. Which of these functions best exemplifies what a modern CBD could be? Arguably the occasional hanging would bring in a few extra shoppers. But a CBD now needs to compete with the nodes of commercial activity that typify a modern city. In Tauranga we have several of these, ranging from the more traditional such as Greerton and Mount Maunganui, to the corporate spaces such as Bethlehem town centre, Gate Pa, Bayfair, Bay Central and Fraser Cove. These corporate spaces provide a certain homogeneity – modern retail experiences with lots of national retailers, anchored by supermarkets and/or departments stores. Typically located in what are by and large pleasant enough settings and with the added bonus of free parking. But is that all we want out of our city?
Tauranga’s CBD has a lot going for it. It is surrounded by one the world’s most beautiful harbours and with a naturally terraced peninsula shape that lends itself to taking advantage of these water views. It has significant areas of residential occupation around it – The Avenues, Mount Maunganui, Otumoetai etc. Despite expensive geographical hurdles, the city has been able to provide some very good transport routes into the city – our excellent harbour bridges, the Chapel Street causeway and the Waikareao Expressway. To some extent then it is like a vastly scaled down Manhattan. For those of us that have been fortunate enough to visit New York in recent times, it can be clearly marked as a city centre that has reinvigorated itself. Manhattan is also a peninsula shape, geographically isolated from nearby land masses (Brooklyn and Jersey), but with good transport routes into it. Why is it a success? People want to be there.
Our CBD has independent retailers, numerous cafes, pubs, excellent restaurants, a cinema and public spaces. Most prominently the public spaces consist of Red Square, The Strand Reclamation and the Domain. We own these spaces and have freedom of expression within them. In malls we are there to simply consume. They are not designed to share ideas or to meet with no other intention but that of consumption. Malls have their place, but surely so too does our city centre.
If our CBD is to be relevant it will need to provide something different from the malls. It can be a meeting place, a location for city events, markets, concerts and use of the fantastic asset we have in the harbour. It needs to have a retail environment not available in the malls. Finally, it also needs to be a place of work and a living space. It should provide the sort of space that our city’s corporate tenants want to be in, and an area of activity day and night. Surely this means having people living in and around the CBD in greater numbers. There have been some excellent CBD developments planned, underway or completed recently. Plus, Tauranga’s population continues to grow and grow.
We have also seen some very positive city centre sales over the last year. These give a vote of confidence in the CBD’s future and there are new tenant’s coming into the CBD. Both Trustpower and the BOP Polytech are vastly expanding their presence in the CBD. New companies have also emerged that weren’t in existence when State Insurance began downsizing. Could it be that although the vast ship that is our CBD takes a long time to turn around, there are signs that this is underway? Whilst council needs to play it’s significant part in this, some of the impetus for change is going to come from CBD property owners and tenants.
Paul can be contacted at email@example.com