Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is the fall of the Palace an opportunity for Auckland's rail aspirations?

Last week we saw the sad sight of the 124 year old Palace Hotel fall to the ground, seemingly as some 'reconstruction' work was going on. Auckland lost another piece of its history - it is unfortunate the CBD has so few such pieces left.

Yet when I heard the news a thought suddenly struck me - the site could be a key part of Auckland's future. On Thursday the Transport Committee of the new Auckland Council will meet. (Hat tip Jarbury) One of the first items on their agenda will be considering the business case for the CBD rail tunnel from Britomart to Mt Eden.

The Palace Hotel site would be perfect spot for a SkyCity entrance/exit to the proposed Aotea/Midtown underground railway station. It would be approximately 80 to 100 metres from the Midtown platform to the street. Given the capacity of this station is expected to be greater than Britomart it would make sense to have a greater number of exits to spread the foot traffic.

Say when they rebuilt the site they included a small underground retail precinct with a large 'subway' type entrance on the corner facing SkyCity. This could be linked up by underground pedestrian subway when Midtown station opens, and the retail alongside immediately gets a massive foot traffic boost. I imagine being able to get a escalator up that big hill from Queen Street would be pretty popular for pedestrians as well as rail users.

If the business case for the CBD rail tunnel works out as well as is expected, there should be no need to involve the private sector in a so called public private partnership. These are nothing new - its worth remembering all the private sector railways in 19th century England that were all bailed out by the Government. Instead I wish the Council look back to the mojo of Henry George and Julius Vogel, and look to fund rail projects by ensuring the public recapture the 'unearned increment' of those holding the land. Why should private enterprise privatise the benefit of public investment merely because they live next door?

Keeping these issues in mind doesn't even have to be particularly radical. At the very least there should be a developer levy with the funds going towards the rail tunnel.

The council could also look at buying strategic sites around the proposed stations and develop these areas with provision for their transport plans. Another thought - could we have the pedestrian subways we will need for Midtown before we get the station? The construction activity will help the Auckland economy in the downturn, and the ability for the council to make the leases dependent on the needs of the transport development could potentially lower overall long term costs and improve outcomes. Plus the fact the council could gain some of the benefits of the expected increase in property values once the station is operational.

Riding on the Singapore MRT last year it dawned on me how much easier and cheaper it must be to design and build an excellent public transport system when the Government owns 58% of the land (most land in Singapore is leased). Hopefully with the new Auckland Council in place and a spacial plan in development, some of the tragic planning mistakes will be rectified and Auckland's transport problems will improve. A lot of this puzzle is rethinking how we are using the land.

I hope the Council look at buying the Palace Hotel site - its in a useful location. Before the collapse the owners of the Palace Hotel were looking to reopen the building as a brothel. To end on a cheeky note, there seems no reason why the ground and underground floor of the new building could not be an entrance to Midtown station. Brothels usually don't want or need a high profile street entrance! That said, it is not a kind of establishment I have ever frequented!!

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